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2018 Round-up: the big science stories you need to know about

ByEve Miller

Jan 17, 2019
Image credit: Photo Hosting via Flickr

Last year, 2018, was a big year for science and technology. Here, we look back at the discoveries, projects and innovations which made big news last year.


NASA launched a probe to touch the sun

A new probe was launched in order to investigate the temperature of the sun. We know that the atmosphere is significantly hotter than the star’s surface; however, why this is the case remains a mystery.

Dealing with temperatures up to 1500°C and travelling at 430,000 miles per hour (that’s London to Edinburgh in 0.05 seconds) the Parker Solar Probe will get closer to the sun than any man made object ever has before.

The probe is expected to collect data until 2025, using the gravity of Venus to get closer and closer to the surface. What exactly it will find is unknown, but it is sure to give us a far clearer understanding of our nearest star than we’ve ever had before.


A public genealogy website caught a serial killer

A man suspected of being the Golden State Killer, who committed over 100 burglaries, 50 sexual assaults and 13 murders, was arrested last year. Joseph DeAngelo was jailed after DNA evidence pointed to him being the serial killer police in San Francisco have been searching for for over three decades. What was so interesting about this case is that the DNA that led to him being caught was from a distant cousin whose DNA was available on a public genealogy website.

According to a recent study “60 per cent of white Americans can be identified up to a third cousin or closer” using public DNA data. This opens up a whole new avenue for forensic investigation as well as a debate on privacy.


Public pressure saw a shift in plastic use

Global warming and environmental policy were a big topic in 2018. Record wildfires, carbon dioxide emission spikes and melting ice all garnered attention but nothing made quite as much of an impact as the move against plastic.

Within an incredibly short amount of time the public turned against single use plastics. As people have become more environmentally aware recycling and cutting down on packaging has been on the rise, but 2018 really saw the beginning of the end for plastics.

In just a couple of months plastic straws were removed from most restaurants and bars. The UK plastics pledge back in April saw companies responsible for 80 per cent of plastic packaging in the UK agree to make their products 100 per cent recyclable by 2025.

There’s a long way to go in the protection of our environment but 2018 was a clear display of the power of public opinion.


The (possible) first case of human genome editing

The field of genetic engineering is proving an incredible tool in the treatment of many diseases. However, the idea is still controversial when used in food manufacture and drug development let alone directly on humans.

One scientist claims that he has successfully edited the genome of twins in order to make them resistant to HIV. Obviously the global scientific community spoke out against this experiment, questioning the ethical implications. Although the technology is rapidly advancing it is still relatively new and thus, using it on humans is incredibly risky. Whether the researcher actually did edit the genomes is yet to be proven, but this could be the first time the genes of a human embryo have been edited.

Since the announcement there has been huge discussion about the implication that this has on research as well as about a need for a set of universal ethical guidelines.


Liquid water was found on Mars

In July, Italian scientists announced that they had evidence for liquid water on Mars. Most of the red planet is too cold for liquid water; however, beneath its polar ice cap there lies a 20 km wide lake.

Using radar equipment on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter they were able to identify the presence of liquid water 1.5 km underneath the ice.

This is another step forward in the search for life on mars. Data from the Curiosity rover made it clear that low temperatures and high radiation levels make it unlikely that life exists on the surface; however, the subsurface search continues. Dr Manish Patel from the Open University said that “we are not closer to actually detecting life, but what this finding does give us is the location of where to look on Mars. It is like a treasure map – except in this case, there will be lots of Xs marking the spots.”


Europe saw an increase in measles outbreaks

Modern medicine has given us amazing tools to fight diseases which once spread almost uncontrollably. Unfortunately, the stigma around vaccines and a growing “antivaxxer” movement has led to a resurgence in some of these diseases, notably measles. This year saw the highest number of measles cases in the European Union in over a decade.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have said that the highest number of cases are amongst those in the late teens who went unvaccinated as children and, more worryingly, infants under one year old. These children are too young for vaccination but should be protected by herd immunity if a high enough number of the population were vaccinated.

Going into the new year the ECDC have said they are “working hard to increase vaccination rates across the continent as well as ending the spread of misinformation.”


Artificial Intelligence got smarter

One company which made big news in 2018 was DeepMind, Google’s London based AI firm which announced two new programs. First AphaZero which is able to play three games: go, chess, and shogi.

Within 24 hours of its release, the program had improved to the point that it could beat the world champions in all three games.

The second program was AlphaFold which is able to work out the 3D structure of proteins. This technology can be used in medical research in order to create new drugs and treatments even faster. As more and more new programs are created it is becoming clear that AI will play a massive role in our lives.

Programs like AlphaZero may seem trivial but the technology used will be utilised in many aspects of modern life from gaming to diagnosis.


Image credit: Photo Hosting via Flickr

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