Prof. Jan Bosch
2020 will go into the annals of history as the year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people have seen their lives disrupted, gotten sick or worse and suffered from mental health issues due to isolation and loneliness. All the mayhem caused by the pandemic, though, easily makes us lose sight of all the good things that happened this year.
The first, most obvious, one is the fact that the digital transformation of industry and society took a step function improvement. We’re all much, much better at conducting our work online and even if many of us would really want to travel more and meet people in real life (and actually shake hands or hug), we’re getting things done. Teams and individuals that were convinced that they needed to be onsite and in each other’s face to be able to do their job are now operating remotely and working from home.
One of the advantages is, of course, that the environment is doing better as air pollution levels are lower in many parts of the world. This is especially advantageous in areas that have snow in winter, as the whiter snow reflects more sunlight. Also, there are several reports of improved water quality in rivers and lakes. The reduction in carbon emissions and pollutants, according to a Wikipedia article, saved 77,000 lives over two months.
'Science and technology research is continuing to deliver great results'
Science and technology research is continuing to deliver great results. In the sunniest parts of the world, the cost of solar electricity is now below the cost of fossil fuels. This a decade or even decades ahead of earlier predictions. And of course, we’re not done. The improvements in solar are just continuing, driving down prices even further to the point that electricity will become close to free, according to some predictions.
Also, a recent article in Nature describes how the use of a deep-learning program by Google’s Deepmind solved protein folding in biology. A problem that for decades proved to be incredibly difficult to tackle by traditional algorithms was finally cracked by AI. And this is just one of the main benefits that AI is bringing to humankind.
Something that never ceases to amaze me is how quickly we were able to develop vaccines for Covid-19. This article shows a timeline starting with the genetic sequence of the virus being released by the Chinese authorities early this year and nine months later, there’s a vaccine (in fact, multiple!) available with mass distribution starting early next year.
As a space nerd, I was incredibly excited to see SpaceX sending people into space again. After the space race in the 1960s, interest in space took a nosedive, but I’m one of those that believe humans need to get off this planet and spread through the solar system and the universe. A catastrophic event on this planet won’t mean the end of humankind if we have people out there. To build up a space industry and capability, the first step is to have reliable and cost-effective rockets.
Other news that just blew me away this year is that scientists have now managed to reverse aging in cells, specifically in optic nerves and restoring sight in aging mice. Peter Thiel famously said: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.” It looks like we’re on track to actually realize cell rejuvenation in bodies for real and if not abolish then at least delay death.
In my posts, I occasionally comment on the apocaholics in our society (and on the interwebs) who loudly claim that the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. This is both factually incorrect and, in my opinion, morally wrong as it encourages a victim mindset. Humankind is incredible and has an amazing capability to respond to challenges put in front of it and overcome these. If nothing else, the year 2020 showed, once again, the value of science and technology, the creativity of humans as a species and that, despite everything life throws in our way, we still manage to improve things. I hope you spend Christmas celebrating our combined accomplishments and that you start the new year focusing your energy on what you’re going to do to contribute. Merry Christmas!