Fiction Turned Science: The Most Amazing Science News Of 2016

This year has seen a lot of pain and heartbreak on a global scale, with many tragic events that seemingly just keep piling on. However, there is a bit of light in it all:

Thousands of scientists all over the globe have been hard at work and have made some amazing discoveries, created impressive devices, and achieved seemingly incredible successes. Some of the stuff is literally like it’s taken out of a sci-fi show, and it seems that we are only getting started.

Don’t believe me?

Check out this list, and maybe you will:

Bionic eyes enter human testing stage

Bionic Eyes - From curing other eye-related diseases to vision augmentation, this technology really sounds like it came straight out of a sci-fi novel.

An Australian research team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has reached a point where it is safe to start trials of their fully-implanted bionic eye in patients. Phoenix99, as the eye is called, is a device designed to cure retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.

Retinitis pigmentosa is the leading cause of blindness among young people that affects up to 2 million people every year. This degenerative condition usually starts in early 30’s and can lead to complete blindness in less than 10 years. The available medication is very expensive and it can only slow down the process, so this is huge news.

The device consists of a microchip that is implanted into the eye retina, and special glasses with cameras that feed information to the chip. The microchip relays this information by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to the optic nerve.

Almost full 20 years of research have led to this. The previous partially implanted eye was tested in 2014 with great success, and this one is going to be a great improvement over that model. In addition, the future potential is amazing:

From curing other eye-related diseases to vision augmentation, this technology really sounds like it came straight out of a sci-fi novel.

Healing proton beams

Jonathan Alava, 7, sits in a treatment room at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center in Philadelphia. It’s been nearly two years since he received radiation therapy.
Jonathan Alava, 7, sits in a treatment room at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center in Philadelphia.
Photo credit: Peter Tobia

There has been a tremendous amount of advancements in cancer treatment research in 2016, and proton therapy might be at the top of that list. This therapy uses protons, positively charged subatomic particles, instead of x-rays which are used in standard radiation treatment.

While this therapy has been present for a several years, it has been considered controversial due to the lack of information. However, a recent study of 59 patients, has shown that proton beam therapy has higher precision in targeting the cancerous tissue, and the risk of secondary cancers caused by radiation is significantly lower.

In addition, Prof Gillies McKenna, head of oncology department at the University of Oxford, UK, noted that:

“There were no side effects seen in the heart and lungs and gastrointestinal tract, which are almost always seen with X-rays.”

Gravity waves discovered

A simulation of two merging black holes
Image by user aperson1 on Imgur

Even though this might not have any practical applications for now, the whole scientific community was excited as this was the final missing piece that proves Einstein’s general theory of relativity, over a hundred years later.

The gravity wave is a ripple in space-time, in this case caused by a collision of two blackholes that merged into one, even more massive, black hole. This event, recorded by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) facilities in the US, has been observed exactly as predicted:

The general theory of relativity predicted that two black holes attract each other over time, and their final collision and extreme speeds (over half the speed of light) lead to their merging and releasing of tremendous amounts of energy in form of gravitational waves.

This is extremely exciting news to astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists all over the world, as it signals the beginning of the gravitational wave astronomy – yet another new method that will help us observe and understand the universe.

Even though the first wave was observed in late 2015, it took some time to verify the data and the first papers have been published in early 2016.

Super thin solar cells, electricity from raindrops

Super thin solar cells
Photo by Joel Jean and Anna Osherov

Researchers at MIT have managed to create super-thin, super-flexible solar cell that is as light as a soap bubble. The cell is made out of a polymer and organic light absorption layer, which are layered in a vacuum chamber. While the MIT team used glass as a carrier for the thin solar panel, they claim that it can be applied to pretty much anything, including clothes and everyday appliances.

Of course, this is only a proof-of-concept at the moment, and commercial use is still several years away. However, the power-to-weight ratio that can be achieved with this technology is simply amazing and it can lead to a revolution in power generation, especially in areas where weight is at a premium, such as aerospace applications.

If you think that solar panels are limited due to their need for sun, think again:

A team of scientists in Qingdao, China have found a way to create energy from raindrops. By applying a thin one-atom layer of graphene to the surface of a solar panel, it can create energy from the interaction of raindrops and graphene, known as the Lewis acid-base interaction.

AI beats humans in GO

Neural networks and AI have made great leaps forward in the past few years, and they are slowly infiltrating our every-day routines. However, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for machine learning experts was the Chinese game of Go. This game, has more options and possibilities than there are atoms in the universe, and even the most optimistic AI-proponents didn’t believe a machine can defeat the human expert. However, a 5-game duel proved otherwise.

In 1997, a computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov, in a legendary match, and the achievement of the new google computer AlphaGo vs. the world Go champion from South Korea, Lee Sedol, could possibly prove to have even more impact. The biggest difference?

Deep Blue was programmed to win at chess, while AlphaGo used Neural Networks to teach itself to play Go. And successfully so, as it managed to beat Sedol in 4 out of 5 matches.

This success only goes to show how much progress has been made in AI and neural networks development, and conquering a human Go champion is a historic achievement for machines.

A new quantum particle, quantum computing

A new quantum particle, quantum computing

Scientists have observed a subatomic particle called Majorana Fermion, which is its own antiparticle. Yeah, quantum physics is really weird.

In essence, a team from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee managed to create something called quantum spin liquid, in which electrons from the surface layer of the atom behave erratically, even at low temperatures (this means that even though the material is in a solid state, these electrons behave as if it were liquid). This is infinitely more complex and interesting, but in the essence it is based on an exotic material RuCl3 which allows for these electrons to behave in this bizarre way.

This discovery could be really big, as it is one of the necessary prerequisites for the development of quantum computers, which don’t use standard binary 0 and 1 system, but a huge number of states in-between.

Another important discovery was made by University of Oxford physicist, in which they created a new type of quantum logic gate which has 99.9% precision – enough to fulfill the requirements for a reliable quantum computer.

Quadriplegic man moves his arm after having a chip installed

Quadriplegic man moves his arm after having a chip installed
Ian's implant is connected to the computer and the electrode cuff is attached to his lower arm
Ohio State University / Batelle

A quadriplegic man from Dublin, Ohio could for the first time after his injury voluntarily move his fingers and arm. In order to do this, a team of experts from Ohio State University implanted a sensor in his brain that records the electric impulses and sends them to the computer to be decoded. The computer then sends the signal to a special sleeve that has hundreds of electrodes that stimulate specific muscles.

This roundabout way allows the 24-year-old Ian Burkhart to hold and move large objects, swipe his credit card, and even press individual buttons on a guitar hero type controller. Of course, all these movements are far from fluid and require tremendous effort, but it is still amazing.

The most recent results are a product of years of improvements to the technology along with the extensive training by Burkhart himself. With further improvements, it is possible that more refined movement will be possible with less bulky equipment, and it could lead to unbelievable increase in the quality of life to paralyzed, or partially paralyzed people.

New processing unit, new memory storage, 200,000 core chip

New processing unit, new memory storage, 200 000 core chip
Credit: Google

Besides quantum computing, there has been a parallel development of equally revolutionary technologies, that could together make modern computers look like the 1980s spectrums.

Googles tensor processing unit, or TPU, could be the next big thing after the CPUs and GPUs. They claim that they have been using this technology to power their rankbrain and streeview computers, and that it is much better at machine learning than the more traditional processing units.

This new unit is way too specialized to replace CPUs or GPUs, but it does show a possible trend of creating computers with a larger number of specialized processing units, which all deliver greater computing power per watt than the more general unit would.

On the other hand, a team from Princeton University created an open-source 25 core processor, named Piton, that can be linked to other Pitons creating a mega-processor of up to 200,000 cores. How these cores could sync up and work together, still remains to be seen.

In order to eliminate bottlenecks, we would need new type of memory. Fear not, IBM scientists are on it! They created a module that uses fairly new technology called phase-change memory (PCM). This new memory could be significantly faster than even the fastest of solid state memories are in the market today.

Stem cell uses

Stem Cells Uses

Stem cells can almost be considered a miracle cure, and every new advancement in this field and new application goes to support such a bold claim.

Scientists from Cambridge have shown that it is possible to extract the so-called naive pluripotent cells from human embryos.

This is extremely important, as these pluripotent cells can be grown into any other kind of tissue, allowing for regeneration and growing of pretty much any human organ. Even more importantly, the technology to extract these cells in mice has existed for over 30 years, so it took quite a bit of time to get here (many people believed that harvesting human naïve cells would be impossible).

Newest study by the researchers from the University of Toronto and The Ottawa Hospital, showed that it can completely restore bone structure in mice that suffer from osteoporosis. Hopefully, further trials are not far away, and we might see human application soon.

In another 18-patient trial, it has been shown that injecting modified adult human stem cells into the brain can severely reduce the chronic effects caused by a stroke, even if the therapy is applied months after the stroke occurred (normally, no improvement is expected after 6 months). The therapy has proven successful enough to warrant further extensive clinical trials, but it is already very promising.

Dust sized wireless sensors

Californian Berkeley labs were also busy this year. A team of engineers have designed the first miniature sensor that is powered by ultrasound and can be safely implanted into nerves and muscles. This technology allows us to implant a 3-millimeter-long sensor anywhere in the body and have it accurately read out the data.

It is powered by a tiny piezo crystal that generates energy from the pressure caused by ultrasound waves, and the device can also translate electrical impulses into ultra sound that we could read as telemetry. In addition, it could potentially also serve as an in-body emitter that could help in regulating various issues such as seizures, and control of artificial limbs.

The human trials are still fairly far away, but the application has been demonstrated on rats, and it has been shown as efficient and safe. The team plans on further miniaturizing the sensor and using even more biocompatible materials.

SpaceX rocket landing

SpaceX and Elon Musk have been in the headlines for quite a bit in the past few months, especially with Musk’s bold plans for Mars colonization.

His confidence does stem from somewhere though: SpaceX has been making a string of seemingly small, but actually very impressive achievements, not the least of which is that they managed to land their Falcon-9 rocket on a purpose-built raft.

This is the first time in history that this has been successfully done, and it could significantly reduce the costs of further space travel, as it allows for large parts of the rocket to be reused. Musk estimates that this could significantly cut down the cost and time between the launches, but there is still a lot of work to be done, or as the man himself succinctly put:

“We will be successful when this become boring.”

This year has been exciting, that is one thing I can say with certainty. Even with all the ugliness in the world, we can take a deep breath and think of all the millions of people that do the, often thankless, work that leads this civilization of ours forward, one bumbling foot in front of the other.

Now, one question that I’m even more excited to ponder is:

What does 2017 have in store for us?

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