Standout science and technology in 2015
By Noel McKeegan, Gizmag, 30 December 2015.
By Noel McKeegan, Gizmag, 30 December 2015.
The blistering advance of technology we are experiencing in the 21st century is nothing short of mind-boggling, and the rate of change being exponential, 2015 was by definition the busiest year yet. So before the Gregorian calendar keels over into 2016, let's take a wander through some of the year's most significant, salutary and attention-grabbing examples of scientific achievement, technological innovation and human endeavor.
1. From the lab
It's been over a century since Einstein postulated the wave/particle duality of light, but it wasn't until earlier this year that was directly observed by EPFL researchers, who captured the phenomena by using a sophisticated electron imaging technique.
Across the Atlantic geochemists discovered that life on Earth started hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought, engineers figured out how to make 3D objects from the much-vaunted wonder material graphene, and physicists set a new distance record for quantum teleportation of information over optical fibres.
Audi created a stir with the creations of synthetic diesel from just water and carbon dioxide, as did UAB researchers when they created the first experimental wormhole that links two regions of space magnetically. But perhaps the oddest thing to emerge from the lab in 2015 was an unboiled egg, which may or may not go well with a newly discovered strain of seaweed that tastes like bacon.
2. Getting quite brainy
While the ability to fully map the human brain may be some way off, if it's even possible at all, our ability to both understand and imitate its complexities took some serious strides forward in 2015. Examples include the development of a brain imaging tool that can see all of the brain's cellular objects and many of their sub-cellular components, a lab grown "brain organoid" equivalent in size and structure to that of a five-week old foetus, intelligence boosting gene therapy (for mice only at this stage), successfully using brainwaves to help a paralyzed man walk again and an array of new approaches to combating cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's disease.
Fifty years after Moore's Law was conceived, there were many advances that could ensure computing power continues to accelerate exponentially, including the use of memresistors to create advanced computers that function like the human brain. News of the first biologically-powered computer chip emerged just this month and the long-sought goal of practical quantum computing also crept closer on several fronts, with breakthroughs such as photonic processors, quantum hard drives and silicon-based quantum logic gates.
3. Celebrating space
2015 saw a string of stunning achievements in space exploration, but it is most likely to be remembered as the year we got to Pluto - at least, the New Horizons probe did, sending back beautiful, invaluable images and data from the dwarf planet and its moons some 3 billion miles away.
Some significant space anniversaries also passed in 2015, namely 25-years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and half a century since the first space walk.
But the biggest thing in space this year was the biggest thing in space - a newly-discovered ring of nine galaxies 7 billion light years away and 5 billion light years wide that covers a third of our sky.
In skies closer to home, the age of commercial space flight rolled on with SpaceX providing the clear highlight by successfully nailing the first landing of an orbital space booster rocket earlier this month.
4. Printing the future
While 3D printing had already moved well beyond plastic trinkets, 2015 saw it begin to show its true potential as an industrial process. Perhaps more accurately described as "additive manufacturing" in this context, we saw this process used to create the first 3D-printed jet engine, the first FAA approved jet engine part, and a jet-powered unmanned aerial vehicle that can reach speeds of up to 150 mph (240 km/h). Add in a variety of body parts, including replacement titanium sternum and rib cage, teeth, hair, houses, bricks and cars, and you begin to get the picture of just how far-reaching this technology is set to become.
Our pick for the most thought-provoking object to emerge from a 3D printer this year is Mushtari - a 3D-printed photosynthetic wearable embedded with living bacteria designed to produce sugars or bio-fuel when exposed to light. Conceived as a kind of living spacesuit, this wearable microbiome would act like an organ system to ingest biomass, absorb nutrients, and then eject waste products when exploring other worlds.
5. Robots evolve
Perhaps the most unnerving news from the world of robotics this year came from the University of Cambridge, where researchers created a mother robot that can not only build its own children, but mimic the process of natural selection to improve their capabilities with each generation.
Despite this slightly depressing news, watching the world's most advanced robots struggle to open doors at the DARPA robotics challenge finals does suggest we have a little way to go before robot armageddon strikes - though we shouldn't dismiss that scenario, as we were reminded in July when over 1,000 robotics and artificial intelligence researchers urged the UN to ban on the development of weaponized AI. We also saw the beginnings of another, somewhat surprising element of AI begin to take shape - the creative potential of robots as painters, musicians, architects and storytellers.
6. High energy
This year saw renewable energy overtake coal in the UK's energy mix, Portland install water pipes in that generate their own electricity, the Wendelstein 7-x experimental fusion reactor fire up and solar energy - particularly cheap Perovskite cells - continue to advance, but innovations in the energy storage arena also grabbed our attention at Gizmag. Tesla unveiled its home battery storage system, Daimler and Nissan gave used EV batteries a second lease of life and solar energy and a number of promising new battery technologies made headlines, including lithium-air batteries, flow batteries and energy dense hybrid supercapacitors.
7. Recorded history
Finally, let's see out the year with a quick look at some of the record-breaking feats that 2015 delivered. The world's thinnest light-bulb was created using (surprise, surprise) graphene, the largest astronomical image of all time - at 46-billion pixels - was complied, a robot walked 83 miles in 54 hours, a maglev train hit 375 mph (603 km/h), Stuttgart University students took an EV from 0-62 mph (100 km/h) in a blistering 1.779 seconds, and a Canadian cyclist clocked 85.71 mph (137.9 km/h) to set a new world record for human-powered speed.
Of course, we've only just scratched the surface when it comes to significant moments in science and technology, let alone the biggest news of the year across the many fields that Gizmag covers, so for a closer look at more of the best 2015 had to offer, follow these links:
Top image: Super-close-up reconstructed view of a mouse brain with the synaptic vesicles (little white dots that store neurotransmitters) visible. Credit: Harvard University.
[Source: Gizmag. Edited.]