2021’s scientific breakthroughs

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As the curtains eventually came down on 2020, the triumphant and supposed nullification of Covid-19 promised great optimism for the New Year. And despite the pandemic’s rebuttal and subsequent resurgence, innovation in science continued to astound in 2021.

Greater understanding of phenomena — either beyond the mesosphere or within the microcosm of our anatomy — demonstrates the range with which achievements were accomplished across the breadth of the scientific continuum. Here, we look back at some of the triumphs that have defined such a ground-breaking year.

Covid-19: vaccine rollout and developments

The material disconnect between media curiosity and non-virological scientific endeavours continues to strengthen as a result of the pandemic’s unrelenting grip on society. Nonetheless, scientists’ unwavering commitment to halting the virus undoubtedly deserves an inclusion.

The unchartered speed of some countries’ vaccination schemes showcased the perseverance of those converting curiosity-driven research into effective distribution. The pace and scale defied the complexity required of drug-delivery models. Despite the notable limitations of new mutations and a continuing vaccine inequality gap, the development of the vaccine was a product of public sector, private sector and civil society co-operation; it typifies the potentiality of human teamwork when working toward the preservation of life.

Further to this, the ingenuities of the specific mechanisms belying the SARS-CoV-2 vaccinations have encouraged further areas of research over the last year. Studies have since alluded to the viability of messenger RNA vaccines within a multitude of applications as it possesses the ability to manufacture large swathes of complex antigens. The unanimous verdict amongst scientists is that mRNA-based technology is the catalyst from which the future of medicine may evolve.

The private space race

The exploration of space has only just infiltrated commercial territory but the implications are far-reaching. Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk are among the wealthy individuals propelling privately funded vehicles beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. With long-term ambitions converging toward affordable space settlement, 2021 has witnessed several space missions that look to convert such a utopian vision into a reality.

In July, the founders of Virgin Galactic Holdings and Blue Origin battled to become the first nonprofessional astronaut to complete a sub-orbital flight. Though Branson won on this occasion, it is another player within this industry that has proceeded to make the greatest advances. Having previously launched several satellites to build a commercial internet service, SpaceX has also outlined its intention to venture into the space-for-space economy. As of September, it successfully executed orbital flight with a crew entirely comprised of civilians. The journey lasted three days and circled at an altitude higher than the International Space Station.

With the space tourism industry beginning to attract more consumer and investment attention, 2021 was a year where significant milestones were realised in a bid to increase space’s universal accessibility.

Redefining our understanding of space

2021 also saw the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. The $10 billion apparatus’ purpose is to understand and study the history of the universe. Though the lift-off was a momentous event, given 30 years of rigorous engineering, the deployment sequences to be undertaken by this incredibly complex instrument necessitates 140 release mechanisms and has precisely 344 single points of failure. The logistical challenge is undoubtedly immense and yet it could have the potential to elucidate humanity’s greatest question: where did we come from?

Members of Durham University have also achieved pioneering interstellar achievements. This includes the ground-breaking work achieved by a team of astronomers, marshalled by Dr Leah Morabito, whose high-resolution images captured the universe in an unforeseen light. Physics Professor Simone Scaringi contributed to our comprehension of blackholes. The research effectively linked the dimensions of Supermassive Black Holes to their feeding patterns, and is hoped to aid and alter the process by which they are classified.

In 2021, we have seen humanity show rapid adaptability in the face of hugely unprecedented challenges. We can only wish for the same in the new year.

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