2020: The year scientists did the impossible

Revolution: Discoveries include Martian lakes, super-enzymes and medical AI.

Was 2020 a breakthrough year for science? From the Covid-19 vaccine to dinosaur eggs, the past twelve months have witnessed spectacular discoveries. Yet some claim this is nothing unusual.

In September, the Red Planet became a blue planet.

Mars was once regarded as a barren, frigid rock. But earlier this year, an international team of astrophysicists discovered that Earth’s neighbour contains 75,000 square kilometres of underground lakes, probably filled with saltwater.

This was a remarkable coup for science. But it was far from the only one this year. According to Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar, “Science has delivered in 2020”. The bowl of discoveries is overflowing. Engineers invented microbots that can be inserted into the body for precision-guided surgery. Biologists constructed super-enzymes able to break down plastic waste. And Google DeepMind developed an AI algorithm that can diagnose breast cancer more effectively than human doctors.

It has also been a banner year for astronomy. In Australia, astronomers discovered ancient stardust. Astronauts detected Marsquakes, sensed microbes on Venus and “blobbed” atoms together to forge a “fifth state of matter”.

As well as remote space, we have also learnt about the distant past. Geologists have unearthed a new supervolcano in Alaska. Palaeontologists found that early dinosaurs laid leather-textured eggs, while anthropologists realised that ancient humans crossed the Pacific by boat.

In the year of the pandemic, one success story overshadows all others. Immunologists developed three working vaccines for Covid-19 in record time. Two of them use an innovative mRNA process that is expected to turbocharge treatment for future viruses. “A lot of what has happened this year,” says Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, “are things that people would have said were not possible.”

The pandemic has thrust science centre-stage, placing scientists on television and alongside politicians. It has also bolstered the esteem in which they are held. A survey in May found that 36% of the German public “wholeheartedly” trust science, four times as many as in 2019.

But there are grounds to dispute that 2020 was an exceptional time for science as a whole. Startling innovations occur all the time. In 2019, for instance, scientists discovered the second inhabitable planet known to man, found a lost continent beneath Europe, created a cure for bubble boy disease and traced all modern humans to a common ancestor in Botswana.

This year might even have proven disappointing. Futurists in 2017 predicted that by 2020 the average personal computer could exceed the human brain, cars would be built crash-proof and space tourism would be readily available. None of these have come to pass.

For some critics, the very notion of a scientific breakthrough is antithetical to science’s nature. Science is a complex network of ongoing processes, where each new discovery serves as a key to the next. Isaac Newton agreed, writing: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

The same is true today. The rapid development of the Covid-19 vaccine would not have been possible without work already done on MERS-CoV, a related virus that emerged in 2012. Was either one the true breakthrough – or could they just be stops along the way to the next, even greater advance?

For decades, thinkers have argued for an exponential pace of scientific innovation. Ninety-seven years separate the invention of the telephone and the mobile phone, but it took only 21 more for the first smartphone. Science might sit within a constant state of acceleration, each year more significant than the last. The discoveries of 2020 might become just a footnote to those of 2021, and so on.

Was 2020 a breakthrough year for science?

Great leap forward

Eureka, say some. This year has seen scientists attain near-heroic status as they battle public health catastrophe, outshining many governments in the process. There have been bold new discoveries in medicine, climate science, astronomy and anthropology. And several of the year's developments, from mRNA vaccines to super-enzymes, should both improve lives now and spark further research in the future.

Think again, say others. The pandemic has illuminated the importance of immunology, but science as a whole has not progressed beyond expectations — and in some cases even fallen short of them. And anyway, we should understand science not as a series of breakthroughs but as a process, continuously propelling itself to greater heights. 2020 was remarkable, but so was 2019 — and so will be 2021.

You Decide

  1. Should more time in school be devoted to studying science or humanities subjects?
  2. According to one Guardian journalist, the Covid-19 vaccine “will change science — and scientists — forever”. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. You are a scientist from 2025. On A3 paper, draw five scientific advances that have occurred since 2020.
  2. In groups, choose one of 2020’s scientific developments and present it to the class, explaining its potential consequences and arguing why it is the most important discovery of the year.

Some People Say...

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Marie Curie (1867 - 1934), double Nobel Prize-winning Polish physicist and chemist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the quantity of innovations in science, technology and engineering has increased in the modern era. As early as 1910, urban designer Daniel Burnham spoke of the “pace of development having immensely accelerated”. More recently, scientists have claimed that the rise of computer technology in everyday life has led to a brisk advance. For some, such as inventor Ray Kurzweil, this acceleration even threatens to approach a “singularity” in which technology outpaces humanity.
What do we not know?
One area of debate concerns whether the apparent acceleration in discoveries and inventions will continue or falter. Many thinkers such as Kurzweil believe the former. Futurist Theodore Modis notes, however, that all exponential progresses “eventually reveal themselves to be following S-curves”, meaning that their growth eventually slows. The physicist Jonathan Huebner has even claimed that, in the US, the pace of change has slowed down since 1915 and is likely to continue falling.

Word Watch

Red Planet
A common nickname for Mars because of its rust-coloured appearance from space. From close-up, its surface is actually a pale, butterscotch-like orange.
State of matter
The form in which matter exists, usually based on temperature. The four fundamental states are solid, liquid, gas and plasma.
Supervolcano
A volcano that has had an eruption ranked 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. The most recent supervolcano eruption occurred about 26,500 years ago, on what is now New Zealand.
MRNA
Acronym for “messenger Ribonucleic acid.” mRNA vaccines place a single strand of a virus’ RNA in the patient, allowing the body itself to create and overcome a small quantity of viral protein.
Bubble boy disease
Common name for severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a rare genetic disorder whose victims are born with extreme vulnerability to infections. Sufferers have been isolated in protective plastic “bubbles”.
Isaac Newton
English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, occultist, writer and coin-printer (1643 - 1727), among the most important figures in the development of modern science.
Exponential
A pattern of growth showing greater increases over time.
Eureka
Ancient Greek exclamation meaning “I have found it!”, reputed to be uttered by the mathematician Archimedes when he discovered how to measure volume by observing how his body displaced water in his bathtub.

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