A look back at the biggest scientific discoveries of the decade
After saying goodbye to the 2010s, let’s go back for a moment to a prolific decade in terms of discoveries. Over the past 10 years, scientists around the world have made considerable advances, improving our understanding of the human body, our planet and the universe around us. This decade also marks the advent of more international scientific collaboration than it has ever been. Today, new Scientific Discoveries come more often from a coalition of 3,000 scientists than from a group of 3 researchers.
Faced with these multiple discoveries, made possible by many people, the editors of National Geographic chose not to reduce this rich decade to a handful of advances. Here we have identified 20 major events that have particularly marked us and which we believe will pave the way for other fascinating discoveries over the next decade.
Gravitational waves detected for the first time
In 1916, Albert Einstein put forward a theory: when two objects having a certain mass accelerate, they can sometimes cause waves which cross space-time, like ripples on the surface of a pond. If Einstein later doubts their existence, these spatiotemporal “eddies” – called gravitational waves – constitute a key prediction of the theory of relativity, and their research captivates scientists for decades. Although tangible traces of these waves appeared for the first time in the 1970s, it was not until 2015 that they were really detected by the American observatory LIGO, which perceived the replica of a distant collision between two black holes. Announced in 2016, this discovery opens the way to a new way of probing the cosmos.
In 2017, LIGO and the European observatory Virgo identify another series of tremors, this time due to the collision between two ultra-dense celestial bodies called neutron stars. Telescopes around the world witness the explosion, a first in the observation of gravitational and light waves. These major data enlighten scientists on the functioning of gravity as well as on the formation of elements like gold and silver.
The decade was marked by many advances concerning the understanding of our origins: the establishment of new dates on known fossils, the discovery of surprisingly complete fossilized skulls as well as the addition of multiple unprecedented branches. In 2010, National Geographic itinerant explorer Lee Berger announced the discovery of one of our distant ancestors, Australopithecus sepia. Five years later, he reveals that fossils of a new species have been unearthed within the “cradle of humanity”, a network of karst caves in South Africa: Homo. nailed, a hominid whose anatomy in “mosaic” is as close to that of modern man as that of his cousins much older.
Asia has been the site of many major new scientific discoveries. In 2010, a team revealed that the DNA identified from a phalanx of a former Siberian inhabitant did not resemble that of any other modern human being; it is the first evidence of a mysterious line known today as the Denison’s. In 2018, stone tools dating back 2.1 million years are discovered in China, indicating the arrival of tool makers in Asia hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously thought. In 2019, researchers found fossils of Homo luzonensis in the Philippines, a new human species similar to Homo floresiensis, the Man of Florès. Finally, the discovery of stone tools on the island of Celebes predates the arrival of modern man, thus suggesting the presence of a third island hominid still unidentified in Southeast Asia.
Revolution in fossil DNA analysis
With the considerable improvement in DNA sequencing technologies, the advances that have marked this decade have allowed us to better understand the influence of our genetic past on modern humans. In 2010, researchers published the first almost complete genome of an ancient Homo sapiens, thus inaugurating a revolutionary decade in the analysis of the DNA of our ancestors. Since then, more than 3,000 fossil genomes were sequenced, including the DNA of Naia, a young girl who disappeared 13,000 years ago on the lands of present-day Mexico. It is one of the oldest intact human skeletons ever discovered on the American continent. Also in 2010, scientists announced the partial decryption of the Neanderthal human genome, the first tangible genetic evidence that 1 to 4% of the DNA of non-African human beings would come from these close cousins.
Another thunderclap: in 2018, researchers who analyzed fossil DNA revealed the discovery of a 90,000-year-old bone belonging to a teenage girl whose mother was Neanderthal and whose father was Denisovian, making her the first human being hybrid never discovered. In addition, by comparing Danilova’s human DNA to fossilized proteins, scientists have confirmed that the Denison’s once lived in Tibet, thereby expanding the known range of this mysterious group. As the field of study of fossil DNA has improved, ethical considerations, particularly relating to the need for community participation and the repatriation of human remains from indigenous populations, have also become increasingly important taken into account.
Discovery of thousands of Exo Planets
Our knowledge of planets orbiting distant stars has grown considerably over the past decade, much of which we owe to NASA’s Kepler space telescope. From 2009 to 2018, the telescope discovered more than 2,700 confirmed exo planets, more than half of all we know of. The first confirmed rock explant is among the greatest successes of the Kepler space mission. Launched in 2018, its successor TESS has started to probe the night skies and has already identified 34 confirmed explants.
Entering the Crispr era
The 2010s were marked by enormous progress in the field of genetic modification, mainly thanks to the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9. This system naturally plays the role of immune system in certain bacteria: it allows them to store bits of viral DNA, to recognize any future corresponding virus and to shred the DNA of said virus. In 2012, scientists suggested that CRISPR-Cas9 could serve as a powerful tool for modifying the genome, thanks to the precision with which it cuts DNA, conducive to personalization by researchers. A few months later, other teams confirm that this technique works on human DNA. Since then, laboratories around the world have launched a frantic race to identify other similar systems, to make CRISPR-Cas9 even more precise and to carry out experiments in the fields of agriculture and medicine.
While the potential benefits of CRISPR-Cas9 are immense, so are the ethical issues that this system poses. In 2018, Chinese researcher He Jeanie announced the birth of two little girls whose genome he had modified using CRISPR, the first human beings to be born with hereditary DNA changes, causing fear in the medical community. World is following this announcement, the demand for a global moratorium on hereditary genetic modifications in humans became stronger.