The biggest and most important scientific breakthroughs of 2020

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·9-min read

It’s been a year none of us will ever forget. 2020: When everyone became an armchair epidemiologist.

While most of us were preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, the world of science kept humming along, quietly expanding humanity’s understanding of our universe.

Outside of medical science – which took much of the spotlight this year – there were plenty of interesting, fun and even monumental moments.

Here’s some of the best breakthroughs you might have missed.

Oldest solid material found on Earth in Victoria

In a January study, scientists analysed meteorite fragments found in Australia to discover the oldest solid material ever found on our planet. It contained bits of stardust between 5 and 7 billion years old.

To put that in perspective, that's older than our sun which is about 4.6 billion years old.

The stardust was extracted from the Murchison meteorite, which fell to Earth in the Victorian country town of Murchison in 1969.

"This meteorite is really a treasure trove for science," said cosmochemist Philipp Heck, the lead author of the study which helps us peer back into the early universe.

Presolar grains found in the Murchison meteorite
Presolar grains found in the Murchison meteorite may be from the clouds of dust and gas around ageing stars like the pictured Egg Nebula. Source: NASA

Tools may upend timeline of early human migration

Stone tools unearthed in a cave in central Mexico and other evidence from 42 far-flung archeological sites indicate people arrived in North America – a milestone in human history – earlier than previously known.

Analysis of the tools put the arrival of humans on the continent upwards of 30,000 years ago, contradicting the conventional view that the first people arrived in the Americas around 15,000 years ago, crossing the land bridge.

Instead, it’s thought that a low number of people entered perhaps by boat along a Pacific coastal route, and some died out without leaving descendants.

Researchers looking for ancient DNA take samples in Chiquihuite Cave, Mexico. Source: Mads Thomsen
Researchers looking for ancient DNA take samples in Chiquihuite Cave, Mexico. Source: Mads Thomsen

However not everyone is convinced, the journal Nature noted, with some experts unconvinced by the analysis, suggesting the objects could’ve been produced by natural geological processes rather than by people.

The research also implicated humans in the extinctions of many large Ice Age mammals such as mammoths and camels.

Elon Musk did some crazy stuff

Love him or hate him, Elon Musk racked up some achievements this year (becoming the second richest person in the process).

His rocket company SpaceX launched four astronauts on a flight to the International Space Station in November, NASA’s first full-fledged mission sending a crew into orbit aboard a privately owned spacecraft.

SpaceX also inched closer to its stated goal of blanketing the planet with high-speed, satellite-provided internet as it began beta testing its broadband service Starlink in the US.

The company has launched nearly 900 Starlink satellites to orbit since 2019 with the goal of offering high-speed internet to rural locations globally.

Meanwhile in August, Musk’s neuroscience startup, Neuralink, unveiled a pig named Gertrude that had a coin-sized computer chip in its brain for two months, showing off an early step toward the goal of curing human diseases with the same type of implant.

Aside from being a Covid truther, Elon has had a good year. Source: Getty
Aside from being a Covid truther, Elon has had a good year. Source: Getty

Life on Venus?

In September scientists said they had detected in the harshly acidic clouds of Venus a gas called phosphine that indicates microbes may inhabit Earth’s inhospitable neighbour – a tantalising sign of potential life beyond Earth.

The researchers did not discover actual life forms, but noted that on Earth phosphine is produced by bacteria thriving in oxygen-starved environments.

“I was very surprised - stunned, in fact,” said astronomer Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“With what we currently know of Venus, the most plausible explanation for phosphine, as fantastical as it might sound, is life,” said MIT molecular astrophysicist and study co-author Clara Sousa-Silva.

Aussie telescope maps deep space at record speed

A powerful new telescope in outback Australia has mapped vast areas of the universe in record-breaking time, revealing a million new galaxies and opening the way to new discoveries.

The $188 million radio telescope, dubbed the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), was able to map about three million galaxies in just 300 hours. Comparable surveys of the sky have taken as long as 10 years.

“It’s really a game changer,” said astronomer David McConnell, who led the CSIRO study.

Six of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder's (ASKAP) antennas, which are illuminated with colours of rainbow ahead of Mardi Gras last year. Source: AAP
Six of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder's (ASKAP) antennae, which are illuminated with colours of rainbow ahead of Mardi Gras last year. Source: AAP

Surprisingly, kangaroos can learn to communicate with us

Kangaroos can learn to communicate with humans similar to how domesticated dogs do, by using their gaze to “point” and ask for help, researchers said in a December study.

The study involved 11 kangaroos that lived in captivity but had not been domesticated. Ten of the 11 marsupials intently gazed at researchers when they were unable to open a box with food, according to the report. Nine alternately looked at the human and at the container, as a way of pointing or gesturing toward the object.

“We interpreted this as a deliberate form of communication, a request for help,” Alan McElligott, the Irish researcher who led the study, said.

“Wild species are not really expected to behave as those subjects were, and that’s why it is surprising.”

What's that Skip? You wanna go? Source: Getty
What's that Skip? You wanna go? Source: Getty

Battle for ‘quantum supremacy’ got heated

Last year, research scientists quietly announced they had achieved a near-mythical state of computing in which a new generation of machine vastly outperforms the world's fastest super-computer, known as “quantum supremacy”.

Experts working on Google's Sycamore machine said their quantum system had executed a calculation in 200 seconds that would have taken a classic computer 10,000 years to complete.

This year, Chinese researchers tried to claim one better.

They used beams of laser light to perform a computation which had been mathematically proven to be practically impossible on normal computers.

IBM is also a leader in the quantum computing race. See here is its Q System One quantum computer. Source:Getty
IBM is also a leader in the quantum computing race. Seen here is its Q System One quantum computer. Source:Getty

Pan Jianwei, a physicist from the University of Science and Technology of China, claimed in September that a new machine had recently achieved “quantum supremacy” one million times greater than the Google machine – in a claim that has drawn skepticism.

The multi-faceted pursuit of quantum computing is touted to produce the next stage in computational power, with some even warning of a “cryptocalypse” in national security where state secrets, personal emails, bank accounts and credit cards are no longer safe because quantum computers could break traditional internet security programs.

Stonehenge mystery solved

In July, scientists solved an enduring mystery about Stonehenge, determining the place of origin of many of the megaliths that make up the famed monument in Wiltshire, England.

Geochemical testing on a core sample that had been kept in the United States for decades showed that 50 of Stonehenge’s 52 pale-grey sandstone megaliths, known as sarsens, share a common origin about 25 km away at a site called West Woods on the edge of Wiltshire’s Marlborough Downs.

Sheep graze as security guards patrol the prehistoric monument at Stonehenge in southern England. Source: Getty
Sheep graze as security guards patrol the prehistoric monument at Stonehenge in southern England. Source: Getty

The sarsens were erected at Stonehenge around 2500 BC. The largest stands more than nine meters tall. The heaviest weighs about 30 tons.

“How they were moved to the site is still really the subject of speculation,” said University of Brighton geomorphologist David Nash, who led the study published in the journal Science Advances.

“Given the size of the stones, they must have either been dragged or moved on rollers to Stonehenge. We don’t know the exact route but at least we now have a starting point and an endpoint.”

Dark matter discovery confounds

Scientific advancements, like many things in life, often involve two steps forward, one step back.

Dark matter, the mysterious invisible stuff that makes up most of the mass of galaxies including our own Milky Way, continues to confound scientists after new observations of distant galaxies conflicted with our current understanding of its nature.

The all encompassing matter remains shrouded in mystery. Source: Getty
The all-encompassing matter remains shrouded in mystery. Source: Getty

Research published in September revealed an unexpected discrepancy between observations of dark matter concentrations in three massive clusters of galaxies encompassing trillions of stars and theoretical computer simulations of how dark matter should be distributed.

“Either there is a missing ingredient in the simulations or we have made a fundamental incorrect assumption about the nature of dark matter,” said Yale University astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan, a co-author of the study published in the journal Science.

Either way, it arguably puts us one small step closer to understanding the mysterious matter that surrounds us.

Covid-19 leads to the fastest vaccine in history

Where would this list be without the Covid-19 vaccines.

With arguably the biggest mobilisation of resources and attention in modern medical history, two companies have produced a Covid-19 vaccine that has been approved in a handful of Western countries and has already been given to patients and politicians in the US and the UK.

Prior to this global pandemic, the fastest vaccine to be produced was for Mumps, which took four years in the 1960 – a record achievement of its own.

The record-breaking coronavirus vaccines were made possible by a new form of vaccine technology known as messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. These vaccines can be designed on computers using only a segment of the virus's genetic sequence.

According to the Therapeutic Good Administration, approval of the first vaccine in Australia is expected by March with a rollout in the following weeks and months.

So the promise of returning to normal is on the horizon.

with Reuters

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