There’s been good news this year. No, really. Mixed in amid the political chaos, climate crisis, and other human-made horrors, there have been shining moments in health, space and even politics that suggest progress hasn’t entirely halted. Here are our run-down of the most uplifting and inspiring news from 2019.
Scientists released the first photo of a black hole
A black hole is invisible, swallowing up light and emitting no detectable radiation. Yet, scientists working on the Event Horizon Telescope have shown us the unseeable — and it looks rather like a glowing bagel. The image is of the black hole at the centre of galaxy M87 and shows glowing plasma surrounding the black hole itself, with the darkness at the centre revealing the shape and size of the event horizon, as well as key information about how rapidly it’s rotating. With one black hole in the picture books, EHT is now looking at others — including Sagittarius A* at the centre of our own Milky Way. Read more at WIRED.
The first all-women spacewalk repairs the ISS
The first all-female spacewalk finally happened, but the pair had to wait for a new suit before they could step outside the International Space Station’s airlock. The historic spacewalk by Christina Koch and Jessica Meir was set back by several months for a second medium-sized spacesuit to be sent up to the space station, highlighting the assumptions that hold back women in the workplace, even when it’s not on Earth. Koch and Meir spent five and a half hours outside the ISS to fix a power control unit. Read more at The Guardian.
Jodrell Bank awarded Unesco World Heritage status
After a decade-long bid, the Jodrell Bank Observatory was added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites. Home to the Lovell telescope – once the world’s largest, but now ranked third – the University of Manchester site has been used to watch the skies since 1945, and is where the science of radio astronomy was born. It joins the Palace of Westminster, Stonehenge, and the Lake District for British sites on the Unesco list. Read more at the BBC.
Eliud Kipchoge runs a 1:59 marathon
Running a marathon in less than two hours wasn’t supposed to be possible, but science and sporting talent combined in Eliud Kipchoge to break one of distance running’s biggest hurdles. The epic run was achieved through perfect food prep, which included drinking special energy drinks throughout the race, picking the perfect day for weather, custom-made shoes, and using pacers to block the wind. But even with that help, it was no small feat: to hit that time, Kipchoge ran the equivalent of a 100 metre sprint in 17 seconds, but 422 times in a row. Read more at WIRED.
Simone Biles becomes most decorated gymnast ever
The 22-year-old American didn’t only win five gold medals at this year’s world championships, but did it with the largest points margin of her career while performing her own stunt, the Biles II — which involves a double backflip and three full twists — and in doing so, became the most successful gymnast ever. The achievement came a year after Biles confirmed that she too had been sexually assaulted by USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar, leading the athlete to speak out against the organisational cover-up but also to celebrate her own accomplishments, encouraging confidence for female athletes everywhere — even those that can’t do quite so many backflips. Read more at The Guardian.
Quantum supremacy is here
Google leaked a paper, and the world changed — suddenly, quantum supremacy was here. That milestone, when a quantum computer can solve a problem that a standard computer couldn’t in our lifetimes, has been on the horizon for years, with Google predicting it would reach it by 2017, and rivals hoping to do the same. But this year, for the first time, researchers at Google used a quantum processor called “Sycamore” to solve a random sampling problem. Sycamore took three minutes and 20 seconds to spit out an answer; the best of our current supercomputers would take 10,000 years. Quantum supremacy is only the first milestone, but it’s now been reached. Read more at WIRED.
Tesla builds a battery to go one million miles
One of the challenges of electric cars is declining capacity in batteries, which could require them to be replaced at high financial and environmental cost. But that could be solved with battery tech developed by Tesla’s head of battery research. Jeff Danh, who is also an academic at the University of Dalhousie, published a paper detailing a battery design based around a series of pouches that could last a million miles without losing capacity, even with constant recharging. With Danh’s design, capacity fell only four per cent after being recharged 3,400 times. Read more at WIRED.
DeepMind plays fair at StarCraft — and still beats us
Google-owned DeepMind’s AI royally thrashed professional StarCraft players — but it wasn’t playing fair. But in a second round, DeepMind’s AI had human-level restrictions to better mimic real gameplay, such as having to look through the in-game camera to see the map just like anyone else. It not only beat its human opponents, but played at an elite level — highlighting the success of the neural network at learning new skills in a real-world environment. Read more at WIRED.
Britain went two weeks without coal
The road to fully renewable energy sources hit a milestone when the UK went two weeks without using coal to generate power — no small feat given coal provided 40 per cent of British electricity just six years ago. (The figures don’t include Northern Ireland, which shares a grid with Ireland.) While some of the power for those two weeks came from natural gas — not a carbon-free source — as well as nuclear, there have been gains in true renewables, with new records for solar and wind power. Read more at WIRED.
Norway says no to oil project
This year, millions of children skipped school to protest inaction over climate change, while Greta Thunberg shamed political leaders at the UN for their slowness to take up the fight. But Norway apparently heard, with its parliament refusing to sign off on a drilling project in the Lofoten archipelago. It’s one step towards keeping oil in the ground — in this case, three billion barrels of it. Read more at Bloomberg.
First electric aircraft takes flight for 15 minutes
A short, 15-minute flight from Vancouver could be the future of air travel. Harbour Air, which flies turbo-prop planes between the Canadian city and local island communities, worked with Australian engineering firm magniX to retrofit a 62-year-old six-seater seaplane with an electric motor and battery with 160km range. After the successful trial, Harbour Air hopes to electrify its entire fleet, but regulatory tests mean that will have to wait two years. Read more at The Guardian.
Britain’s carnivores are bouncing back
A study of Britain’s carnivorous mammals revealed their numbers have improved despite lost habitat, the threat of busy roads, and government-approved culls. The Exeter University study showed that animals such as badgers, stoats, and weasels have improved since the 1960s, with otters, polecats and pine martens recovering from near extinction largely without human help. The only such animal still at risk is the Scottish wildcat. Read more at The Guardian.
Humpback whales recover from near extinction
A study in Royal Society Open Science reveals that the number of Western South Atlantic humpback whales has almost entirely recovered from mass hunting. By the mid 1950s, just 440 were believed to be left, but after a moratorium on hunting, they now number 24,900, close to the original population before the slaughter began three hundred years ago. Read more at Smithsonian Magazine.
UK porn block ditched
Conservative politicians have spent the last five years pushing through plans to require age verification for porn websites in order to keep children from viewing adult material. After years of delays and plenty of criticism of the security and sanity of the various proposals, culture secretary Nicky Morgan admitted the plans had been shelved, hopefully for good. Read more at WIRED.
Abortion legalised in Northern Ireland
Four decades after the rest of the UK started to legalise abortions, Northern Ireland has finally followed suit, allowing women in the country the right to access the medical procedure. As abortion services are not yet provided, the UK government will pay for women to travel to England for the procedure — something women and girls have done for decades; last year, more than a thousand are recorded to have made the journey. As of next year, local services will mean such a trip is no longer required. Read more at New Scientist.
Humans placed in suspended animation
When trauma victims arrive in A&E, doctors have minutes to save their lives. Scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine are buying medics more time by placing patients in suspended animation. Called emergency preservation and resuscitation, the procedure is used on patients with acute trauma whose heart has stopped beating and have lost at least half their blood, leaving them with a five per cent survival rate. To give surgeons time to operate, this procedure cools the patient by replacing their blood with cold saline, stopping brain activity. After two hours, the patient is rewarmed and their heart – hopefully – restarted. The work is still in trial phase, with results expected in 2020. Read more at New Scientist.
Antiretrovirals prevent HIV transmission
A Lancet study of 1,000 couples over eight years revealed that the use of antiretroviral drugs prevents transmission of HIV. Not only does that mean those with HIV need not worry about infecting their partners, but suggests that if everyone with HIV had access to treatment, there need not be any more infections.
That good news comes as researchers have revealed a second man has been cleared of the HIV virus using a bone marrow transplant. The treatment was given for the unnamed patient’s cancer, and the procedure is largely unused for HIV infections because bone-marrow transplants can be risky and other treatments are preferred. However, researchers hope it could lead to new treatment techniques and say it proves that HIV is curable. Read more at The Guardian.
Google stops short of censoring Chinese search
Google is still capable of listening to criticism, in at least one case. Project Dragonfly was the codename for controversial plans to launch a censored search engine for China, ten years after it departed over disagreement with the government over the issue. Dragonfly would have blocked results for sensitive searches, such as “Tiananmen Square”, as well as sources such as the BBC and Wikipedia. But, after the plans leaked, Google quietly killed the project.
Given all the dodgy decisions made by Google this year – suspending its AI ethics board after appointing a right-wing think tank leader, hoovering up health data via Project Nightingale, plus an investigation into whether it fired staff in retaliation for activism against company policies on hate speech – it’s good to see a bit of light, and know that the behemoth can still be influenced on moral grounds. Read more at the BBC.
Greggs’ vegan sausage roll sparks meat-free fast food frenzy
Greggs makes sausage rolls, so it made one for vegans. It pissed off Piers Morgan, caused queues and sellouts, and helped bump profits for the baked goods chain by 58 per cent. Now, Tesco and M&S both offer vegan sausage rolls, KFC is set to start selling a vegan chicken burger and McDonalds is considering vegan options, making it easier to eat fast food without the impact on the environment or animals. It’s a good time to be vegan, even if just for a meal. Read more at The Independent.