Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds.
-Alexander Graham Bell
Every year, scientists and researchers uncover a little more information that helps us to better understand ourselves, our planet, and our universe. These discoveries change how we live our lives and enable us to accomplish tasks and feats that were never previously possible. 2016 was no exception. Scientists gave us a better understanding of diseases, technology, and our environment, among other things, through various findings that they uncovered. Here are just a few of them:
1. Proxima B
In August of 2016, 31 scientists found an earth-sized world that just might be habitable, Proxima b. Because the planet is 4.3 light years away, they used the radial velocity method to indirectly detect it. This is a major breath through, as scientists have been spotting thousands of exoplanets, attempting to uncover habitable real estate in other parts of the universe. Now it seems that they may have done just that.
The reason that they’re so optimistic about Proxima b is its proximity to a cool red dwarf star, Proxima Centauri. Proxima b orbits this star from 4.7 million miles away. And the combination of this orbiting distance and the type of star being orbited just happens to be a sweet spot for the formation of liquid water on planets. If that’s the case, Proxima b could be a place humans could live. However, Proxima b could also be a dead-end. It will be difficult to tell until 2018 when scientists can get a closer look at the planet with the launch of the James Webb Space telescope. It’s no doubt that the images captured by this telescope will end up on digital displays for years to come.
Most people think Zika is a new virus. It’s not. It’s been known about and documented since 1947 when it was identified in Uganda. The reason that it has only shot to fame now is that a connection was finally made. Previously, if an adult was infected with the virus not much happened. They got some flu-like symptoms and then they got better. Because of the fact that the virus seemingly wasn’t terribly dangerous, it wasn’t heavily investigated.
But in early 2016, in Brazil, there was a strange increase of babies being born with microcephaly, or abnormally small heads. There was also an increase in the virus. So researchers started investigating to see if they could find a link. They did. They eventually found that the virus targets brain development cells after they found Zika in the brains of newborns that had died and in the placenta of babies born with microcephaly. Because of this discovery many women and men avoided trips to high-risk areas, protecting themselves and their future babies.
The idea of altering a human’s genetic code has long existed in science fiction. It was written into books, movies and television shows. But now it’s going to be a reality.
A man in China found out that he had an especially aggressive type of lung cancer. Scientists and doctors offered him an alternative to the fatal prognosis. They wanted to try out an experimental treatment. The treatment would use a new gene-editing tool, CRISPR, to cut out a gene that cancer uses to quicken its spread, remove immune blood cells, modify the cells and then reintroduce them to his body. The changed cells should then assist in depleting the cancer. The jury is still out on whether the treatment worked or not, but the fact that scientists are now ready to test CRISPR is a big sign that there may be a cure to both previously incurable illnesses and unsolvable environmental calamities.
4. Nano-Structure Glass
Losing important documents and data can be devastating, and it can happen so easily. Data storage methods are unreliable. Drives break, computers crash, storage space runs out. But this problem may finally have a solution. All it took was a small glass disk and an ultrafast laser. Scientists at the University of Southampton discovered this method that has the ability to hold up to 360 terabytes of data on a piece of glass the size of a quarter. And even more exciting is how durable the storage space is—it can withstand up to 1,000 degrees celsius. In other words, it should last, at room temperature, for nearly 14 billion years.
Scientists move the data to the device with intense, short light pulses with the ultrafast laser. The nanostructure dots that the laser creates are three layers deep and 5 micrometers a part, and it is these dots that hold the files. While this is a rare and expensive way to store information now, it will likely become affordable and commercialized in the future. For now, though, cloud storage is still a necessity.
5. Solidified Carbon Dioxide
How to keep carbon dioxide from seeping into the atmosphere has been a question plaguing scientists for years. In 2016, they may have found a solution. In Iceland, scientists took carbon dioxide and pumped it into volcanic rock in order to speed up a process that normally takes hundreds of thousands of years—basalt is slowly turned into carbonate materials, which is then slowly turned into limestone. The scientists in Iceland managed to make this process happen in two years. And the result was the capturing of carbon into a rock that could be used for building and construction without letting the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Just imagine, in the future, plenty of real estate built from carbon dioxide blocks could be sold to commercial and residential buyers alike. The process still needs to be scaled up to make a dent in the massive amount of carbon dioxide seeping into the atmosphere every day, but it is a big first step.