A year of redefinitions and discoveries
Lounge looks at some key moments in the field of science and technology in 2018
The end of another year presents a great opportunity to look back at some of the scientific discoveries and milestones in technology in the past year. In March, the scientific world lost one of its brightest minds in the form of cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. But this was also the year scientists discovered a new cell (rosehip neuron) in the human brain. Space agencies worldwide took big steps to know more about the origins of Mars, while India laid out a blueprint for its second lunar exploration mission in 2019 and its first manned space mission by 2021.
The use and reach of artificial intelligence in our daily lives was a point of contention yet again. Gene editing—its ethics and practicality—remained in the spotlight, while the battle between what is fact and what is fake news continued. As expected, a lot of these issues and developments will continue to simmer and trickle into the new year. Here’s a quick look at some of the biggest moments in 2018 from the field of science and technology.
The kilogram gets redefined
Since 1889, the kilogram has been defined by a piece of platinum-iridium—the international prototype of the kilogram—at the headquarters of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in France. The prototype, despite being in a glass case, attracts dust and needs to be cleaned, and this handling affects its mass. In November, scientists met at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, France, and voted to change the definition of a kilogram, tying it to a universal constant in nature, the Planck constant, measured using a machine called the Kibble balance. The change will be effective from 20 May.
Donna Strickland’s Nobel win
In October, Donna Theo Strickland, a Canadian optical physicist, became the third woman ever to win a Nobel prize in Physics, joining an illustrious list that includes Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963). Strickland shared the prize with her doctoral advisor Gérard Mourou (and Arthur Ashkin for his unrelated research on optical tweezers). Strickland and Mourou’s work on chirped pulse amplification (CPA)—it creates short and intense laser pulses—has vital applications, including laser eye surgery and laser therapy for cancer. Doctors have already used it to perform millions of corrective laser eye surgeries.
Drones are one step closer to taking off
In August, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) finally announced its policy on the use of drones or remotely piloted aircraft systems in India, specifying five categories based on weight. All civil drone users will have to acquire the unmanned aircraft operator permit. The policy that came into effect on 1 December says drones can only be operated within the “Visual Line of Sight (VLOS), during day time only, and upto maximum 400 ft altitude”; it also lays down guidelines on their use near airports and eco-sensitive zones. The Digital Sky portal was launched soon after, where users can obtain permissions to fly drones.
Facebook was caught in a massive international data scandal involving the now defunct UK-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica when it came out that raw data of up to 87 million Facebook user profiles was harvested by Cambridge Analytica. Things went from bad to worse for Facebook over concerns that this personal data was used to influence the course and outcome of the 2016 US Presidential elections and the Brexit vote. By the end of March—almost two weeks after the privacy data scandal was initially exposed—Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for it by bringing out full-page advertisements in prominent US and UK dailies. “This was a breach of trust and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time,” Zuckerberg wrote. Currently, Facebook is in the eye of the storm again after The New York Times reported that the social media giant had shared user data with more than 150 companies, among them Netflix and Spotify, including, possibly, users’ private messages.
Pixel and iPhone face off as competition heats up
Apple and Google spent this year trying to outdo each other. While the latter released the successor to its Pixel 2 smartphone, Apple launched much-awaited, upgraded models. The company’s smartphone line-up for the year included the iPhone XR (starting from ₹76,900), XS and XS Max. Google introduced the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. Both companies released a host of other products at their flagship events, but it was the smartphones that made headlines. Simultaneously, the OnePlus 6 and 6T, Huawei’s P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro, and Samsung’s Galaxy S9 presented quite a challenge to the Pixels and iPhones of 2018.
Isro achieves more milestones
The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) made significant strides this year. Apart from launching the heaviest satellite it has ever built—the GSAT-11—in December, the space agency successfully launched the PSLV-C43 mission with 30 international co-passenger satellites on board in November. On the November mission, PSLV’s 45th flight, the primary satellite was the Hyperspectral Imaging Satellite (HysIS), an earth observation satellite built by Isro. According to the space agency’s website, data from the satellite will be used for a variety of applications, including agriculture, forestry and monitoring soil.
Discovery of potential a new organ
The most fascinating discovery about the human body this year was the identification of the interstitium—a network of “fluid-filled spaces” in “connective tissues all over the body”. The findings of the study, co-led by scientists of the New York University School of Medicine, were published in March in the journal Scientific Reports. The interstitium had remained undetected for years because of the way tissue samples were studied and were believed to be a “wall of collagen”. Researchers used a new imaging technique to study living tissue samples, instead of fixed tissue that has been drained of fluid, which led to this discovery.
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