The year 2021 has been an unusual one in a significant way: rapid advances in science and technology have had an immediate and disproportionate impact on humanity.
The unprecedented high-speed vaccine development has helped to dramatically bend the curve of the covid pandemic. More than 9.2 billion doses of the vaccine have been administered to date in 184 countries around the world, at a rate slightly below about 40 million doses per day. The science of mRNA vaccines, represented by Moderna’s mRNA-1273 and Pfizer-BioNTech’s BNT162b2, in particular, are examples of truly futuristic science arriving early due to necessity. You may think that mRNA vaccines are capable of reusing human cells to make their own vaccine factories.
The year 2022 arrives with a similar promise from science and technology. Rapid genome sequencing, another contribution of the covid era, combined with the innate ability of new vaccine platforms to adapt to viral variants has enabled the development of boosters that can better fight a pandemic caused by a pathogen. evolving. Pharmaceutical companies are also developing new antiviral drugs that make significant advancements in early treatment, as well as serious illnesses caused by the virus.
Even as we make progress on current vaccines and treatment protocols, we may see new, protein-based vaccines, an older and fairly well-established method of vaccine development. We could also see the arrival of our first DNA-based vaccines which would be cheaper to manufacture and more easily stored at room temperature. In addition, there are early signs that the mRNA revolution may be extended to vaccines against malaria, HIV and Lyme disease. If a vaccine can be developed to fight the plasmodium parasite of malaria, it will have a huge positive impact on public health, since malaria is the biggest killer of all communicable diseases.
Equally exciting is the revolution underway in physics and space science. After a shutdown of several years, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva will resume operations. Even though the LHC has led to the discovery of more than 50 new particles, the last major discovery was that of the so-called “God particle” or Higgs boson in 2012 (the name “boson” is given to a whole class of particles named after Indian scientist SN Bose). Physicists are looking for new evidence that will advance their thinking beyond the “Standard Model”. During this 50th anniversary year of the LHC, construction of the Circular Electron-Positron Collider (CEPC), which will be the world’s largest particle accelerator with a circumference of 100 km, is expected to begin. To mix up some physics metaphors, the center of gravity of particle accelerators is shifting east.
There was a lot of visible hype about space tourism and hypersonic weapons in 2021. Space science has made giant strides beyond these widely reported achievements. The Chinese spacecraft Chang’e 5 landed on the far side of the moon around the turn of last year, but its experiments continue with its Yutu 2 lunar rover. The Sun has experienced a relatively quiet period over the past year. decade, but is now coming out of this phase. Its eruptions began spitting charged particles back to Earth, triggering large geomagnetic storms and potentially causing bright auroras, satellite disruption, and energy loss. Iceland may even be able to base its tourist attraction strategy on these dawns.
The successful launch of a major new space telescope, James Webb (JWST), came as last year drew to a close. The JWST will replace the Hubble Telescope, but it is 100 times more powerful and will orbit about a million kilometers from the Earth’s surface (and orbit the Sun rather than Earth at a distance of more than 2,500 times the Earth’s surface). Hubble orbit). JWST will join the company of two other space observatories, Herschel and Planck, at a location called Lagrange 2. JWST’s infrared telescope could offer new insights into the expanding and accelerating universe (and dark matter science) , just as Hubble solved the question of the origin of the universe. Between quantum mechanics and the universe, exciting things await chemical biology, nanotechnology, quantum computers and artificial organs.
India’s contribution to theoretical physics and mathematics continues unabated, and 2022 is not expected to be an exception. The Infosys Science Prize winners in these fields over the years are representative of India’s achievements and potential. In areas that require significant resources, Indian efforts have focused on adapting basic science to frugal technology. Our space missions to the Moon and Mars, the development of the world’s only large-scale interoperable payment system, and achievements in missile design and deployment are examples of this. During the pandemic, the country’s global contribution has been as a large vaccine manufacturer, continuing its usual role.
As with everything else in modern society, the time lag between basic science and its conversion into technology, as well as the time it takes to have an impact on our lives, is rapidly shrinking. Even as the world faces major threats such as climate change, cyber wars and the possible emergence of new zoonotic diseases, the role science plays will impact us all, and at some speed. The year 2022 will extend and accelerate the forces for change initiated two years ago.
PS “You can’t stop the change any more than you can stop the suns from setting,” Shmi Skywalker said in the Star Wars series.
Narayan Ramachandran is President of InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand
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