By MACKENZIE STEELE
2018 is finally over, and many things happened. The world of science made a lot of progress too, so here are some of the most important discoveries and events in 2018. If you’d like to know more, the links are in the text!
Blood tests made leaps and bounds in 2018. There’s one approved in the US for detecting traumatic brain injuries without a scan. Liquid biopsies are being tested & developed for cancers (8 and 10 different cancers detected in one blood test). We’ve found out that cancer DNA can be detected from blood samples with gold nanoparticles, and cancer cells can be found in blood using magnetic wires. We’re working on a test for the time your body clock thinks it is (so we can give medicines at the optimal time) and two accurate tests for pre-term births & due dates. There was also the discovery that your blood type can determine how badly an E. coli infection will affect you, but it goes both ways because gut bacteria can change your blood type (which could mean we won’t ever run out of O blood in the future).
The battle against infectious illnesses continued! A universal flu vaccine is in development. One flu drug is being tested in Japan, and another has been approved. In the meantime, we’ve made a UV light flu-zapper, which should probably go in public bathrooms because hand dryers are gross. We’ve found botox might fight flesh-eating strep, and pre-exposure HIV drugs (like Truvada) are testing amazingly. We cured that guy with the worst gonorrhea case ever, and trained rats to sniff out tuberculosis in kids.
In other breakthroughs, we are getting close to (cheap) DIY insulin. Two mothers carried one baby this year with a technology called INVOcell. A French teenager translated holy texts into DNA. Surgeons in third world countries can use smartphones as cameras for close-up work. We’re working on an artificial retina & 3D printed corneas, to restore vision. Smartwatches have saved lives by providing a record of heart-rate data, so doctors know the difference between normal patterns for you and a heart attack. We are growing organs for testing and transplants: miniature placentas, muscles, mini brains, ears, and kidneys. We are working on bioprinting (that’s right, 3D printing with living cells). We’ve found three new places to look for life-saving antibiotics, and we are looking at “cocktail recipes” of many antibiotics to destroy superbugs. We’re working on a contact lens that can test glucose levels, and we were able to watch how HIV infects tissues. We are successfully testing injectable bandages and “skin glue-guns” that can repair severe wounds and save lives. And there’s a non-addictive pain relief medication that passed tests in monkeys this year.
New Zealand in Science
A few things happened here too! Our own University of Canterbury worked on a scroll from the War of Roses and helped discover why an American mountain was in the wrong place. We have the world’s loneliest tree on Campbell Island, which holds fallout from nuclear testing in 1945. There was that sinkhole and the 23.8 metres-high mega-wave. A huge lion’s mane jellyfish, a gigantic squid, and a lot of whales washed up. A pyrosome – a large colony of small creatures which looks like a pretty sea-boa – showed up. A squirrel monkey was almost stolen from Auckland Zoo, and a seal got hilariously slap-happy. Cora the Flying Taxi Service is coming here, meanwhile, a NZ company made coloured x-rays. Finally, our two main islands got closer together.
When it comes to global warming, there is good news and bad news. You are probably familiar with the bad news. Turns out, it’s worse, and these are only the cliff notes. The sea is rising more than we thought, and it’s warming up to release trapped acid, carbon, methane, and mercury from ice. Algae is a problem and the ocean’s wilderness is disappearing. The current that cools the earth is weakening. Plastics are found in whale stomachs and the poo of animals and humans. Pollution is getting into placentas. Despite ozone-depleting substance bans, chlorofluorocarbons and carbon tetrachloride have been released into the atmosphere. A whole island disappeared, and half of the world’s yearly precipitation falls in just under two weeks – and that’s not mentioning the red rain in Siberia. Pretty much, the world is a hot mess (forgive the pun).
However, the good news is great. The EU banned bee-killing neonicotinoids, Hawaii made companies declare what sprays they are using and where, and both Hawaii and Bonaire banned reef-destroying sunscreen ingredients. Fusion energy is getting closer, as is an affordable way to make gasoline from CO2. It’s been discovered that the Sahara could be restored to its former green glory by moving in solar and wind farms. We’ve launched a garbage-cleaning sea noodle to clean up existing rubbish, figured out how to make bricks from urine (this is good for recycling, promise), and have discovered a few ways that might stop us from running out of time for reducing our carbon footprints (salt & reflecting substances). And we are working on plastic-eating enzymes too, although I’d prefer to see plastic alternatives.
This year has brought us epic AI and robots! They’ve had some wonderful achievements in 2018. We have Erica, the robot news anchor from Japan (check out a video of her answering questions here). BINA48 aced a philosophy paper on love, while Atlas went for runs and learned parkour. Sophia, the first robot citizen, talked about gender and consciousness. Most recently, new algorithm on the block GAN painted a portrait which sold for US$432,500. On the other hand, there’s Norman, Alexa saying weird things because she copies the internet, and the fact that a university in South Korea had to be told to stop making killer robots. The saddest one was how Flippy had to be fired for being too good…
And to round off the list of Things That Happened, we have prizes! For the 2018 Nobels, the physics prize went to two projects on lasers. The chemistry prize went to biologists studying proteins, as usual. The physiology and medicine prize went to a project on cancer therapy by stimulating the immune system.
The IgNobels are like the Nobels, but more fun. These prizes go to wacky uses of science. The 2018 prize winners used roller coasters to help kidney stones, discovered humans and chimpanzees in a zoo will copy the other species with equal frequency and skill, showed wine experts can smell a single fly in a glass of wine, and found cannibalism isn’t nutritious.
Other prizes included the Breakthrough Prize, given to Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars after a Nobel snub. The Fields Medal (for amazing mathematicians under 40) was awarded to Caucher Burkar for algebraic geometry, then promptly stolen. Another ceremony, for the Abel Prize, went fine for Robert Langlands (who wrote the Grand Unified Theory of Mathematics, which I didn’t know about before. It’s cool). And over the ditch, Australian of the Year was taken out by a quantum physicist, Michelle Simmons. But personally, the best are the science photography awards. The Nikon Small World in Motion competition (gallery here), Nikon Small World Photo competition (gallery here), and the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards (gallery here), all gave some amazing videos and images we can all appreciate and make memes out of!
I think we can agree that at least science-wise, it was an amazing year. We can look out for even more amazing discoveries this year, so stay tuned!
MACKENZIE STEELE is Tearaway’s resident evil Aspie queen. Mwahaha! She’s dead set on becoming a geneticist, but she’s interested in other things too. Like Sims, cats, owls, Sims, books, music, Sims, Ancient Roman life, Latin, Sims…
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