As we move towards a new beginning of the year 2020 with the end of the year just around the corners, it’s time for consideration in the past decade. We have seen some pretty remarkable scientific achievements in the last ten years, as developments and discoveries decades in the making were eventually realized. Today, we bring to you the five of the most cutting-edge, history-making highlights of the 2010s.
The Higgs boson
In 2012, a new fundamental particle was discovered at CERN that grasped the attention of the world – even those who may not usually be across particle physics news. But that’s because this was no normal particle. This debutante was none other than the Higgs boson.
Although, it may have caught the public imagination because of its striking but inaccurate nickname, “the God particle,” the Higgs boson was an extremely exciting find for several reasons. It was the last elementary particle forecasted by the Standard Model of particle physics, and it gives mass to other elementary particles. More on, scientists had been pursuing for it for almost 50 years.
By the 1960s, the Standard Model had a small problem: according to its estimates, basic particles named bosons should have no mass – but examinations show they do. In 1964, three teams of scientists individually came up with similar procedures for how they gain mass.
According to the dominant idea, a quantum field evenly pervades the universe. Bosons feel this field, which decelerates them and in the process, gives them mass. This field would be facilitated by a brand new boson that had yet to be learned – and it wouldn’t be for the next 48 years.
The expected field, boson, and mechanism all eventually came to be known after Peter Higgs, one of the physicists who first suggested it.
And genuine enough, in 2012, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider finally discovered a particle constant with the forecasted properties of the Higgs boson. More research later confirmed it to be the elusive Higgs, and two of the researchers responsible for suggesting it – Higgs himself and Francois Englert, a physicist on another group – were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.
In the years later, more experiments at CERN showed that all quantities of the Higgs boson, including its parity, spin, mass, and interactions with other particles, corresponded with the predictions of the Standard Model.
Concluding a half-century hunt for the Holy Grail of particle physics, the Higgs boson is simply one of the most important scientific accomplishments of the decade.
The capability to edit the genes of living humans and other organisms have been a fundamental of science fiction for decades – and this decade, the dream turned into a reality. The CRISPR gene-editing system is poised to transform medicine, possibly helping us fight the big ones like HIV and cancer , as well as confront non-health problems. But of course, it’s not without its debates.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) is a group of DNA sequences naturally used by bacteria as a self-defense process. In current years scientists realized they could choose this mechanism as a means for genetic engineering, by merging CRISPR with a guide RNA sequence and an enzyme, typically Cas9.
When used in living organisms or cells, the guide RNA directs the tool to the chosen section of DNA, where the Cas9 enzyme skillfully cuts it. That can be used to cut out bothersome genes – such as those that cause illness – and add new, useful ones.
Till now, this technique has shown ability in fighting many different illnesses, including conventionally tricky ones like HIV, cancer, progeria, muscular dystrophy, and genetic forms of heart disease and blindness.
But CRISPR’s potential spreads beyond editing ourselves. We can modify plants to make crops with better nutrition or yields, rewrite insects to stop them spreading disease, or edit pigs to grow human tissues for transplant.
Of course, as favorable as CRISPR seems, the tool gives birth to ethical issues that are still in the process of being attended. Studies have proposed that CRISPR raises the chances of a cell evolving cancer down the track, and could cause accidental mutations throughout the genome. These results are fiercely debated.
It all came to a climax in November 2018, when Chinese scientists declared the birth of twin girls as the world’s first CRISPR-edited human babies. Professor Jiankui He and his team inserted the CRISPR machinery into the embryo, erasing a gene known as CCR5. In achieving so, the girls should develop a resistance to HIV.
The problem is the experiment was led largely in secret, by-passing years of deliberated debate about ethics. Some scientists aimed out that the function of CCR5 is poorly understood, and erasing it could make the girls more vulnerable to common illnesses like the flu.
After this irresponsible move, calls have been made for a suspension on human germline editing until these ethical questions can be dealt with.
Despite this, CRISPR trials in humans are still advancing – just not in embryos. They started in China in 2016, in efforts to fight lung cancer, but results have yet to be issued. Two experiments kicked off in the US in 2019, with one aiming three types of cancer and the other sickle cell disease, with exceptionally promising early outcomes.
It may have had a bumpy start, but CRISPR gene-editing will probably go down in history as one of the most important revolutions in medicine, as well as for uses we haven’t even deliberated yet.
In 2015, physicists noticed ripples in the very fabric of spacetime as they washed over Earth after journeying more than a billion light years. Albert Einstein made prediction about it a century ago.
When Einstein put forward his general theory of relativity in 1916, it suggested that certain events including objects with huge masses would produce shockwaves in spacetime itself – an occurrence that came to be called gravitational waves.
Though they’re created by some of the most dynamic events in the universe, by the stage these waves reach Earth they’re only changing reality by less than the nucleus of an atom. That, of course, made them impossible to notice for nearly 100 years – till technology finally leveled the score.
The technology answerable is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), accommodated in two huge facilities in Washington and Louisiana. Each of these twin sensors is made up of two 4-km-long (2.5-mi) channels in an L shape. Exceptionally precise instruments watch over lasers emitted down these tunnels for minute disturbances in the beams, which can be ascribed to gravitational waves washing over the facility.
And certain enough, on September 14, 2015, both LIGO detectors caught their first-ever signal. The waves were formed in a collision between two black holes about 1.3 billion light-years apart.
Dozens of signals have dispensed in since that first detection, detected by LIGO as well as the Virgo facility in Italy, which was launched in 2017. Most have been the effect of two black holes integration, but others have involved a black hole absorbing a neutron star, and two neutron stars bumping.
It’s that lattermost situation that gave us the most remarkable fireworks show. Shortly after one gravitational wave detection in 2017, observatories all around the world identified a whole host of electromagnetic signals from the same home, including a gamma ray burst, light waves, X-rays, and radio waves.
For cracking a century-old mystery, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was presented to physicists Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne for their roles in the first finding of gravitational waves.
This isn’t the culmination of the story either. LIGO received an advancement in April 2019, with future works planned to make it even more complex. The KAGRA observatory in Japan is also in line to join the hunt in December. Mutually, more distant and quieter events can be picked up, unravelling ever more mysteries of the cosmos.
The exoplanet boom
Over the progression of human history, we’ve constantly zoomed out to get a wider view of our place in the universe. Our world stretched from one continent to the entire Earth. Then we comprehended Earth isn’t the center of the whole lot but just one planet of numerous orbiting the Sun. Ultimately we discovered that even our solar system isn’t unusual, but one of myriad such others. And this decade, we got our first real look at just how many others are out there.
The first few exoplanets – a planet revolving around a star other than the Sun – were discovered back in the 1990s, but things didn’t really taken seriously until the Kepler Space Telescope introduced in 2009. This telescope was designed to watch 150,000 stars at the same time, observing how often their light reduced. If a regular repetition was seen, it suggested a planet was passing between Earth and the star.
Using this procedure (known as the transition method), Kepler found over 2,600 exoplanets throughout its nine-year run. With help from other projects like WASP, HARPS, , and TESS, that number has now increased to around 4,100. And we can deduce a lot about what these worlds are like, by studying their composition, atmospheres, , mass, what types of stars they orbit and how distant they are from those stars.
After this, we’ve learned about all types of amazing planets worthy of pulpy sci-fi stories. There are pitch-black planets, water worlds, , and some hotter than stars. There’s a planet that’s only one giant diamond, and another with clouds made of sapphires and rubies. On others it rains glass, rocks or sunscreen.
But maybe the most captivating exoplanets of all are those that are more Earth-like. In spite of everything, these are the best contestants for us to finally answer the question, “are we alone in the universe?” And it turns out, potentially livable exoplanets are fairly common.
One of the major hauls came in 2017, with the finding of seven rocky, approximately Earth-sized exoplanets circling TRAPPIST-1. Three of these orbit inside the habitable zone of the cool red dwarf star, and follow-up studies have shown there could be substantial amounts of water present, making them some of the best candidates for habitable planets beyond our solar system.
And we’re only just initiating. Many more projects are set to launch in the coming few years, searching for new worlds or studying known ones in detail. We wouldn’t be too amazed if our next “decade in review” roundup includes the discovery of extraterrestrial life.
The climate crisis
It may not be the good type of achievement, but in the previous decade we’ve made more climate records than at any other point in human history. As the consequences of climate change became more visible, the issue really came to the front of the public’s attention lately. New studies exposed the extent of the situation, and plans were set in motion to tackle it.
Vast evidence shows a sharp uptick in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels after about 1750 – not-so-unintentionally, around the time of the Industrial Revolution. As a direct outcome, surface temperatures around the world have been gradually rising ever since, with a mainly sharp uptick happening in the second half of the 20th century. This, as a result, is leading to a range of run-on effects.
While we’ve realized about it for a long time, climate change has ruled this decade in science, as noticeable consequences begin to flame up. According to NOAA and NASA, 2016 was the warmest year since records began in 1880, and the top five are the last five. July 2019 holds the record for hottest month.
Other latest studies have exposed just what this extra heat is doing to the world. A State of the Climate report for 2018 exposed that extreme weather events like floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires are becoming more common and intense. Glaciers and polar ice are lessening, and sea levels are rising.
In 2015, atmospheric CO2 raised above 400 parts per million for the first time in about three million years. This also means the oceans are sucking up more of the gas, making them more acidic. The mixture of warmer and more acidic waters saw Australia’s Great Barrier Reef hit with back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. While it’s gone through similar disturbance in the distant past, experts believe the current changes hit too quickly for the Reef to completely recover from.
But there’s still expectation. In 2015, nearly 200 countries signed onto the Paris Agreement, promising to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global temperatures from increasing 2° C (3.6° F) above pre-industrial levels. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say that to reach those goals, exceptional changes will be needed in all phases of society – and if 2019’s climate strikes and protests are any sign, society is warming up to the knowledge.
That wraps up our take on the five most momentous scientific achievements of the decade – but there are definitely other candidates. So what get’s your support? Tell us in the comments below.