Happy New Decade!!

That's right, we are starting a brand new decade of scientific exploration and technological developments. As scientists and engineers we can only dream about what the coming years will reveal.

But in looking forward, we must also take a moment to look back at how far we have already come. And to that end, I will be blatantly copying the trend of every other news organization this week and giving you my top ten scientific discoveries of the decade! (Although to be fair, as a physics I might have slanted this list a little bit towards physics and astronomy discoveries :) )

Here we go:

10. Organic Molecules In Space: Although perhaps not entirely unexpected, it was still interesting to discover organic molecules located elsewhere in the galaxy. From spectral studies of distant nebula, to the Rosetta mission that landed on Comet 67P Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014 and found raw materials required for life, and even the Cassini and Curiosity probes that found large organic molecules in the plumes of Saturn's moon Enceladus and on Mars respectively. These discoveries brought us one step closer to finding life on other worlds.

9. The Rise of AI: Artificial intelligence has been around for decades, and is even a common component of most video games now. However this was the decade when it really began to explode as a scientific tool. We are now seeing AI systems that can analyze medical images better than trained radiologists, systems that can evaluate astronomy images and particle physics tracks more efficiently than scientists, and even AI in our cell phones and tablet computers to make everyday life easier. We also have seen the growing dark side of AI with the rise of deep fake videos and artificial people being used in online scams. We have reached an era when our computers are smarter than we are, and they are improving every day. Whether this trend will ultimately be a benefit or a detriment to humanity, only time will tell.

8. Voyager 1 Leaves The Solar System:  There is some debate about exactly when this happened, but we are confident that it did. This was the first decade in history in which an object created by human beings went beyond the edge of our solar system and entered interstellar space. At the speed it is traveling it won't get anywhere, and we will soon have the technology to fly past it with ease, but Voyager 1 will also be the first.

7. A World of Planets: When the 2010s began, we knew of about 450 planets that existed outside of our own solar system. Due primarily to the Kepler space mission, we now have cataloged over 4000 exoplanets. Perhaps even more interesting, we have found exoplanets that appear to be inhabitable by lifeforms like our own, and even a system of planets within about forty lightyears of the Earth - virtually nextdoor in cosmic scales. So many worlds to explore, and so little time...
6. A Black Hole Photograph: Last April saw another major advance in astronomy, with the imaging of a distant black hole. The Event Horizon project linked radio telescopes from around the world to take an image of the black hole in the galaxy M87, the most distant photograph ever taken. The final image might not be much to look at, but to astrophysicists it is a treasure trove of new data to be examined and analysed. 

5. The Higgs Boson: After fifty years of searching for this final piece of the Standard Model, particles physicists at the Large Hadron Collider were able to detect the now famous Higgs Boson. This particle, first hypothesized in the early 1960s by a number of theorists, is responsible for giving all matter its mass. This is the reason matter exists in the form that it does. And in July 2012, it was finally observed.

4. CRISPR Editing: This one is for the rest of the scientific community, and was too significant to omit from this list. This was the decade that saw gene editing and gene splicing become a reality. The CRISPR method allows scientists to remove sections of DNA from a living organism, and replace them with different genes from another organism. If used properly it can cure disease and create a healthier population. If use incorrectly we will see designer babies and attempts to build a master race. And in 2018 scientists in China were claiming to have created the world's first genetically engineered babies. Let the ethical debates begin...

3. Gravitational Waves: Since Einstein first published the general theory of relativity in 1915, it has been known that spacetime should transmit gravitational waves. If an astrophysical event is energetic enough, such as the collision of two black holes, it will send a ripple through space and time that can be detected lightyears away. One such ripple was detected by the LIGO experiment in 2015, confirming that gravity waves do exist. More events have been detected since that time, and a significant amount of research has been published on how this new medium can be used to further explore the nature of black holes and other astrophysical objects, and even its use in studying the Universe as a whole. Gravitational wave observatories just might lead to the biggest scientific discoveries of the next decade.

2. Quantum Computing: Computers have existed for less than a century, and they are already obsolete. Physicists have been discussing the properties and possibilities of a quantum computer for decades, but the 2010s saw those dreams made reality.  Due to the strange properties of quantum mechanics, in which a system can exist in multiple virtual states before collapsing into a single reality, a computer that operates in the quantum realm can effectively behave like hundreds of separate processors. This permits quantum computers to perform certain calculations at rates unimaginable for classical machines, and will render certain impossible calculations trivial. (It will also make many security systems vulnerable to attack). At present the known quantum computers are very simple, but with tech giants such as Google funding research, they are expected to explode in the next few years. We are now entering the quantum age.

1. The Great Unknown:  Yes, I cheated. Sort of. However there is some truth to the argument that the greatest scientific discovery of the past decade is completely unknown at present. It is possible that somewhere in the world, some theoretical physicist has started creating the final theory of quantum gravity, long sought after by scientists around the world. It is possible that somewhere an engineer has built a prototype of a device that will clean the atmosphere of greenhouse gasses and save the planet, and is just now raising funds to put it into production. Perhaps somewhere a biomedical researcher has just started on an experiment that will cure cancer. Perhaps one of our many space probes or telescopes has collected data that will forever change our understanding of the cosmos, and it is just waiting for its support team to analyze the data and make a great discovery. We just don't know. But if history is to serve as our guide, we can be certain that the most important scientific advancement of this decade will not be recognized as such for many years to come. And that is what makes science so exciting!

So welcome to the new decade, and let us boldly stride into a future filled with scientific discovery!