The image of the black hole
The first-ever image of a black hole | Commons
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The first image of a black hole

Astronomy advanced by leaps and bounds in 2019, but the biggest story of the year was arguably the first image of a black hole. Scientists working on the Event Horizon Telescope produced the first ever image of what was thought to be an unseeable object for a very long time. 

The black hole is in the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy — 55 million light years away. The telescope itself is a network of telescopes spread across four continents, effectively making up one giant telescope. Read more on The New York Times

Kilogram completely redefined

The seven base SI units — second, metre, ampere, kelvin, mole, candela, and kilogram — are now officially defined by natural phenomena as opposed to using objects created by humans. The last of these to change, the kilogram, did so this year. 

Previously, the definition of 1kg was the weight of a piece of platinum-iridium alloy housed in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France since 1889. It’s called the International Prototype Kilogram and has multiple copies around Earth. Now, it is defined as an extension of Planck’s constant, which has been finalised at 6.62607015 × 10^-34 m2 kg/s.

Finally, the metric system, as originally envisioned, will exist forever. Read in more detail on Vox.

Also read: Ancient ‘chewing gum’ discovered that reveals genetic code of a Stone Age woman

Greenland lost 12.5 billion tonnes of ice in a day

Greenland has been losing ice faster than we previously thought — five times faster than we believed and seven times faster than it did in the 90s.

On 1 August, in just 24 hours, the ice sheet lost a whopping 12.5 billion tonnes of ice. Over 60 per cent of the ice sheet lost 1mm of ice, causing a surge in sea levels. In all of July, Greenland lost 197 gigatonnes of ice. 

These numbers are threatening more and more humans every year with floods and inundation, and sea levels are expected to rise to 167 cm by the turn of the century. More on The Washington Post

Gene therapies

2019 was a year of rapid advances in gene therapies. 

The first in-body gene editing helped treat a disease in America, a woman had gene therapy to halt blindness in Britain, deafness in mice was cured in France, pancreatic cancer in mice prevented, antibiotic-resistant infection treated in a human and more.

But the most controversial of these developments came from China. Researchers created identical clones of a monkey using the same techniques as those used to create Dolly the sheep. 

Scientists also created pigs with monkey DNA, producing an official hybrid with genetic material belonging to two species.

A scientist also edited the genome of twin babies, in a process that is considered widely unethical and, in several countries, illegal. Read more on The New York Times.

A prospective end to some deadly diseases

Even as public health combats deadly outbreak of diseases like measles and the plague, humanity has reached a step closer to a cure for both Ebola and HIV.

For the first time, we now have a patient ‘free’ of HIV after stem cell treatment.

Additionally, we now also have antiviral drugs that can effectively combat HIV transmission, promising a new cure. Read more on this on The Guardian.

Ebola, too, now has a treatment after a series of deadly outbreaks in recent times. Trials in Congo have resulted in cures, and after the experimental vaccine and these treatments, Ebola is officially no longer incurable. More on Wired.

Also read: How killer whale grannies help children survive longer

Rats play hide and seek for fun

Scientists taught rats to play hide and seek, and they enjoyed the game.

New research showed that Berlin scientists were able to train lab rats to play the game with humans. They discovered that the rats didn’t need to be motivated by food or treats. They enjoyed the game as it is, and performed joyful leaps and jumps, and employed sophisticated strategies.

The research offers insight into cognitive abilities and their evolution in rats, rodents, and other simple mammals. The rats were trained to understand the game like dogs are trained, with positive reinforcement, and the researchers noticed that rats exhibited human-like game behaviours such as being quiet when hiding, looking for visual clues, searching in previous hiding spots, etc. More on Gizmodo.

First artificial life?

Scientists managed to create a full colony of the bacteria E. coli with DNA that was artificially expanded to be four times larger and more complex than any other bacteria previously created.

The bacteria look different but are alive and reproducing, in accordance with a new set of biological instructions from the new DNA set. The life form is potentially considered to be artificial as it was created with human intervention. Synthetic bacteria are an active field of research, especially in healthcare. More on Scientific American.

It was asteroid, not volcanoes, that killed dinosaurs

Of late, the alternate theory of volcanism has been gaining ground for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event’s cause, especially as a predecessor to the Chixculub impactor. But a new study this year outlined the sequence of events immediately after the asteroid impact.

Within a short period of time, there was a flash acidification of the oceans, causing a rapid mass extinction in the waters and killing of marine life. It created as much destruction in the oceans as it did on land. The damage existed for millions of years. The study was also able to narrow down the timeline, showing that 66 million years ago, the flowing lava in what was India then was not strong enough yet and was exacerbated by the impact. More on The New York Times.

Skull of last common human ancestor recreated

2019 was a big year for findings related to human evolution.

Scientists discovered that the ancient Denisova cave in Siberia was probably occupied by multiple sub-species of humans.

The oldest Homo sapiens outside of Africa were also discovered in Greece, dating back to 2,10,000 years, and a new controversial study also used genetics to trace all of humanity’s roots back to Botswana. Scientists also used computers to study DNA and recreate the skull of the last common ancestor of all human sub-species. More on Cosmos.

Robotics in healthcare

The field of AI and robotics also made great improvements this year.

AlphaStar, DeepMind’s AI system is now a better player at StarCraft 2, and a Grandmaster at the game. It plays better than 99.8 per cent of all players.

OpenAI’s computer simulation system taught a robotic hand how to solve a Rubik’s cube, running through several routines in lightning speed. Once taught, the robot hand was able to solve a cube with some aid.

But the biggest news this year was that of a mind-controlled robot arm that can work without an invasive brain implant. While the process of movement is jerky, researchers are using sensing and machine learning to make the robot arm move smoothly. More on Futurism.

Also read: ‘Muscular mice’ take off for space, and over 50 polar bears ‘invade’ Russian village for food


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