Take A Ride on (Falcon) Heavy Metal...
On February 6th of this year, Elon Musk’s private space organisation SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster into space, which is going to end up locked into stable orbit between Mars and Jupiter. While I desperately want humans to survive as a species, there’s a tiny part of me which thinks it would be hilarious if civilization collapsed and in a few thousand years whatever species replaces us discovers Musk’s car floating out there with no idea of how the hell it happened.
When images of the astronaut mannequin began cropping up on social media, I cracked a few jokes about the opening scene of Heavy Metal which features a red mustang crashing into a planet from space, but nobody got it. I was showing my age (or my nerdiness) but fortunately it wasn't just space-cars which made headlines this year; a whole ton of awesome Science has been taking place - as per usual - so as we approach the end of Gregorian year 2018, let's reflect on the groundbreaking inventions and discoveries we have made since January last.
Obviously the biggest scientific event of the year was the release of my debut book Elemental on July 5th, but even if we discard that clear high-point, 2018 has still been pretty cool. Here are my picks for the top ten most inspirational and exciting scientific moments we've enjoyed.
February - Women Are Officially Good At Science
It’s no secret we have a gender divide in the STEM fields, with far more boys studying the subjects than girls. The debate has always been whether this was down to boys being more interested or because boys were just better at it. I've always felt that the former explanation makes more sense; women and men are just as good at Science but the reason women don’t pick it as a subject is more down to societal expectation or preference rather than a lack of skill. This view is not shared by everyone of course. In fact, I once had a female student tell me an engineer tried to persuade her away from studying engineering because, in his words, "girls can't do it". I’m therefore delighted to say that my hypothesis has finally been validated with hard data.
In a vast study of 475,000 adolescents spanning 67 nations, researchers Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary published a report in Psychological Science concluding that women are just as good at scientific and mathematical subjects as boys, performing just as well (occasionally better) in all controlled tests.
There’s a lot more to unpick in the Stoet-Geary paper of course, and some of their findings are really fascinating e.g. in countries where women are given less freedom, a higher number of women go into STEM subjects as a way of becoming financially secure, meaning that paradoxically countries with poor gender equality have more women in STEM rather than less (not the result anyone was expecting). The takeaway for me is pretty simple however: girls can do Science just as well as boys. If a woman chooses to go down the humanities route then fine, that’s her preference. But if she wants to go down the STEM route (whoop!) the results are conclusive: she’s going to be fine, thank you very much.
April - Mars and Back!
Right now, there are three ways we can gather information about the planet Mars. One is by looking at it through a telescope. The second is by sending robots there who radio back data about their findings. The third is to wait patiently for meteorites to strike the surface of Mars and hope it scatters dust into space which occasionally lands on Earth (like the Alan Hills meteorite). Those methods have sufficed, but what we’ve never done is sent anything to Mars to actually grab a chunk of rock and bring it back for analysis.
Which is why it’s good news NASA and the ESA finally announced this to be their next big target. They both signed an agreement to work together to achieve the goal of sending a reconissance probe to complete the very first Martian round-trip. No longer will we have to rely on Curiosity shouting back at us through space, we’re gonna bring a piece of the action to Earth! Hopefully on the return trip we can change the tires on Musk's car.
June - The Ebola Vaccine
We found out about the Ebola virus in 1976 and since then we haven’t done a lot about it. But in June of this year, the Democratic Republic of Congo began administering a vaccine called rVSV-ZEBOV and according to early reports it’s having an extremely high success rate combating an outbreak, thus far preventing 680 cases of the disease. An additionally heart-warming facet of the story is that the company who sent the vaccine did so free of charge. The pharmaceutical giants Merck donated 7,500 vaccine units to the DRC which is enough to stymie the outbreak and hopefully prevent it happening again.
You might cynically argue that Merck were only doing this for publicity. Or maybe you want to complain that we only started looking into Ebola vaccines once it started affecting European and American countries i.e. we’ve been ignoring it for decades because it was only affecting people in far-away Africa, but once it became a threat to us we decided to intervene.
Those might be fair points, but my response is: who cares? Saying big companies like making money or that people are sometimes selfish is hardly an insightful observation, or even worth pointing out. On the other hand, the fact that hundreds of people are being spared from a life-threatening disease down to sheer generosity is worth celebrating. Whatever cynical spin people might try to put on this story, I think it's worth pointing out that any way you slice it, where there was once disease, now there is health. You can't be cynical about that.
July - Icy Neutrinos
Near the South Pole, there’s a huge research apparatus called IceCube located at the Amundsen-Scott Station. It consists of a kilometer-cubed block of ice festooned with 60 particle detectors at various depths, all primed to detect cosmic rays - beams of particles streaming toward Earth from outer space. One of the big puzzles we’ve always had is where these cosmic rays are coming from and how the particles hitting Earth have so much energy. In July we finally got a pretty good answer. By observing a single neutrino (a weakly interacting, neutrally charged particle moving near the speed of light) which slammed into the ice at the end of 2017, researchers at IceCube spent six months back-tracking its trajectory and finally identified its source. It came from a blazar 3.7 billion light-years away in the middle of the Orion constellation. A blazar is a galaxy whose center is moving so fast it starts spitting out high-energy particles in a sort of vortex (shown in the diagram above), like an epic version of a black hole...and we apparently have one pointed directly at our planet.
July - Underground Lake on Mars
In the world of extremely easy newspaper headlines, there’s this one. The ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft was beaming radar signals off Mars to see what was lurking beneath the surface. The beams strike the different chemicals and densities of material beneath the ground and bounce them back at varying speeds, kind of like giving the whole planet a giant ultrasound scan. And as we did this scan we discovered a 12 km squared lake of liquid water beneath the surface of the planet’s South pole.
There could be dozens of these subsurface lakes all over the planet for all we know, but it’s the first evidence that Mars not only has liquid water - it has a lot. This news story on its own may not sound that thrilling but remember the rule for our own planet: wherever there is water, there is life. If we have any hope of discovering life on Mars, these underground lakes are likely to be our best bet.
August - Schrodinger's Drum
In quantum mechanics, particles have the ability to exist in more than one energy state at the same time (sort of). This means they should be capable of exhibiting two distinct behaviours simultaneously and even occupy two locations at once (sort of). We had always assumed this phenomenon was unique to tiny particles but a team lead by Michael Vanner proved otherwise.
Vanner was able to create a tiny membrane only a few millimeters across which he bombarded with particles of light, a bit like chucking pebbles at a drum-skin. Because the particles of light were in two states at once, that means the drum skin could be as well, simultaneously vibrating and staying still. Vanner managed to thus persuade a large-ish object to do two contradictory things at once (sort of). You know, someone really ought to write a book about all this quantum stuff. Hmmmmm.
September - Meet Your Great Great Great (x 100000) Grandma
Nobody knows what the earliest form of life on Earth was, but the debate over the earliest animal got really interesting this year. The earliest known animals had previously been dated to around 610 million years ago, but a new discovery seems to have pushed it back by as much as 20 million years! It’s called a Dickinsonia unfortunately (named after the scientist Ben Dickinson) and although we’ve known about its existence for a long time due to fossil remains, we’ve always assumed it to have been some sort of fungus.
Until, that is, researchers led by Ilya Bobrovskiy discovered a sub-structure to the fossils indicating the presence of the biochemical cholesterol - something only produced by animals. Dickinsonia, it turns out, is the oldest known animal on Earth. Well, the second oldest technically. The most archaic fossil was obviously that engineer who spoke to my student.
September - The Paralysed Walk…Seriously
As if Scientific achievement couldn't get any more awesome we have this remarkable story from September where we cured paralysing spinal injuries for five separate patients. Susan Harkema (above left), head of the Kentucky Spinal Chord Injury Reserch Center, has been pioneering a technique whereby motor neurons in a damaged spinal column are stimulated with electricity and taught to reactivate, independent of the brain.
Rather than waiting for signals from the brain-stem to tell muscles what to do, Harkema's device requires that the patient re-train their muscles to respond to electric signals coming from the reactivated neurons, so it does take a lot of work and practice on the part of the patient but that's a small price to pay for literally "making the lame to walk."
The word miraculous might be tempting to use, but in truth it is nothing of the sort. A miracle implies temporary suspension of the laws of nature...Harkema didn't have to break any laws of nature to achieve the seemingly impossible, she just re-arranged them in an inventive way nobody else thought of doing. This is no miracle. This is pure Science.
October - New Dwarf Planet…And Maybe Planet??
Pluto is not a planet, and never was (check out my blog on the subject) but if you’re yearning for a ninth planet then we may have some good news on the horizon. In October, we discovered a new dwarf-planet orbiting beyond Neptune which has genuinely been named “The Goblin”.
What makes the Goblin so exciting is that as it orbits the sun, the trajectory of its path seems to be warped slightly, as if something big and heavy out in the darkness is tugging on it gravitationally. That's how we discovered Neptune in fact - we saw Uranus getting bent slightly (hurr hurr hurr), so presumably something must be doing the same thing to The Goblin.
The estimate is that this object, whatever it is, may be as much as seven times the mass of the Earth and if so, we're potentially gonna have a ninth planet after all. And this time, a proper planet, not just a fatsteroid, which is really all Pluto ever was.
December - Where Once There Was Death, We Created Life
This story was perhaps the most touching of the year for me. Perhaps not the most headline grabbing or the most influential, but it's still amazing. In 2013 we carried out the first successful uterus transplant, allowing infertile women to receive a working set of reproductive organs and thus have children. The only problem with the procedure is that for it to be an effective treatment for infertility, you need a woman willing to part with her own functional uterus which, understandably, is a pretty big ask. What we achieved in February this year however, was something remarkable...a transplant of a uterus from a recently deceased donor to a live recipient.
At the University of Sao Paulo, a team of medical researchers led by Dani Ejzenberg, were able to help a woman born without a uterus in February when an organ-donor died from a stroke and left a working uterus to be re-used. For nine months the team waited anxiously, watching as the baby steadily grew and finally, on December 22nd, the baby was born healthy.
To me this is beautiful. We were able to take a death and literally use it to spawn life. It's hard to think of a more hopeful image than a healthy baby successfully born from a death. 2018 is about to die, but a new year is born from it, one which will yield ever more thrilling and wonderful things form our species and its desire to make the world better.
Mars Ticket: Futurist
Ebola Vaccine: Inhabitat
Blazar: Boston University
Underground Mars Lake: Resonance Science Foundation
Schrodinger's Drum: Physics APS
Susan Harkema: MadisonCourier
I love science, let me tell you why.