Good Things from 2020

(Picture from here.)

I had a different entry primed for this day but, since it is the first of the year, it seemed to me I’d look at some interesting science that has happened in the last year.

I set myself some ground rules. I’m not going to talk about COVID. Certainly, there have been many, many scientific breakthroughs coming from trying to handle COVID-19. But talking about COVID means talking about the pandemic and I don’t want to. I’m also not going to talk about SPACEX. That company has done some pretty exciting things this year but Musk gets enough press. I don’t need to help him.

So I’m going to talk about things that I found particularly exciting.

Particle Physics

Quantum entanglement is one of the most interesting of quantum phenomenon. Entanglement between individual atoms is nothing new—in fact, such entanglement is the base for quantum computation. However, in recent years quantum entanglement between objects larger than individual atoms has been created.

This year, researches at the Niels Bohr Institute have entangled a mechanical oscillator and a cloud of atoms. They were entangled by photons. We’ve now seen that atomic size is no barrier to entanglement nor is there any barrier entangling groups of objects. Now, we can entangle objects that are different in kind as well as size and number. I’d say the sky was the limit but no doubt they’ll be able to entangle that as well, with time.

Going further with entanglement, one form is called a Bose-Einstein condensate. This is a collection of atoms entangled to act as a single unit. BECs have been made in the lab for years but their properties are still mysterious. No one expected them to exhibit superconductivity. Until now. There are a lot of theories on how superconductivity arises, many of them reflecting the material studied. With the addition of BECs to the mix, there are now tantalizing hints of an overarching theoretical basis for it.

Space

One of the exoplanets that seems close to being earth-like was “discovered” this year. Kepler-1659c came out of examining the volumes of information that came from the Kepler spacecraft.

Kepler-1659c orbits a red dwarf, is about 1.06 the mass of earth, gets about 75% of the light that earth does and is smack dab in the habitable zone. Its orbit is 19.5 earth days and could easily be tidally locked. Red dwarves have a tendency towards solar flares but no flares have been seen in observation. There’s some suggestion from other studies that as red dwarves age, they tend to flare less. Since they can live much longer than our sun, that gives life that much longer to evolve. The Kepler-1659 system is about 300 light years from earth.

The South Pole Wall is an enormous wall of galaxies about .5 billion light years away. It is dense over the celestial South Pole, giving the name. It was discovered in July by the University of Hawaii and resulted from starting to seriously survey that portion of the sky.

Betelgeuse became a celebrity this year. It’s getting bigger, no longer spherical, and, according to new measurements, is now smaller and closer than we thought.

Betelgeuse started dimming last year starting speculation whether it was going to go supernova. It’s a red giant. That’s what red giants do. UV observation showed Big B ejecting a mass of material away. The resulting ejecta cooled into a dust cloud that then came over its face, dimming its output.

This fall, a new study suggested that B is much smaller than previous thought. B was originally thought to be bigger than the orbit of Jupiter. This new study indicates it’s only about two thirds of that. Instead of being 650 light years away, it’s now considered more like 530 light years away. Far enough away it won’t kill us all when it goes off but close enough to put on a show.

And, of course, we can’t leave 2020 without talking about Chang’e 5, China’s lander that sent us back lunar samples for the first time in fifty years.

Biology

The concept of microbes living on air content is not a new one. Some have suggested that there just isn’t enough nutrition in the air to sustain life. Others have suggested there was. This was finally decided in 2017 by researchers in the University of New South Wales with their discovery of Antarctic microbes that live on air content. This year, the same group has discovered these or similar microbes in Antarctic, Arctic and Tibetan Plateau soils. This has some interesting implications. For one, though these microbes are not air borne, the fact they can live on nutrients in the air opens up exo-planetary niches for possible life forms. For another, there are very interesting potentially “habitable” zones in the upper atmosphere of Venus.

In fossil news, a five eyed missing link has shown us a possible origin of arthropods. Kylinxia was discovered in China in a layer of Cambrian fossils. It combines features from both arthropods (insects, crustacea, etc.) and features of Anomalocaris, a Cambrian predator thought to be one of the arthropod ancestors. The difference between Anomalocaris and modern arthropods is great suggesting that there was a missing link between them. Enter Kylinxia.

Going even further back, we have abiogenesis: life arising from non-life.

There have been experiments on this sort of thing going back to the fifties. A new software tool developed in Poland and South Korea models synthesis routes that could have taken place back in the pre-life days. This software product is called Allchemy.

There are a number of chemical processes that have to be encapsulated for a living organism to exist. These scientists took them one at a time and fed the data and environment to Allchemy to see what chemical synthetic pathways could have occurred. With this they were able to model the synthesis of nucleic acids, lipids, and proteins, among others. After two hours of operation, Alchemy showed possible pathways to the synthesis of 82 biotic molecules and 36k+ abiotic molecules.

There are three major chemical pathways that need to be demonstrated for a living system: new pathways of chemical reactions resulting from the combination of previous compounds. This allows chemical selection to occur. Second, self-regenerating cycles so chemical system can be perpetuated. Finally, surfactant production. Surfactants are required for a lot of things but one is cell membranes.

Coming forward in time from no life to actual life, another great change is the emergence of eukaryotes from prokaryotes—i.e., our kind of life from the rest of them.

Eukaryotes are cells with internal organelles: nuclei, mitochondria, and the like. Prokaryotes—Bacteria and Archaea—don’t have those. It’s long been thought that a prokaryote cell captured another prokaryote cell and the two hit it off. One of the candidates for this are the Asgard archaea. These have been proposed as the closest relative of eukaryotes. This new study discusses the isolation and culture of such an organism and describes it. It took twelve years.

With the organism now fully studied, they found significant relationships between their target organism and eurkaryotes and proposed a mechanism by which an Asgard archaea could transform into a eukaryotic cell as a adaptation to the rising oxygen levels of the time.

There’s a lot more out there. Google’s DeepMind outperformed human radiologists in detecting breast cancer. The LHC discovered a new particle composed of four quarks. Perseverance, a new Plutonium powered rover, was launched. Archeologists pushed back human colonization of the Americas back to thirty thousand years ago.

We see destruction and despair every day. So much that we think that it’s all there is.

It’s not. The world is moving forward. The things that I described here will remain long after the current round of petty recriminations and lies are gone.

 

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