You would be hard pressed to find a single person who claims 2020 was their best ever year. But despite it all, researchers have continued to invest countless time and energy into projects, from the vast universe all the way down to the microscopic world of the virus. You do not have to see the year in a positive way, but hopefully this article will provide a glimmer of light in an otherwise very dark year.
Life on Mars?
Let us start with the very big: space. Want to escape to a land with no coronavirus? Mars might be your best shout. NASA’s Mars rover detected a high amount of methane in the planet’s surface air, hinting at potential microbial life. Somewhat closer to home, Space-X launched the first private astronaut flight as Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken touched base on the International Space Station in June.
Hope for our planet
If you would rather stay here on Earth, 2020 brought new ways to nurse our own planet back to health. Numerous sources, including the National Grid, declared a record year for renewable energy, taking us one step closer to a carbon neutral world.
Although the climate crisis has resulted in droughts becoming all too common, small tropical trees have been shown to adapt better than large trees. Their ability offers hope for Amazon forest regeneration.
The global plastic crisis was the subject of a lot of negative news, but thanks to scientists, the future of infinite plastic recycling may be on the horizon; scientists have developed a cocktail of enzymes that break down plastic at unprecedented speeds.
Nature coming back to life
We also learnt a lot about the creatures that live alongside us. As traffic noise fell to near zero for the first time in decades, birds jumped – or perhaps flew – at the chance to be heard. Bird songs could travel twice the distance at a lower pitch, sounding more attractive to fellow birds. On the other hand, taking a trip down under, kangaroos appreciate our presence: even when not domesticated, these marsupials were shown to intentionally communicate with humans with their gaze to get us to do their bidding.
On a cellular level, we made progress in the battle against disease. The development of an easy-to-swallow pill on a string called the ‘cytosponge’ allows clinicians to detect ten times more cases of Barrett’s oesophagus – a common precursor condition to oesophageal cancer that often has no symptoms – than any previous technique. As our population ages, Alzheimer’s disease is becoming more common. Scientists have developed a blood test that can detect cases before the dementia stage, making great progress towards clinical screening and even a cure.
Virus research was huge this year – how did you guess? Africa was declared free of the last remaining strain of polio, a virus that once threatened the lives and mobility of millions. But of course, we cannot skip over coronavirus. The COVID-19 vaccine is a testimony to the hard work and collaboration of millions across the globe this year. The process of production and safety assurance that would ordinarily take five to ten years was accelerated to a matter of months, and batches can be made much faster than ever before. This gives us a flicker of hope to carry into 2021.
But perhaps the most impressive achievement this year is humanity’s ability to come together. Supporting grieving family members, clapping for all our health care workers and staying at home even when you really, really did not want to: each day you bare is a step closer to our ordinary lives once more. Keep going, the end is in sight.
By Paige Stevenson
Header image: Unsplash.