Each year at this time, the magazine Science chooses a major breakthrough, together with nine runners-up. The 2019 Breakthrough of the Year is the first-ever image of a black hole (© NASA). While their presence is revealed by gravitational waves emitted from their collisions, nobody had ever seen one directly – until April this year. An international team of astronomers created the Event Horizon Telescope, a consortium of observatories located in Chile, USA, Mexico, Spain and at the South Pole. The image that emerged was “a glorious affirmation of theory,” consistent with Albert Einstein’s prediction from general relativity. Now, on to the runners-up.
(1) Sixty-six million years ago a giant asteroid struck Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, leading to the disappearance of 76% of the world’s species, including dinosaurs. Examination of an 835-metre core revealed a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the events immediately following the impact. (2) A new technique for analysing the DNA of fossilised bones has enabled researchers to infer physical features of a Denisovan girl (seen below left, © Maayan Harel), “a mysterious human ancestor who ranged across Asia until 50,00 years ago.” (3) The Ebola virus has been a deadly, incurable infection for over 40 years but this year scientists finally identified two drugs that reduce the death rate dramatically.
(4) In October, physicists at Google announced that their quantum computer had reached “quantum supremacy” by solving a problem in 3 minutes that would have taken a supercomputer 10,000 years. (5) It took a group of Japanese scientists 12 years to grow a mysterious deep-sea microbe that could shed light on the ultimate ancestry of all humans. (6) On the first day of 2019 the New Horizons spacecraft, exploring beyond Neptune, sent back photographs of a 36km-wide object 6.6 billion kilometres from Earth, a remnant of the early years of our Solar System.
(7) Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disorder that affects the lungs and digestive system, and few patients live beyond their mid-40s. A new treatment called Trikafta – based on a combination of three drugs – has emerged, but a shadow hangs over the excitement: a price tag of $300,000 per annum. (8) On a positive note, international researchers have developed a low-cost supplement to stimulate the growth of beneficial gut bacteria in severely malnourished children.
(9) The final runner-up for 2019 is an artificial intelligence (AI) program that beat the world’s best poker players. Although the program has learnt to bluff – a key strategy in poker – it cannot adapt to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses. Nevertheless, it may be time for humans to cash in their chips!