8 Incredible Scientific Discoveries in 2020

Dealing with the COVID pandemic, including developing vaccines to fight it, has been one of the biggest challenges ever faced by scientists. But researchers in all fields, including astronomy and physics, have also made great strides.

As 2020 draws to a close, let's look at some of the most incredible scientific discoveries of the past 12 months.

Sign of Alien Life in the Clouds of Venus?

In September, astronomers announced they had found a gas called phosphine, which can be a sign of life, in the atmosphere of Venus. The team later revised their findings and said they found a fainter phosphine signal than initially reported.

The team spotted signs that phosphine was present in the clouds of Venus in observations of the planet using telescopes. Next, they used computer modelling techniques to understand what was happening, and concluded microbes may be the most likely explanation.

Alan Duffy, an astronomer from Swinburne University, Australia, who was not involved in the research, said in a statement: "This is one of the most exciting signs of the possible presence of life beyond Earth I have ever seen, and certainly from the most surprising location I could imagine! Our twin planet Venus is a hellish world."

venus, planet, stock, getty
A stock image shows Venus, where scientists believe they detected the gas phosphine. Getty

DeepMind AI solves a half-century-old protein problem

In November it was revealed that an AI lab based in London had solved a mystery that had puzzled experts for 50 years, by predicting the 3D shape of proteins from their sequence of amino acids. Proteins, essentially the building blocks of life, are made up of amino acids.

DeepMind, a Google offshoot, created the artificial intelligence program AlphaFold that made the breakthrough. It is hoped the technology will enable scientists to better understand how cells are made, and speed up the development of drugs.

John Moult, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland in College Park who co-founded the challenge to predict protein structures that the DeepMind team took part in, said according to Nature: "This is a big deal," adding: "in some sense the problem is solved."

Dr Sara Imarisio, head of research at the Alzheimer's Research U.K. who was not involved in the study, said in a statement at the time: "Working with proteins, understanding their structure, looking at their effects on behavior in the brain, and developing drugs to target them goes to the very core of what our scientists do.

"We still do not have a drug to slow or stop diseases like Alzheimer's but new and powerful technologies able to accelerate progress gives people hope."

66-million-year-old "Wonderchicken" becomes oldest known modern bird

Palaeontologists identified the near-complete skull of a bird in March as the oldest known modern bird fossil. The extinct bird, dubbed the "wonderchicken," is thought to be between 66.8 and 66.7 million years old. The team hope their discovery will help to explain how modern birds evolved and why they survived a mass-extinction event that wiped out large dinosaurs.

Using the bird's Latin name, co-author Daniel Field, from University of Cambridge in the U.K., told Newsweek at the time: "We believe that several features exhibited by Asteriornis, such as a relatively small body size, ground-dwelling habits, an ability to fly, and a generalized diet were key attributes that would have favoured the survival of modern birds in the aftermath of the asteroid impact."

Asteriornis maastrichtensis
Artist’s reconstruction of the world’s oldest modern bird, Asteriornis maastrichtensis. Phillip Krzeminski

Voice of 3,000-Year-Old Ancient Egyptian priest recreated

In January, scientists recreated the voice of an ancient Egyptian priest using a 3D-printed vocal tract built using scans of his mummified body. The team were able to reimagine what the high-ranking priest, named Nesyamun, would have sounded like when speaking a vowel. Nesyamun is thought to have also been a scribe during the reign of pharaoh Ramses XI, and died due to an allergic reaction.

Co-author David Howard of Royal Holloway, University of London in the U.K., told Newsweek at the time: "The resulting sound is a single vowel-like sound because we only have that one vocal tract shape for him.

"This one shape is also the shape of his tract as he is interred so it is not necessarily part of a spoken sound. However, it is a sound from his unique vocal tract and for that reason, it can be linked to what he sounded like."

Nesyamun mummy
The three thousand year-old coffin of Nesyamun, on display at Leeds City Museum Leeds City Museum

Closest Ever Images of the Sun Revealed

July saw the unveiling of the closest images ever taken of the sun as part of the Solar Orbiter mission run by NASA and the European Space Agency. The images, taken using what is known as Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) around 48 million miles from the sun, show solar flares dubbed "campfires." It is hoped understanding these could explain why the sun's surface is cooler than its atmosphere.

Daniel Müller, ESA's Solar Orbiter project scientist, told Newsweek at the time: "These images are closest images ever taken of the sun—and we have just started our long journey through the inner solar system."

He said: "What has amazed us most is the very high quality of the first images taken."

Solar Orbiter’s first view Sun
The Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) on ESA’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft captured this image on May 30, 2020, showing the sun in the extreme ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Solar Orbiter/EUI Team ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

Shortest unit of time measured

Physicists in Germany revealed in October that they had measured the shortest unit of time ever, by looking at how long it takes for a particle known as a photon to cross a hydrogen molecule. The answer they arrived at was 247 zeptoseconds, with a zeptosecond being a trillionth of a billionth of a second.

The scientists achieved this by exposing a hydrogen molecule, which has two electrons, to radiation. This shot the electrons out of the hydrogen molecule, creating a wave-like effect.

Explaining the team's methods, co-author Sven Grundmann Goethe University Frankfurt said in a statement at the time: "Since we knew the spatial orientation of the hydrogen molecule, we used the interference of the two electron waves to precisely calculate when the photon reached the first and when it reached the second hydrogen atom.

"And this is up to 247 zeptoseconds, depending on how far apart in the molecule the two atoms were from the perspective of light."

photo, zeptosecond, hydrogen
An illustration shows a zeptosecond measurement. The photon, shown in yellow, creates electron waves out of the electron cloud of the hydrogen molecule, with its nucleus in red. The violet area represents the waves, or interference pattern. Sven Grundmann, Goethe University Frankfurt

Enormous Coral Reef Taller than Empire State Building Discovered

October was marked by the discovery of an enormous coral reef taller than the Empire State Building, at 1,600 feet high and 5,000-feet-wide, on Australia's Great barrier Reef. The reef, identified by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, is the first of its kind to be discovered in over 120 years.

Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute, said in a statement at the time: "This unexpected discovery affirms that we continue to find unknown structures and new species in our ocean.

"The state of our knowledge about what's in the ocean has long been so limited. Thanks to new technologies that work as our eyes, ears and hands in the deep ocean, we have the capacity to explore like never before. New oceanscapes are opening to us, revealing the ecosystems and diverse life forms that share the planet with us."

great barrier reef
The mapping profile of the newly discovered reef. Schmidt Ocean Institute

Pfizer COVID Shot Becomes First Licensed mRNA Jab

Although many of us are suffering from pandemic fatigue, it would be remiss to do a rundown of some of the most exciting breakthroughs of the year and not mention COVID vaccines.

After the U.K. approved the Pfizer COVID shot in December, it became the fastest vaccine to be approved in the West, taking 10 months.

It was also the first ever licensed vaccine based on mRNA technology. What's more, Pfizer has claimed it is 95 percent effective, much higher than had been hoped. The vaccine features a recipe for the genetic code of a part of the virus that it uses to invade our bodies in an oily casing, which is inserted into the body when it is administered.

Experts such as Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have sought to allay fears that the vaccine was rushed. He has often explained the speed was thanks to recent technological advances and the huge amounts of money invested in vaccine development this year.

Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at the Wellcome Trust research charity, said in a statement at the time: "This is a historic day and an important moment at the end of an incredibly difficult year. For a vaccine to be developed, receive emergency approval and be ready to roll out in less than a year for a new virus is completely unprecedented."

pfizer covid vaccine, coronavirus, getty
The Pfizer COVID vaccine vial is shown at The Falmouth Health Centre on December 20, 2020 in Cornwall, England. The preparation is the first licensed mRNA vaccine. Hugh Hastings/Getty Images