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The Year in Review: Scientific and Technological Achievements from 2016

Sahil Sangwan, Staff Writer

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2016 has been a year of great change and upheaval. Popular discontent rocked the political world, causing significant disruption to long-standing trends in society. From the U.S. presidential election to Britain’s exit from the E.U. and Austria’s near-election of a far-right prime minister, there is much cause for either cheer or woe. Despite the recent emergence of divisions and tensions that would seem to threaten our society, we continue to progress towards a better future. Whether you feel hopeful or miserable about the events that have unfolded over the course of the past year, it is undeniable that the human race has made significant scientific and technological advances. As 2016 came to a close, what better way is there to celebrate its passage than by recalling mankind’s latest and greatest achievements?

Self-driving cars are closer than ever to becoming a reality. Several automakers, including Ford and Volvo, joined the fray to develop a self-driving vehicle in 2016 and release fully autonomous vehicles within the next few years. Other companies, such as Tesla and Google, are improving their existing products. Tesla’s Autopilot system, released via a software update, includes autonomous lane-changing, speed control and parking capabilities. Google’s self-driving car enterprise, named Waymo in 2016, will have a finished autonomous car on the market by 2017. Automakers are trying to develop fully autonomous cars rather than create semi-autonomous models, primarily due to safety concerns. Completely independent cars will hopefully minimize the risk of accidents caused by driver error; coming decades may see them replace manually driven cars altogether.

In February 2016, the Google-owned robotics company Boston Dynamics unveiled their latest version of the humanoid Atlas robot. Remarkably lighter and more agile than previous models, the latest Atlas robot is a promising step towards human-like machines. Important aspects in developing a humanoid robot include bipedal movement, which is difficult to replicate in machines, and quick readjustment, which will help the robot maintain its balance. The newest Atlas model has a host of sensors to accomplish this, and- in a new breakthrough- can also pick itself up after falling. It is currently being designed for use in search and rescue operations or similar scenarios.

September 2016 saw shock waves reverberate in the smartphone industry after two significant occurrences: Samsung’s massive recall of all Galaxy Note7 phones, and Apple’s release of the iPhone 7 product line not long afterwards. Numerous incidents of fires and battery failures with the Note7 prompted an eventual ban on sales and total recall of the product by Samsung; the cause was later determined to be the lithium-ion batteries in the phone. The timing for Samsung could not be worse, since Apple ended up releasing the iPhone 7 in the midst of the crisis. The new iPhone featured several improvements and breaks from previous models, including water and splash resistance, improved battery life, and an absence of the audio jack (headphones now use the lightning port, which is also used for data transfers and charging).

The Zika virus emerged as a threat to public health in 2016, especially in South America and the Caribbean. The virus, which is spread by mosquitos, was confirmed to be locally spread in the United States in Florida and Texas. The health concerns caused by Zika even overshadowed the Olympic games in Brazil, where it has caused multiple infections and birth defects. The most troubling aspect of this little-researched disease is its ability to spread from a pregnant mother to her fetus. There is a 6% chance of that fetus going on to develop microcephaly or other congenital defects; this risk jumps to 11% if the mother is infected during the first trimester of her pregnancy. No vaccine or medication currently exists for this disease; fortunately, the World Health Organization has declared that it no longer constitutes an international concern to public health.

On a more positive note, promising results from an Ebola vaccine trial were published in the journal The Lancet this December. The vaccine, known as rVSV-ZEBOV, was tested by the World Health Organization and affiliated international partners. With an estimated efficacy of 100%, it gives hope for a future without ebola. The latest epidemic of the deadly virus, which primarily affected West African nations, has virtually ended. Although the results of this study emerged after this fact, it will likely prevent an outbreak on a similar scale from occurring ever again.

The field of genetic engineering was simultaneously revolutionized and plunged into serious debate during 2016. The advent of three-parent babies and the development of gene drive technology, both of which have serious implications from their respective uses, could utterly change the world. The first three-parent baby, born in April 2016, is living proof of a new technique that may end inherited mitochondrial disorders. Using a method known as spindle-transfer, scientists inserted the DNA from a mother’s egg cell into an empty donor egg cell; this emptied cell contained healthy mitochondria that would be passed on to the child after fertilization. Though revolutionary, this technique still requires perfection before it will become widely used. Gene drive technology was another significant breakthrough from 2016. Using DNA editing methods, scientists are able to integrate desired “edits” into a species’ genome. Although they may make an organism less fit for survival, the gene drive will ensure that it spreads to all the offspring of a particular organism, potentially converting an entire wild population to a modified one. It is expected that this will soon be applied to disease-carrying organisms, especially mosquitos; an edit that would sterilize females in the population could wipe out that population, thereby preventing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. It remains under serious contention, as activists and scientists consider the implications of eradicating an entire species.

An important part of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, developed early in the 20th century, was proven in a report published in February 2016. Gravitational waves, whose existence was only theorized for a long time, were finally observed here on Earth from the collision of two massive black holes over a billion years ago. When LIGO (the observatory dedicated to finding instances of this phenomenon) released the news of their findings, it was met with great attention and excitement. Physicists hope that this discovery might be applied elsewhere, to solve other mysteries of the universe.

If we look beyond what made 2016 a very polarizing year, there are a great number of things that indicate our progress towards a better future. Mankind is steadily marching towards an era in which the fundamental principles of the universe are no longer a mystery, a time where formerly deadly diseases will become a thing of the past, and a future where ever-smarter technology will make our lives safer and easier. Despite the emergence of divisions in our society and upheavals that have left many in shock (and many others in joy), the significant strides made by the human race in several fields of science and technology indicate that our civilization is headed in a positively brighter direction.

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The Year in Review: Scientific and Technological Achievements from 2016