Is it safe to come out from under the bed yet?

Every year at this time I wrap up the year with a quick review of the scientific highlights of the year, but I think we all know that there was only one story dominating our attention for the past twelve months - the global nightmare that has been COVID-19. It has not been a great year for anyone, and certainly not one conducive to scientific advances.

And yet there were a few.

Of course the lead story must be the record setting development of a COVID-19 vaccine by four different groups. Never before in human history have we gone from discovering a disease to developing the treatment in only a few months. (The previous record was over two years for a vaccine). In large part this has been due to twenty-five years of research into mRNA splicing, which has been extensively studied but never used in humans before. These vaccines genetically alter some muscle tissue in the recipients arm so that it will develop the same protein spike that appears on the surface of the COVID-19 virus, but with no other viral properties. The immune system can then develop a response to any cell that displays this signature spike, without ever being exposed to a live virus. Then if the recipient does get infected, the immune system already knows how to destroy the virus. It is an interesting development, and one that we will likely see more of in future medical research.

In spite of global pandemic, space exploration has flourished this year. The team behind SpaceX launched the first manned commercial spaceflight, taking two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and then brought them home again. Meanwhile NASA and the ESA worked together to launch the SolarOrbiter mission, which provides astrophysicists and astronomers with some of the best images and most detailed data ever recorded about our own Sun.

In the summer NASA also launched the Perserverance probe, which is currently on route to Mars. Once it arrives it will begin two very interesting missions - it will launch a drone into the Martian atmosphere to do more extensive mapping and reconnaissance, and it will test out equipment that should be able to convert the carbon dioxide rich Martian air into oxygen, which would be critical to the eventual construction of a manned outpost on Mars. And while these will be achievements for the future, their launch in the middle of the pandemic lockdown is still worthy of notice and respect.

And closer to the ground, this year also saw artificial intelligence really explode into the tech sector with new algorithms generating everything from new people to non-existent landscapes, and machine learning methods proving more skilled at detecting some forms of cancer than even the most experienced radiologists. 

This year we saw a very different Nobel Prize ceremony recognize both the theoretical and experimental research into supermassive black holes. As a theoretical physicist I was particularly pleased to see Roger Penrose get recognition for his pioneering work on the evolution and phenomenology of black holes, published over fifty years ago and creating an entire field of scientific research for those that followed him. The other two recipients were equally deserving for their careful analysis of stellar orbits, which resulted in the first evidence of supermassive black holes at the center of many galaxies including our own Milky Way.

And of course those are just the achievements that made the headlines this year. Scientists around the world have been toiling away in isolation on a myriad of other projects who significance is not yet known to the wider public - or often even to the scientists themselves. Perhaps the greatest scientific achievement of 2020 is something that we do not even know about yet. 

Let us all hope for a healthier and happier (and more productive) 2021...