To Science!: The decade-closing 2019 in retrograde

Every year, innovations, breakthroughs, and discoveries are recognized in different fields of Science and Technology. This year has been bountiful in terms of scientific achievements—both at the international and local level—that further bolster our grasp of the world and our ability to solve various problems like world hunger, climate change, and sustainability. 

This year marks key anniversary celebrations of various scientific milestones: 150 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s construction of the first periodic table of elements—critical in the study of Chemistry; and 260 years after the discovery of Halley’s Comet, 17 years following the death of astronomer Edmund Halley, who calculated the comet’s periodicity. Additionally, this year is the 50th anniversary of American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s quote, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” as the Apollo 11 spaceflight first landed humans on the Moon. 

The scientific achievements of this year also show the progress in our search for understanding the Universe and pursuit of technological advancements. With these, The LaSallian recaps some of the notable scientific breakthroughs that defined 2019.

Defying imaging norms

Before April 10 this year, humanity had only ever seen black holes as shown in science fiction films and art illustrations. On that fateful day, the first-ever image of a black hole found in the Messier 87 galaxy was released by the project team manning the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)—an array of eight grounded radio telescopes scattered across Earth.

What the image showed aligned with German physicist Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity; the light surrounding the black hole acted as a lens to the space gargantuan, implying that some radiation can escape from the gravitational field created by the hole. By next year, the EHT will undergo planned improvements by expanding to 11 observatories, and installing more telescopes to capture larger and sharper images.

Further, the breakthrough was a feat not just in Astronomy but also in Computer Science, as the team used Machine Learning algorithms—programs that are able to independently improve their performance as they process more and more data—to stitch together data from multiple telescopes to produce the single, final image that was displayed to the world.

Another branch on the tree

Callao cave, located in Cagayan province, is known for its white limestone and seven-chamber cave system. It is also known as a historical landmark: former United States President Theodore Roosevelt Jr. once visited the cave and proclaimed it as one of the first national parks in the country. 

But it once again hit historical headlines in April this year as a new hominin species was discovered within the cave. From a total of seven teeth and six bones, Philippine archaeologists Armand Mijares and Philip J. Piper identified Homo luzonensis, believed to have lived in the Philippines during the Late Pleistocene era. The discovery of H. luzonensis is a landmark achievement because it further unveils the tree of evolution and shows that another Homo species lived alongside the H. heidelbergensis, the predecessor of H. sapiens or the human species, which lived 200,000 to 600,000 years ago in Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Redefining measurements

Four out of the seven base units from the Système International d’Unités or the International System of Units (SI) were officially redefined last May—the kilogram, ampere, mole, and Kelvin, which measure mass, electric current, amount of substance, and temperature, respectively. 

During the 26th General Conference on Weights and Measures, delegates voted to use constants derived from the physical world as the new standard of the SI units. Before May, the SI units were based on physical objects or artificial setups, which are prone to even the slightest of changes. For example, the platinum alloy on which the kilogram was based upon can gain mass by absorbing molecules in the air, making the supposed benchmark inconsistent. 

A kilogram of rice is still the same as it was before the redefinition. However, the change will reduce the cost of calibrating scientific and industrial instruments and will afford greater accuracy and consistency to high precision procedures, such as in the pharmaceutical industry where chemicals are measured on a much smaller scale than a kilogram. As these units are now derivable from unchanging phenomena, the new standards will hopefully establish a more stable foundation of our understanding of the world.

Digitized animal identification

Envisioning to assist local fisherfolk in maintaining productive crab farms, developers from the University launched a species identification application called Crabifier last July on the Google Play Store. The research team was led by Dr. Chona Camille Abeledo, an associate professor from DLSU’s Biology Department, in collaboration with the College of Computer Studies and the Center for Environment and Natural Science Research.

By simply pointing a smartphone camera at a mudcrab, the application can recognize between  Scylla serrata, S. tranquebarica, and S. olivacea, something that even seasoned fisherfolk deem difficult as the juvenile stages of these species all look alike to the naked eye. Through the application, which uses convolutional neural networks to process the images, fisherfolks can more confidently know exactly which species to catch, as S. serrata in particular grows larger than the other two mudcrab species.

Abeledo bares the future of their project, “We have gotten into contact with state universities and other institutions, where they will be developing versions of the Crabifier that will not just be for crabs but for other species as well. Hopefully, it is going to transition from being just Crabifier into a legitimate Pokédex for different species here in the Philippines.”

A long way from home

For almost half a century, a secret was laid hidden in a particular rock sample collected way back from the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. It was only last August that Planetary Scientist and Curtin University Prof. Alexander Nemchin uncovered that secret: a sample collected from the Moon was analyzed and discovered to have actually come from Earth. 

Nemchin’s results showed that the rock sample was very similar to granite, a type of rock formed by crystallization at low temperatures in the presence of water and oxygen—a condition common on Earth but not on the Moon—with the crystallization temperatures of the sample also being lower compared to its lunar counterparts. By studying the pressure, temperature, and oxidation conditions that led to the rock’s formation, Nemchin and his team used these as evidence to allude to the rock’s terrestrial origins. 

How the rock sample ended up on the Moon remains a mystery; however, scientists theorize that an asteroid colliding with the Earth may have caused it, as an adequately strong impact could have jettisoned the material off the planet’s surface and onto the Moon’s. The discovery further sheds light onto the shared history of the Earth and the Moon, and expands on the possibility of planetary matter being thrown outward into space with such force after an asteroid impact.

The long lost region

Last September, Douwe van Hinsbergen—an Earth Science professor from Utrecht University in the Netherlands—and his co-authors delineated the existence of an eighth continent, Greater Adria, from the time of the supercontinent Pangea some 240 million years ago Located somewhere below where Africa and Europe are presently situated, the lost continent had formed the mountain range spanning several countries from Europe and the Middle East. It was thus named after the Adria region, which currently stretches from Turin in Italy, to the Adriatic Sea separating the country from the Balkan countries, such as Serbia and Croatia, forming its boundaries.

As Pangea began to break apart, Greater Adria separated from Africa 220 million years ago, and eventually drifted from France and Spain 20 million years after that. While many geologists previously found hints of that lost region, the complexity of Europe as a continent posed a challenge, with the remains of Greater Adria possibly scattered across more than 30 countries. 

“The reason why we gave this [continent] a new name is that these mountain belts, which run from Spain to Iran, cover around 30 different countries…and almost every country had their own names and their own assumptions for what [they] looked like in the past,” van Hinsbergen expounds in an interview with Time. The discovery rewrote the narrative of the tectonic evolution of the Mediterranean region, going back as far as the Triassic period when the biggest mass extinction in geologic history had occurred.  

Google reaches ‘quantum supremacy’

Researchers at Google officially revealed last October that they attained “quantum supremacy”—indicating that a quantum computer could solve computational problems that classical computers could not execute—in an article published in the scientific journal, Nature. Sycamore, Google’s quantum computer, accomplished a rare feat: in just 200 seconds, it completed a task that would take the world’s fastest supercomputers approximately 10,000 years to accomplish.

Quantum computing can help accelerate finding solutions in various fields such as Computer Science, Climate Science, and Medicine, allowing researchers to process larger amounts of data in less time. Even with its many benefits, however, it would take years before such technology can be mainstreamed into  public usage. Nonetheless, scientists aptly compared Google’s achievement to the first aircraft flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903. Like how the first aircraft demonstrated that flight was possible, Google’s paper—and quantum computer—posit that a quantum future may be on the horizon for mankind. 

Toward the next decade

As next year marks the beginning of a new decade, another batch of scientific breakthroughs that will expand our body of knowledge is expected to surface. “I think we will be seeing a lot more about how the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats can be used for gene editing in functional adults,” Abeledo lists some possible breakthroughs, referring to the technologies being studied for their use in modifying the genetic composition of an organism, with the potential to correct mutations and treat diseases. She adds, “I think we will also be seeing a lot of space explorations, and part of that is because of the development of SpaceX.” 
Aside from expanding our knowledge of the world, next year will also be an opportunity for the development of more sustainable innovations, like Abeledo’s own Crabifier, that can contribute toward addressing issues like climate change and biodiversity conservation. “I think we will be seeing a lot of cheaper, sustainable technologies; we have big companies like Tesla who are releasing their patents, so that more people can actually start creating technologies that are environmentally sustainable, but at the same time, affordable,” she notes.

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