Mars missions, record‑breaking wildfires and a room‑temperature superconductor are among this year’s top non‑COVID stories.
By Davide Castelvecchi, Jeff Tollefson, Emma Stoye & Alexandra Witze
Although a single cataclysmic event gained most attention this year — the COVID pandemic — there were many other newsworthy developments in science and research, from daring space missions to room-temperature superconductors.
It was a landmark year for space exploration. Three Mars missions launched in July, when the geometry of Earth and Mars aligned in a way that made it efficient to send spacecraft to the red planet. The United Arab Emirates launched its first interplanetary mission, Hope, which will orbit Mars and study its weather. China launched Tianwen-1, which includes a rover and is the nation’s first attempt to land on Mars. And the United States sent Perseverance, a rover that will drill and gather rock samples at the as-yet-unexplored Jezero Crater, just north of the Martian equator. Perseverance is the first stage of a planned NASA/European Space Agency partnership that aims to bring Martian rocks back to Earth for study for the first time.
NASA also made progress in its first attempt to return samples from an asteroid. In October, the agency’s OSIRIS-REx mission scooped up dust and rocks from the asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft is due back on Earth in 2023 — but it won’t be the first to collect material from an asteroid’s surface. In early December, Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission beat OSIRIS-REx to the punch, landing safely in Australia with a handful of dust from the asteroid Ryugu.
China took an ambitious step in exploring the Moon, by launching its first-ever spacecraft aimed at bringing dust back to Earth. The Chang’e-5 mission landed on the volcanic plain known as Oceanus Procellarum on 1 December and filled a container with scoops of lunar dirt. An ascent vehicle then blasted off from the Moon’s surface on 3 December, and successfully docked with the orbiter intended to bring it back to Earth.
Fire and ice
It was also a year of environmental extremes, beginning in January with unprecedented wildfires across Australia. Out-of-control blazes and bushfire smoke killed several hundred people, destroyed thousands of homes and devastated ecosystems. Despite disruption to fieldwork-based research, biologists raced to document the inferno’s impacts on biodiversity, and archaeologists investigated the damage to thousands of ancient Indigenous sites.
Similarly devastating scenes unfolded around the globe, as record-setting wildfires scorched the Siberian tundra, tropical wetlands in South America and the western United States. In California, fires threatened both the 132-year-old Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton near San Jose and the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena.
The Atlantic hurricane season also broke records, with 30 named storms, 12 of which made landfall in the United States. Arctic sea ice shrank to its second-lowest extent on record in September, and in Antarctica, scientists continued to probe the massive and increasingly unstable Thwaites Glacier, which perches at the edge of the continent. Data gathered by a robotic submarine, which suggest that warm water is welling up and mixing underneath the ice, stoked fears that the glacier is headed for collapse.
International climate talks were put on ice, as pandemic travel restrictions delayed the United Nations’ much-anticipated COP26 climate summit until next year. However, several governments strengthened their climate commitments. China pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060, and Japan set a goal of net zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. The European Union, which is also aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050, put forward ambitious new short-term emissions targets. And many are hopeful that Joe Biden’s win in the US presidential election will augur a shift towards more-climate-friendly policies there.
It wasn’t just climate scientists who celebrated Biden’s victory in November. Once Biden takes office on 20 January 2021, he will have an opportunity to reverse many policies introduced by the administration of Donald Trump that were damaging to science and public health. As well as more-aggressive policies on climate change and the environment, Biden has promised a more science-led response to the COVID-19 pandemic and pledged to reverse travel bans and make it easier for foreign scientists and engineers to stay permanently in the United States.
In Europe, researchers continued to voice concerns about the potential impacts of Brexit on funding and international collaboration. The United Kingdom left the European Union on 31 January but another important Brexit milestone comes on 31 December, when the nation’s 11-month ‘transition period’ expires. Despite this looming deadline, many issues affecting scientists — including access to EU research programmes — remain unresolved.
Spotlight on inequality
Scientists were among the millions of protesters who gathered around the world in 2020 to denounce racism and police brutality in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May. Researchers shared their experiences of racism in science, and called for stronger action to address systemic inequalities. Many major scientific organizations released public messages supporting the newly energized Black Lives Matter movement. And on 10 June, thousands of researchers, along with scientific societies, universities and organizations (including Nature), stopped work to reflect on and plan how to fight anti-Black racism in science, following an online campaign that urged the community to #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia and #StrikeForBlackLives.
Some universities have now moved forward with plans to change the names of campus buildings, programmes and memorials dedicated to historical figures who had racist or discriminatory beliefs. And researchers are exploring interventions that could help to combat racism and rein in the use of force in police work. In October, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, became the first major biomedical-research organization to commit to making financial reparation for the continued use of cells from Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman. In 1951, doctors took cancerous cells from Lacks without her consent, and later created the HeLa cell line, which today supports a multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry.
It was a year of firsts for condensed-matter physics. Researchers demonstrated a room-temperature superconductor — a material that conducts electricity without any waste heat and that can operate well above 0 °C. The long-awaited breakthrough comes with a significant footnote: so far, such a material can exist only at pressures close to those at the centre of Earth, limiting its usefulness.
Another team found the first definitive evidence for ‘braided’ electronic states, called anyons — a step towards a new way of building a quantum computer. And a physics laboratory aboard the International Space Station produced the first Bose–Einstein condensate — a gas that behaves as a single atom — at zero gravity. The technique could make it possible to reach record low temperatures of 20-trillionths of a degree above absolute zero, enabling longer and more elaborate experiments on such condensates than are possible on Earth.
Meanwhile, the world of pure mathematics was shocked by the official publication of the baffling papers of Shinichi Mochizuki, even though his eight-year-old claim to have cracked a major problem in number theory — called the abc conjecture — remains controversial.
And two major breakthroughs will make it easier to understand the structure of proteins. First, the technique of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) reached single-atom resolution, approaching the precision of the well-established — but more cumbersome — X-ray crystallography. Second, machine learning was for the first time used successfully to deduce the structure of proteins from their genetic code in a way that approximates to what experimental techniques can achieve. Structural biologists say the ‘AlphaFold’ system, developed by London-based AI powerhouse DeepMind, a sister company of Google, could be a game-changer for drug discovery.