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The year 2021 was unusual in a significant way: Rapid advances in science and technology had an immediate and outsized impact on humanity.

The unprecedented warp-speed development of vaccines has helped bend the covid pandemic’s curve significantly. Over 9.2 billion vaccine doses have been administered so far in 184 countries around the world, at a rate just shy of about 40 million doses a day. The science of mRNA vaccines, represented by Moderna’s mRNA-1273 and Pfizer-BioNTech’s BNT162b2, in particular, are examples of truly futuristic science arriving early because of necessity. You may think of mRNA vaccines as being able to re-purpose human cells to become their own vaccine factories.

The year 2022 arrives with a similar promise from science and technology. Rapid genome sequencing, another covid-era contribution, combined with the innate ability of new vaccine platforms to adapt to virus variants has permitted the development of booster shots that can better tackle a pandemic caused by a pathogen that’s evolving. Pharmaceutical firms are also developing new anti-viral medicines that are making significant inroads in early treatment, as also for severe illness arising from the virus.

Even as we make progress on current vaccines and therapeutic protocols, we may see new protein-based vaccines, an earlier and fairly well-established vaccine development method. We may also see the arrival of our first DNA-based vaccines that would be cheaper to make and more readily storable at room temperature. Moreover, there are early signs that the mRNA revolution may be extendable to vaccines against malaria, HIV and Lyme disease. If a vaccine can be developed to combat the malarial plasmodium parasite, it will have a huge positive impact on public health, since malaria is the largest of all killers among communicable diseases.

The ongoing revolution in physics and space science is just as exciting. After a multi-year shutdown, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern in Geneva will restart operations. Even though the LHC has led to the discovery of over 50 new particles, the last major discovery was that of the so-called “God particle" or Higgs boson in 2012 (the name ‘boson’ is given to an entire class of particles named after Indian scientist S.N. Bose). Physicists are searching for new evidence that will advance their thinking beyond the ‘Standard Model’. During this 50th anniversary year of the LHC, construction on China’s circular electron-positron collider (CEPC), which will be world’s largest particle accelerator with a circumference of 100km, is expected to begin. To mix some physics metaphors, the centre of gravity for particle accelerators is shifting east.

There was a lot of visible hype on space tourism and hypersonic weapons in 2021. Space science has made giant strides beyond these widely reported accomplishments. China’s Chang’e 5 craft landed on the dark side of the moon at the turn of last year, but its experiments are continuing with its Yutu 2 moon rover. The Sun has been experiencing a relatively quiet time over the last decade, but is exiting that phase now. Its eruptions have begun to spew charged particles towards Earth, triggering large geo-magnetic storms and potentially causing brilliant auroras, satellite disruptions and energy losses. Iceland may even be able to base its tourist-attraction strategy on these auroras.

The successful launch of a new major space telescope, James Webb (JWST), took place as last year drew to a close. The JWST will replace the Hubble telescope, but is 100 times more powerful and will orbit about a million miles away from the Earth’s surface (and will orbit the Sun rather than the Earth at a distance more than 2,500 times Hubble’s orbit). The JWST will join the company of two other space observatories, Herschel and Planck, at a location called Lagrange 2. The infrared telescopy of JWST could offer new insights into the expanding and accelerating universe (and the science of dark matter), just as Hubble settled the question on the origin of the universe. Between quantum mechanics and the universe, exciting things are in store for chemical biology, nanotechnology, quantum computers and artificial organs.

India’s contribution to theoretical physics and mathematics continues unabated, and 2022 should be no exception. The Infosys science prize winners in these fields over the years are representative of India’s accomplishments and potential. In areas that require significant resources, Indian efforts have focused on adapting basic science to frugal technology. Our space missions to the Moon and Mars, development of the world’s only large-scale interoperable payment system, and accomplishments in missile design and deployment are examples of this. During the pandemic, the country’s global contribution was as a major vaccine manufacturer, a continuation of its usual role.

As with everything else in modern society, the lead time between basic science and its conversion to technology, as also the time taken to impact our lives, is rapidly reducing. Even as the world faces major threats like climate change, cyber wars and the possible emergence of new zoonotic diseases, the role that science plays will impact all of us, and at quite some speed. Year 2022 will extend and accelerate the forces of change that began two years ago.

P.S. “You can’t stop change anymore than you can stop the suns from setting," said Shmi Skywalker in the Star Wars series.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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