The year 2020 saw science thrust into the media limelight as world over people sought news about the COVID-19 pandemic. The year has been marked by frustration and weariness for us all. Nevertheless, science and its people have carried on the quest of figuring out the ways of the world. So here are the science updates that caught our eye in 2020, in no particular order.
Footsteps of history
Credits: Stewart et al., 2020
Scientists found what could possibly be the oldest human footprints recorded in the Arabian Peninsula. This may provide clues about early Homo sapiens’ forays out of Africa. Scattered among hundreds of animal footprints near some dunes in Al-Nefud, Saudi Arabia, were traces of human footfall, possibly left behind as they bustled around a shallow water body. Frozen in time some 112,000 years ago, it provides a peek into the activities of early humans amongst animals in a way fossil remains cannot. Previously, researchers had found a single human finger bone, suggesting that modern humans were in the Arabian Peninsula at least 85,000 years ago.
Tidings of an ancient time
Credits: Carlos Vega
Seventy million years ago, days used to be shorter and years longer. Even though we have known that older Earth had briefer days, researchers recently found conclusive evidence to show that Earth used to rotate 372 times in a year, taking 23 and a half hours to complete a day. They figured this out by counting the layers in the shell of an ancient mollusc, much like you would count tree rings to find its age. The mollusc fossil in question was taken from the dry mountains in Oman, where it lived for nine years, 70 million years in the past. The pull of the ocean tides, caused by the Moon’s gravity, slows down the Earth’s rotation and lengthens the days. This new finding will also help scientists answer other questions about how the relationship between the Earth and its natural satellite evolved over time.
Drifting in the Arctic
Credits: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Lianna Nixon (CC-BY 4.0)
Hundreds of researchers spent a frozen year at the Arctic Ocean for science. The MOSAiC expedition ended in October as the ship carrying the researchers returned home after close to 13 months of data gathering about the Arctic’s environment and ecosystem. The scientists will use this data to understand how sea ice is formed and changes over seasons, how the wind and currents influence ice drift, how much sunlight the snow and sea ice absorb and reflect, what organisms live in these regions and how they adapt, and much more about the processes that shape the Arctic. This is important because the Arctic is warming at rates twice the world average. Its climate patterns influence the climate and weather across the northern hemisphere, be it in Chhattisgarh, Colorado or Cameroon.
Panic on the seafloor
Credits: Dustan Woodhouse
Our oceans are troubled. Researchers have now found that about 14 million tonnes of microplastics litter the world’s ocean floor, 25 times more than previously estimated. Over time, the plastic we use breaks down and ends up in the ocean. It eventually turns into microplastics and sinks to the ocean bed, threatening marine life and ecosystems. Researchers say that the seafloor has more than twice the amount of microplastics than on the surface of the ocean. Unless we take action soon to reduce plastic waste, the consequences of this pollution will be felt on human health too.
Eyeing the Sun
In January, scientists released the sharpest image of the Sun ever captured from Earth. The image was taken by the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii during a test run and shows the Sun’s surface in incredible detail. This month, they released the first image of a sunspot not visible to the naked eye. Once the telescope is fully functional, astronomers hope to get unique insights into the goings-on in our closest star!
Solving the secrets of the skies
Credits: VM Quezada
Fast Radio Bursts (FRB) are powerful, millisecond-long bursts of radio waves emanating from space. The origin of these radio bursts had remained a mystery since their discovery in 2007. Researchers threw many theories at it — some more incredulous than others — but could not disprove many. Most of these radio bursts are one-off events, hard to predict, and lasting such a short while that they are difficult to examine. This year, scientists caught a powerful burst from very close within our galaxy. It allowed them to verify and link its source to a magnetar, a type of neutron star surrounded by an intense magnetic field. Researchers await evidence to figure out the sources for other FRBs. Next up, astrophysicists will need to figure out how exactly these magnetars are emitting such powerful radiations.
Think like a bird
Credits: Amee Fairbank-Brown
New research showed that birds have brains very similar to our mammalian ones. Before this, scientists have debated conscious perception in creatures with brain structures different from ours. It was thought that birds had a simple brain due to the lack of neocortex, the abode of cognition in humans. Scientists have now found that avian brains have neural connections that are laid out like in the mammalian cortex, just not with the same well-defined shape. This could explain the creative abilities and behaviour of birds. In fact, some birds, like crows, possess a certain degree of consciousness, they say, and can recall past experiences. Think twice now before you wrong a bird.
A bloody innovation
Scientists have successfully developed synthetic red blood cells that possess all the abilities of the real ones and then some. Similar in size and shape to the actual red blood cells, they can transport oxygen and safely squeeze through capillaries. Not just haemoglobin, the artificial cells can also carry cargo like anticancer drugs or toxin sensors, demonstrating their potential application in targeted drug therapy. While a battery of testing is needed before they can be used in human bodies, once successful, this innovation can close a huge supply gap for healthy blood needed during crucial medical operations.
In related news, researchers have found two genetic treatments to fix sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia, blood diseases that result in faulty red blood cells. The diseases arise due to mutations in the gene responsible for producing a component of haemoglobin. The researchers were able to alter the activity of the gene and counter the malfunction. One of the treatments uses CRISPR, a gene editing method to find and change a particular piece of DNA in a cell, which won the Nobel Prize this year.
The unravelling of COVID-19
Credits: Mufid Majnun
The enduring science story of 2020 will be of people coming together to tackle COVID-19 quickly and effectively. Developing vaccines against diseases is no easy task, often taking years before they can be safely administered. After many false starts and missteps, eight vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus have received regulatory approval so far and some countries have started issuing them. Many more vaccines are in various phases of development. From testing for infections to vaccine development, we owe much to the advancements in science and technology in place that supported this rapid feat. Less than a month after the first report, researchers had decoded the genetic sequence of the virus. Soon after, they figured out how it infected the body and developed better ways to test for infections. Alongside other scientists came up theories for its spread from person to person and suggested the best ways for us to keep safe.
Hopefully, such developments will be possible for other diseases like malaria and tuberculosis that continue to kill lakhs of people. After all, massive funding, faster production and efficient bureaucracy have a big role to play in the success of these endeavours.
Looking at a troubled tomorrow
Credits: Marcus Kauffman
Even as the pandemic rages on, trouble looms large as the fall out of climate change. This year is set to be one of the three warmest years on record. A recent study found that levels of harmful nitrous oxide in the atmosphere are increasing at alarming rates due to human activities. For the Arctic sea, 2020 has been the second-worst year ever with the meagre amount of new ice formed.
The world saw numerous extreme climate events, like floods, heatwaves, cyclones and wildfires, devastating many lives. Australia entered the year blazing as bushfires continued to burn through millions of its acres. Wildfires raged over vast tracts of the US, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Siberia. An intense heat wave gripped Siberia, with some parts reaching record-breaking temperatures. Floods upended lives in China, India, Pakistan, South Sudan and Japan. Cyclone Amphan that hit India and Bangladesh displaced millions of people and was declared the costliest cyclone of the year. This Atlantic hurricane season saw a record-high of 30 storms.
Much of these can be linked to climate change caused by humans. It has been said before, and it’s worth repeating: if we don’t take realistic measures to tackle climate change, these extreme, dangerous events will only become much more commonplace.
Editor's Note: This article was first published in Deccan Herald.