ON JANUARY 19TH 2019 The Economist published a story about plans that were being laid for a rapid response to “Disease X”. The idea was to develop a technological platform which could be tailored quickly to the specifics of any as-yet-unknown pathogen, in order to create a new vaccine against it within months. One of the leading approaches used genetic messenger molecules called mRNA.
A year to the week later, Disease X turned up. China’s authorities admitted to the world that, the previous month, doctors in Wuhan had noticed cases of illness caused by a novel coronavirus. The pre-eminent scientific and technological story of 2020 has thus been of medical researchers struggling, first, to work out how best to treat those who had contracted this virus and how to slow its spread, and then, how to develop a vaccine against it. That led to the announcements of three successful candidate vaccines—made by Pfizer and BioNTech; Moderna, and AstraZeneca and Oxford University. The first two of these are, indeed, mRNA vaccines.
Pre-eminent though covid-19 was in the stories we reported during 2020, however, it was by no means the only one of scientific and technological interest. And, in the long term, some of the others may be equally, if not more important.
The development of new energy technologies that might help curb global warming by reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, for example, continues apace. Batteries good enough to consign the internal-combustion engine to the history books by the pull of demand rather than the push of regulation are close at hand (here, and also here). And the use of hydrogen as a means of storing and transporting energy, in parallel with electricity, is also gathering support (here, and also here).
The world of artificial intelligence, too, is changing fast. The first commercial robots with legs have appeared. Military jets may have AI pilots in the not too distant future. And machines’ abilities to handle human languages are improving by leaps and bounds. The past year also saw the solution by AI of a crucial problem in biology, which is how to predict how proteins fold into the correct shapes to do their jobs. This may be of great importance in the process of drug discovery. Also, quantum computing, still largely an experimental technology, has made tentative steps towards commercialisation.
More speculatively, the search for extraterrestrial life continued in 2020 in both a long-predicted and an unexpected way. The long-predicted way, which will come to fruition in February 2021, was the dispatch in July of a flotilla of spacecraft to Mars. One of these, an American rover called Perseverance, is designed to look for fossil signs of microbial activity. The unexpected way was the announcement, in September, of the discovery of a gas called phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. On Earth, phosphine’s only known sources are living organisms (some of whom, admittedly, are industrial chemists), so this finding caused excitement among astrobiologists, even though subsequent investigations have poured a certain amount of scepticism on it.
Somewhat nearer home, but still in space, the Moon has been found to host a lot more water (in the form of ice) than was previously suspected. This makes the idea of setting up bases there more plausible. And nearer still to Earth, Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX launched its first manned mission, transporting two astronauts to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA, America’s space agency.
Back on terra (or, rather, glacies) firma, but still in a fairly hostile environment, the Arctic Ocean, a ship called Polarstern attempted to recapitulate the journey in the late 19th century of a Norwegian expedition led by Fridtjof Nansen, by freezing itself into the pack ice and letting that ice’s movement carry it past the north pole. While it was so drifting, researchers on board investigated the ice, the water below, the air above and the creatures that live in them. Meanwhile, America’s Defence Advanced Projects Agency is promoting two even larger scale environmental-monitoring endeavours. One, the Ocean of Things, proposes to fill the seas with cheap, floating sensors. The other, AtmoSense, will repurpose an entire layer of the atmosphere, the ionosphere, as a single, Earth-spanning sensor.
Finally, and hardly surprisingly, renewed effort is being directed towards preventing future pandemics. That might seem to some to be a shutting of the stable door after the horse has bolted. But this is a stable that surely has other horses lurking within it.