The British magazine Nature highlighted among the main stories of the year the image of a black hole and its event horizon, climate protests, political uncertainty and the debate on the ethics of gene editing in human embryos, as well as a quantum computer that outperforms supercomputers.
The news of the first image of a black hole and its event horizon was announced in April. Thanks to the international collaboration Horizon Event Telescope, in which Mexican astronomers participated with observations in the Great Millimeter Telescope, located in the Sierra Negra volcano, Puebla, in a global network of radio telescopes that took simultaneous readings.
On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, satellite exploration featured prominently for space agencies. In January, China's Chang’e-4 probe was the first ship to land safely on the far side of the Moon. Its explorer, Yutu-2, goes round the Von Kármán crater.RELATED
The missions on Mars have yielded results. The seismometer in NASA's InSight landing module detected the first earthquakes on that planet. About 600 kilometers away, the Curiosity explorer sniffed record levels of methane gas into the atmosphere, which disappeared in days, a mystery that scientists still don't explain. In February, the US agency officially said goodbye to Opportunity.
The Hayabusa2 probe from Japan collected a sample of the surface of the Ryugu asteroid and will return its samples to Earth next year. Far beyond Pluto, the US ship Nuevo Horizonte passed a 35-kilometer long object known as Arrokoth.
This year, interstellar comet 2I / Borisov passed near the Sun in December. It is the second known object that has visited the solar system after Oumuamua, of 2017.
Species at risk
It was a difficult year for the environment. About one million species of plants and animals are in danger of extinction due to the destruction of their habitat and climate change, warned a report from the Intergovernmental Platform for Science and Policy on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a panel backed by the Nations United. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for drastic efforts to curb the demand for agricultural land. Otherwise, governments will not achieve the objectives of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which agreed to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The trends went in the opposite direction. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro cut federal funds for science and in July accused his government's scientists of lying about an increase in deforestation in the Amazon. The US president, Donald Trump, continued his efforts to dismantle environmental regulations. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a plan to relax the limits of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other productive sectors. In November, the administration began the official process of removing the United States from the Paris Agreement.
Activists around the world protested against these government decisions, including the September global strike under the leadership of Greta Thunberg. Millions of people in 150 countries took to the streets to demonstrate. In October, youth leaders filed lawsuits against Alaska and Canada.
Push the biological limits
Americans revived the brains of pigs four hours after their heads were cut, pumping a nutrient-rich liquid and oxygen to mimic the blood. The trick triggered the consumption of sugar and other metabolic functions, suggesting that the brains still worked.
In another experiment, scientists cultivated monkey embryos on a plate for almost three weeks, longer for those that have been grown in the laboratory. The feat raises the ethical debate about whether laboratory-grown humans should be allowed to develop beyond 14 days, a restriction in most countries. In September, a team from the United States provided a possible circumvention of that period.
Japan continued to dominate the clinical use of induced pluripotent stem cells, that is, adult cells that are reprogrammed to a state similar to the embryonic. In September, a Japanese group used them to make corneal cell sheets that could be transplanted. In the past decade, the Japanese used them to treat Parkinson's and another eye condition. This year, a group was granted approval to use stem cells as a therapy for spinal cord injury. However, its effectiveness is not yet defined.
Research on harassment, culture and ethics in the workplace has continued in institutions around the world. The staff of the Max Planck Society of Germany reported that gender-based discrimination and intimidation occur regularly, according to a massive employee survey.
In Australia, 50 percent of women scientists responded in a national survey that faced harassment at work. In August, the University of Adelaide suspended Alan Cooper, head of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA for that cause.
In the United States, the National Institutes of Health announced for the first time how many of its stimulus beneficiaries had been punished as a result of sexual harassment investigations. He reported that he had replaced 14 leading researchers in 2018 and prohibited 14 people from participating in peer review groups. Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences approved a policy to expel members found guilty of sexual harassment. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge investigates its links with Jeffrey Epstein, who had made a donation.
Physicists reached a long-awaited milestone in quantum computing. In October, a Google team reported that it had used a quantum computer to perform a calculation that would be virtually impossible for a classic machine, even a next-generation supercomputer. The calculation itself is of limited practical use, but the feat is a step towards future quantum computer applications, ranging from the design of new materials to code cracking.
Another London-based Google unit, DeepMind, showed that its programs had dominated the online multiplayer video game StarCraft II. For the first time, an artificial intelligence robot defeated human champions in multiplayer poker.
The Chinese He Jiankui produced the world's first genetically edited babies. He used the CRISPR-Cas9 system to alter the CCR5 gene, which encodes a protein that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) uses to enter cells, in an attempt to give the virus resistance to twins. In January, the University of Science and Technology of the South in Shenzhen fired him.
In October, a team led by biochemist David Liu of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, presented a method called preferred editing. The results suggest that it could be more accurate than CRISPR-Cas9.
In relation to political uncertainty, in the United Kingdom, Brexit related concerns scientists. In order to strengthen the sector, the government promised to double the funds for research and development to 18 billion pounds a year by 2025, and introduce a more favorable visa scheme for researchers.
In the United States, several agencies began the year with a partial government shutdown, which lasted 35 days. NASA and the National Science Foundation were among the agencies without activities.
An Ebola regrowth in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has killed more than 2,200 people since August 2018. In July, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak as a public health emergency of international interest, its highest alert level.
Despite the chaos, researchers managed to conduct the first large controlled trial of four experimental drugs against evil. They found that two antibody-based therapies cured 90 percent of people who sought treatment in the early stages of the disease. More than 256 thousand people received a new vaccine. In November, it became the first in the world to obtain the approval of a drug agency.
In the United States, an outbreak of lung injuries in users of electronic cigarettes has killed more than 50 people and hospitalized more than 2 thousand. The cause is sought.
In March, a person with HIV was declared free of the virus after a stem cell transplant exchanged their white blood cells with versions resistant to the microorganism. It is the second patient who has been successfully treated with this method.