The 2010s was a breakthrough decade for science. In the last ten years, scientists around the world in all disciplines have pulled off impressive discoveries and accomplishments. They made remarkable progress towards understanding the human body, human ancestors, the planet, and the cosmos around us. Science has also become more global and collaborative than before. These days, the major breakthroughs and discoveries are likelier to come from groups of a thousand scientists from groups of three.
Here are some of the greatest discoveries of the decade:
Astronomers capture the first photo of a black hole
A black hole is a region of space that astronomers believe in, yet it’s never actually seen. For decades, scientists struggled to capture the black hole since it distorts space-time, ensuring that nothing can break free from its gravitational pull – even light. But in April 2019, scientists working with the Event Horizon Telescope revealed the first-ever image of a black hole’s silhouette. The work was a massive global effort to peer into the middle of the M87 galaxy, a massive galaxy in the Virgo cluster.
Though the image is a little bit fuzzy, it confirms predictions that black holes look like dark spheres surrounded by a ring of light. The image can pave the way for scientists to discover exactly how the universe began, and its possible end as well.
CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology revolutionizes genetic engineering
Biologists and biotechnologists have been editing genes since the 1970s, but great strides only became possible with the introduction of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR-Cas9. This gene-editing technology allows scientists to genetically engineer any living organism, from crops to bugs to animals and humans, by precisely removing and replacing portions of unwanted DNA with the help of a protein called Cas9. Since 2012, scientists have edited mushrooms, mosquito, and lizard DNA, among others.
This technology has not been without controversy, though, because the long-term effects of gene editing to future species have not been discovered. Its potential benefits are huge, but the ethical quandaries it poses are very staggering. Also, this technology gives scientists the ability to make designer babies – ones with edited genes before birth. But it’s considered unethical. To the horror of the medical community, a Chinese researcher announced the birth of two babies whose genomes he had edited using CRISPR. The babies are the first humans born with heritable edits to DNA. This kind of genetic manipulation is banned in most countries since any genetic mutations that may get passed on to offspring has potentially disastrous consequences.
NASA discovered thousands of exoplanets, including potentially habitable planets
Human knowledge regarding planets orbiting distant stars like our Sun took a giant leap forward in the 2010s, thanks to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. From 2009 to 2018, the telescope found more than 2,700 confirmed exoplanets, which is more than half of the current total.
Among Kepler’s greatest hits include Kepler 22b, an exoplanet that is 600 light-years away with Earth-like features, and K2-18b, a super-Earth that orbits a red dwarf star 110 light-years away. K2-18b is the only known exoplanet with an atmosphere, water, and a temperature range that can support liquid water on its surface.
Physicists finally found the Higgs Boson particle
In the 1960s and 1970s, physicists Peter Higgs and Francois Englert theorized the existence of a novel energy field that permeates the universe, which is known as the Higgs field. The theorized field also comes with a fundamental particle called the Higgs boson. Nicknamed the “God particle,” the Higgs boson is responsible for giving all other particles mass, allowing them to join together and become something more.
This particle was detected to be existing in 2012, thanks to the two teams of physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Using this technology, researchers confirmed the discovery by two different detectors. The discovery completed the last missing piece of the Standard Model, which is a successful but incomplete theory that describes three of the four fundamental forces in physics and all known particles.
More ancient human ancestors discovered
The last decade has seen numerous advances in understanding the complex origin story of humans, including new dates on known fossils, complete fossil skulls, and multiple new branches. National Geographic explorer Lee Berger unveiled a distant human ancestor named Australopithecus sediba in 2010.
After five years, a new species was found: Homo naledi, a fossil whose anatomy resembles that of both modern humans and far more ancient cousins. It was discovered by accident in 2013, as two spelunkers stumbled across it in a hidden cave in Africa, 100 feet below the surface. The chamber contained 1,550 bones belonging to at least 15 people who lived around 330,000 to 250,000 years ago. Homo naledi had small brains, apish pelvises, human-like hands, small teeth, flat feet, and pronounced brow lines.
Humanity visited Pluto for the first time
In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft approached Pluto and stayed for 15 minutes while remaining 476,000 miles from the surface. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard the Horizon captured the last and most detailed image of the dwarf, icy world. The clearest image from NASA shows the dark and rugged highlands bordering a section of Pluto’s icy plains.
The spacecraft also captured a high-resolution image of Charon, Pluto’s moon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s. The new close-up and colorized photos of Pluto and Charon helped us understand the distant planet much better.
Curiosity rover discovered that Mars might have been habitable
The decade has seen many achievements in space for NASA. In 2012, NASA announced that its Curiosity rover identified gravel created by an ancient river in Mars’ Gale crater. Curiosity is the largest and most capable rover ever brought to Mars, joining fellow rover Opportunity in looking for signs of water and whether Mars was capable of supporting microbial life.
In 2013, scientists found chemical ingredients for life – nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, sulfur, and phosphorus – in the powder that the Curiosity rover drilled from the rock near the ancient streambed. In the following years, NASA found evidence that the planet was once home to a vast ocean.
Earth experiences five hottest years on record
Since 1880, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has monitored climate and temperature changes, and scientists have never seen temperatures like this decade. The years 2015 to 2019 were the hottest years on record due to anthropogenic climate change. In May 2013, global CO2 levels reached 400 parts per million, which was the first time in human history. By 2016, CO2 levels were staying above this threshold. Starting in 2014, warming oceans caused a global coral bleaching event, wherein corals around the world suffered die-offs. Besides these, the repercussions of climate change are severe, such as drastic, unexpected weather changes and disastrous natural calamities. Temperature extremes and melting ice caps were so harsh that they can be seen from space.
Because of this, the world’s scientists forcefully called attention for awareness and the need to respond. In 2015, the world’s nations negotiated the Paris Agreement, a global climate accord that aims to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius – which scientists and world leaders consider a dangerous threshold.
AI beats human players
The ancient strategy game Go is a complex game that’s more than 2,500 years old and is substantially more difficult than chess. Humans always had the edge over artificial intelligence because they could not compute how to beat a real person. But in 2016, Google’s DeepMind division programmed an AI system called AlphaGo destroyed the reigning European Go champ and Go world champions. This was a significant win for AI, but that’s not the first. In 2011, an IBM supercomputer named Watson defeated two “Jeopardy” champions in a three-day contest.
The decade has seen AI getting really smarter. A year after AlphaGo’s victory, an AI named Libaratus beats four of the top international players of no-limit, two-player poker. In 2019, another DeepMind AI program named AlphaStar bested 99.8% of human players in a popular video game, “Starcraft II.”
Experimental Ebola vaccine approved by EU
As a response to the 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, global public health officials and the pharmaceutical company Merck fast-tracked an experimental Ebola vaccine. After a successful field trial in 2015, European officials approved the vaccine in 2019, which is a remarkable milestone in fighting against the deadly disease.