Thanks, Science! The Best Discoveries of 2021

Happy 2022!  2021 was certainly…a year.  Although things have not been easy, 2021 was a benchmark year for science.  The biggest science story of 2021 is undoubtedly the effort to develop and distribute vaccines across the entire world, all while responding our ever-evolving and wily foe, COVID.  The scientific community across the world has seen some of its darkest and its finest hours in this worldwide fight, and we at High Touch High Tech salute every single scientific professional involved in this profound historical moment. 

In times like these, it’s easy for other scientific discoveries to slip through the cracks.  As 2022 dawns, let’s take a moment to ponder some of the other discoveries that made 2021 such an important year for science.

1.  THE MARS ROVER

People all over the world cheered when both the United States, and later China, landed autonomous rovers on Mars.  For the Perseverance Mars Rover Team, it first involved a hair-raising parachute landing on Mars.  Since the Perseverance Rover landed, it has been able to launch a mini-helicopter that was the first controlled human flight on another planet.  It has also converted Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen to prove it could be done for future colonization on Mars, and begun to do what it was specially designed for: gathering samples of Mars that will be sent back to earth in hopes of detecting signs of alien life.  The Perseverance Rover could revolutionize our understanding of our place in the universe by answering one of the biggest questions in all of science!

https://mars.nasa.gov/news/9036/nasas-perseverance-rover-collects-puzzle-pieces-of-mars-history/

Photo:
Joyradost
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2.  FIRST HUMANS IN THE AMERICAS

23,000 years ago, a rather flat-footed teenager walked along the shores of an ancient lake that is now located in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park.  In 2021, this now-fossilized stroll revolutionized our understanding of how long humans have been in the Americas, and opened fascinating new questions of how humans arrived here.  It was once believed that Indigenous Americans had only been in America for about 13,000 years, descended from a small band that migrated across a land bridge in Asia.  These footprints, described by archaeologist Ciprian Ardelean as “very close to finding the Holy Grail,” cast the old theory, known as “Clovis First” into serious doubt.  The footprints were made at a time when it is believed that glaciers had walled off passage to the Americas, raising intriguing new questions about Indigenous American arrival.  Could it have been by sea?  We hope the coming years will bring us more answers to this fascinating mystery.

https://www.discovery.com/science/new-23-000-year-old-human-footprints-discovered-in-america

3.  PIG ORGAN TRANSPLANTED INTO A HUMAN

This milestone medical breakthrough was understandably overshadowed by other issues in global public health, but it represents a moment that both medical researchers and their patients have been waiting for for years.  In October 2020, doctors in New York City’s Langone Medical Center transplanted a kidney from a genetically-altered pig into a human.  They were able to monitor the transplant extensively and confirmed that it was working normally, although the long-term prospect of rejection is still unknown.  The field of “Xenotransplantation,” or transplanting tissues from non-humans into humans, is still new but could soon develop a sustainable source of organs for people in need across the world.

https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/20/health/human-pig-kidney-transplant-scli-intl-scn/index.html

Photo:
Adyah Ningtyas
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Common
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4.  WORLD’S OLDEST ANIMAL ART

The discovery of a very big Warty Pig painted in a cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia, pushed the earliest known instance of an animal image back by several thousand years.   Sketched in red ochre, the Warty Pig (pictured above – it’s a real species still living in Indonesia today), was dated by the mineral formations on its surface.  It’s not the oldest known painting in the world – hand stencils in a cave in Spain or possibly even a drawn-on rock from South Africa may be older.  But, the previous record-holder for oldest animal image comes from France’s Chauvet Cave, with a date of 33,000 years ago.  The Warty Pig painting doesn’t just tell us more about the birth of human symbolic and abstract thinking, it also provides the earliest evidence of human settlement in the region, giving more credence to the theory that early humans migrated from Africa to Australia 65,000 years ago.

https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/01/14/archaeologists-have-discovered-worlds-oldest-animal-cave-painting

Photo:
Pablo Carlos Budassi
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

5.  FIRST PLANET OUTSIDE OF THE MILKY WAY GALAXY

In the wonderfully-named Whirlpool Galaxy (pictured above), only 28 million light years away, astronomers have pinpointed a large and as-yet-mysterious planet, the first ever identified outside of our own Milky Way Galaxy.  The planet seems to be orbiting a star that itself is orbiting with an extremely dense object, possibly a neutron star or black hole. The dense object causes the X-rays from the star’s gas to glow, and the possible exoplanet was spotted when it passed in front of the glow.  Believed to be about the size of Saturn, the exoplanet may not return to visibility for 70 years, but it does reinforce the potential of X-ray wavelengths as a strategy to locate distant planets.

https://www.npr.org/2021/10/26/1049282754/nasa-new-planet-discovered-outside-milky-way-galaxy

Photo:
Mike Pennington / Stegosaurus skeleton, National Museums of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

In case you want more scientific breakthroughs (and who doesn’t?) here are a few more amazing discoveries from 2021:

THE MALARIA VACCINE:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7227679/

THE LOST GOLDEN CITY OF LUXOR, EGYPT:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-56686448

TINY ANIMALS REVIVED AFTER 24,000 YEARS IN PERMAFROST:

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2279992-tiny-animal-revived-after-24000-years-entombed-in-siberian-permafrost/

HUMAN GENOME 100% SEQUENCED:

https://phys.org/news/2021-06-sequenced-entire-human-genome.html

SUPER COOL ARMORED STEGOSAURUS:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-12-02/dinosaur-has-resemblance-to-aztec-weapon/100667992

Sources and Further Reading:

National Geographic:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/graphics/the-21-most-fascinating-scientific-discoveries-of-2021?loggedin=true

Inverse:

https://www.inverse.com/wtf-science-discoveries-2021

The Natural History Museum of Utah:

https://nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2021/top-science-stories-2021

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