Here we are in a new year, with hopes that it will be better than the last two. This was a year of events that would never have been predicted just a few years earlier, starting with an attempt to overthrow the US government and ending with growing claims of an international conspiracy to fake a pandemic while hordes of people attempt to shut down healthcare systems around the world and wage war over the use of vaccines. But as usual, I shall leave political and social news stories for the major media networks and the basement dwelling podcasters and Youtubers, and focus instead on the highlights of the year for the scientific community.

As usual there will be quite a clear bias towards physics, astronomy, and technology news, for no better reason than that is where my own background lies and thus those are the fields that I feel most qualified to comment on. There were many great advances in chemistry and medical sciences this year as well, but again, those will be left for more qualified commentators to commentate upon.

So without further ado, here we go...

Obviously the biggest ongoing story has been the emergence of mRNA vaccines to combat COVID, with the governments of the world delivering hundreds of millions of doses to people around the globe. This new technology has never been successfully used in large scale human protocols, but with the threat of the pandemic scientists and clinicians were able to break through the barriers in record time. Unfortunately the novelty of the new method, as well as some clear political games and the often opportunistic use of cherry picked scientific research to further political goals, has resulted in some of the most militant anti-vaccine and anti-healthcare protests and movements in history and resulted in some very worrisome reductions in civil liberties and threats to basic human rights on the other side. Neither side has consistently "followed the science" when it went against them, and neither side has shown respect for professional, civil discourse and respect for different views. Let us hope that the more sane and moderate voices of the world can find a way to heal these wounds before the next year is over.

And on an equally heated and controversial topic, this year saw some of the strongest evidence ever that something is wrong with the world's climate right now. My own home province saw record breaking heatwaves in the summer, entire towns eradicated by wildfires, and then the same regions washed away by record setting floods. Other parts of the world are facing similar climate catastrophes. Some events really are random anomalies in the weather, but there are too many to ignore. And as with the vaccine battle, neither side is consistently following the science. It is clear that something needs to be done quickly to solve the global problem of climate change, but with so many differing opinions in the world and so few following the evidence based models and policies, it isn't clear if anything will be done in time. 

Onto lighter news, but potentially still important for the history of science and technology, this year saw the billionaire's space race as three separate, privately funded teams sent rockets into space. There are those who feel that this was a waste of resources and not a scientific story, and yet throughout history it has been the adventurers and their wealthy patrons who have really move exploration forward. Whether monarchies funding sailing trips to the new world, or merchants seeking new trade routes, every advancement in human knowledge is important. So while Bezos, Musk, and Branson may seem like they are simply ego-tripping, they are also funding the young scientists and engineers who are developing the technologies that will be crucial to future space missions. 

And still on space related news, this year has seen some interesting news stories in spite of the ongoing lockdown and restrictions. Early in the year, an amateur astronomer discovered a new moon of Jupiter using eighteen year old data from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope that had previously been overlooked. And in June came the announcement from NASA that within the next eight or nine years they intend to send two unmanned probes to Venus to better understand how it has formed and evolved over time. And on our other neighbouring planet, the Perseverance probe landed on Mars last February, and since then has been photographing and sampling rocks on the Martian surface, seeking evidence that it may have once supported life, while also providing valuable data in general on the structure and formation of rocky planets such as our own. This year also saw the Parker Space Probe fly through the edge of Sun, providing scientists and astronomers with data on the nature of our closest star.

Of course if we are discussing important astronomy probes launched this year, we have to make a special mention of the James Webb Space telescope, launched just a few days ago on Christmas Day. This new space telescope was a joint effort by NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency, which cost ten billions dollars to construct and has taken three decades to bring to this point. It will be a more technologically advanced replacement for the much lauded Hubble Telescope, and is expected to bring even more discoveries of our galaxy and the Universe beyond. 

This has also been an interesting year for black hole researchers with two new achievements. Some readers will remember a news story from 2019 when eight observatories, working together to effectively form one Earth sized telescope known as the Event Horizon Telescope, were able to image a distant black hole. This year the same team provided an image of a jet of superheated matter being ejected from the pole of a black hole at the center of the Centaurus A galaxy, one of the brightest galaxies in the night sky. Meanwhile another team of astronomers were able to use the fluctuations in intensity of a nearby red giant star to identify a tiny black hole at a distance of just 1500 light years from Earth. This new black hole, dubbed "The Unicorn" due to its rarity and location in the Monoceros (Unicorn) constellation, is believed to be only three times heavier than our own Sun, making it one of the smallest black holes yet observed.

From the very large to the very small, this has also been a year of new questions for the particle physics community. In April, scientists at the Muon g-2 experiment at Fermilab announced a new precision measurement of the magnetic moment of a subatomic particle known as a muon, and found that it does not match with the predictions of the Standard Model of particle physics. This result was made more mysterious when another team of particle physicists used a  simulation method known as lattice QCD to show that the Standard Model does predict this new result, but that the previous calculations had been in error. However to date, no one has been able to determine why the old prediction and the new prediction, made using slightly different methods, are not in agreement. Does the experimental data indicate new particles and new forces, or does the new prediction show that we need to rethink how we do these particle physics calculations? Only time and more research will reveal the truth.

And not to be outdone, the Large Hadron Collider also made the news this year not for what it has done, but what it is about to do. After successful discovering the Higgs boson nine years ago, and making a number of less newsworthy discoveries and observations since then, this year the LHC was shut down so that scientists and engineers could upgrade it. It is expected to be operating again in May 2022, at which time it will begin collecting more precise data and at potentially higher energies. Many of our best theories for new physics involve higher energy reactions, and so it is possible that the next run of the LHC will reveal some amazing new physics that will reshape our understanding of the subatomic world. Only time will tell.

And those are just a few of the many intriguing scientific news stories to come out of 2021, and of the preparations for another amazing year in 2022. This year also saw several dark matter detectors starting up or upgrading with larger and more sensitive detectors, in the hope of finally detecting the long accepted but never observed dark matter in the Universe. Neutrino detectors were also upgraded this year with plans to explore both oscillations and asymmetries in the properties of the three known neutrino flavours, and to seek the elusive fourth generation of particles in the Standard Model. And after nearly a decade of studying the Higgs boson, scientists are still seeking to understand its properties and interactions, while other teams are doing similar precision studies on antimatter particles and bound states. 

So that was the year in science, and in spite of the global problems, it was indeed a good year for the scientific community. And it was also a year of new hopes and potential for some great research and experiments in 2022 and beyond, with several projects that have been years in planning now finally coming online. We can only imagine what great discoveries we will be discussing in one year from now.

So until then,

Happy New Year!