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The Stories That Showed Science Was On Top Form This Year, Despite *Gestures At Everything*

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Maddy Chapman

Maddy is a Editor and Writer at IFLScience, with a degree in biochemistry from the University of York.

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2021

As 2021 draws to a close, take a look back at some of the top stories of the last year. Image credit: Sichon/Shutterstock.com

So long, 2021.

It’s been *another* long year of COVID – we’ve met a few new variants (hello Gamma, Delta, and Omicron) and rallied against them with mass rollouts of vaccinations. At time of writing 4.45 billion people have received at least one dose (58 percent of the global population).

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But despite the ongoing pandemic hogging the headlines, a lot of other important science happened this year. 

It was the year that Literally. Everyone. Went. To. Space. For example. And it wasn’t only Star Trek actors and billionaires who made the journey…

Perseverance landed on Mars

In February, NASA's Perseverance made history being the first rover to film its landing on Mars and the first to record true sound with microphones on another planet. Equipped with cameras, microphones, and an array of tools to help it complete important scientific tasks, the rover set up camp on the Red Planet and began to explore.

Perseverance, the "biggest, heaviest, cleanest, and most sophisticated six-wheeled robotic geologist ever launched into space," will play a key part in unraveling some of Mars’s mysteries.

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In September it made history once again, collecting an extraterrestrial rock sample, which will be the first-ever to be brought back to Earth. 

Perseverance did not make the journey to Mars alone. Its companion in this mission, the helicopter Ingenuity, has been making waves of its own…

Ingenuity flew on Mars

Becoming the first propelled vehicle ever to fly on another world, NASA’s helicopter Ingenuity cemented its own name in the history books back in April. 

It hovered 3 meters (10 feet) above Mars’s surface, making a turn before returning to the ground around 30 seconds later.

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Since then, Ingenuity has gone from strength to strength, breaking speed records and completing 17 flights, the latest lasting a whopping 30 minutes.

A new coldest temperature record was set

It wasn’t just NASA breaking records this year.

In October, the record for the coldest temperature ever achieved was broken by scientists in Germany. 

At a bone-chilling 38 picokelvins (3.8 * 10-11 K), it’s the closest we’ve ever come to absolute zero – 0 K (−273.15 ºC (−459.67 ºF)).

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The frosty feat was achieved by trapping rubidium gas on top of a 110 meter (360 feet) tower.

COP26 happened

While the temperature of 100,000 rubidium atoms reached new lows, that of the Earth continued to rise.

Thankfully, more than 25,000 people descended on Glasgow, Scotland to do something about it.

COP26, the 26th climate "Conference of the Parties”, drew to a close in November, with 197 parties signing the Glasgow Climate Pact.

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Promises were made to end deforestation, reduce emissions, and “phase out” coal usage and fossil fuel subsidies, in the name of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F). It even saw some surprising team-ups.

A step in the right direction, sure. But will it be enough to stop climate change in its tracks? The jury’s still out.

A duck talked

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though.

Ripper, an Australian musk duck, secured a place in all our hearts for his potty mouth and incredible imitation talents leading him to be declared the first known talking duck.

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“You bloody fool” he was heard quacking, copying his keeper.

A true icon.

A patient “self-cured” HIV

In equally unbelievable and, some might argue, more important news…

A patient eliminated HIV from their body without the use of anti-retroviral drugs. 

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For just the second time ever, the immune system independently rid itself of the virus, which is famously evasive and generally requires lifelong treatment.

The scientists behind the finding hope it could be used to further research into new HIV treatments and vaccines.

mRNA vaccines had no serious side effects

Speaking of vaccines, what would a 2021 roundup be without a nod to the COVID-19 vaccines?

In late 2020, mRNA vaccines, a relatively new type of vaccine, were thrust into the limelight. Their development and rollout were expedited by the pandemic and by 2021, those produced by Pfizer and Moderna were making their way into our arms.

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Naturally, there were questions as to their safety, but in October these were largely quelled. A huge study of 6.2 million people found COVID-19 mRNA vaccines had no immediate severe side effects

Now, millions of people across the globe have received a shot of an mRNA vaccine to protect against COVID-19.

Hurray for science!

Texas introduced a near-total abortion ban

For every medical step forward, however, are two steps back.

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In May, the Governor of Texas signed a bill, which eventually came into force in September, making abortion illegal after six weeks.

The so-called “Texas Heartbeat Act” banned doctors from performing or inducing an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected – although at six weeks this "beat" is actually just electrical activity as a functional cardiovascular system is yet to develop. At this early stage, many people don’t yet know they are pregnant, which made this a near-total abortion ban for the state.

Private citizens are also now able to bring a civil suit against those assisting someone seeking an abortion.

A breast cancer vaccine began human trials

In further proof that vaccine scientists never sleep, a first-of-its-kind breast cancer vaccine began human trials earlier this year.

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It was the first vaccine targeting triple-negative breast cancer – the most aggressive and deadly form of breast cancer, which is notoriously difficult to treat.

If successful, the vaccine – due to finish trials next September – could prevent people developing triple-negative breast cancer, and, perhaps in future, other types of cancer too.

A spacecraft “touched the sun”

In another first, the Parker Solar Probe became the first human-made object to “touch the Sun”, as it entered the solar corona, sampled particles and magnetic fields and sent home incredible footage.

Parker dipped in and out of the corona – the Sun’s “atmosphere” – several times, and came 13 million kilometers (8.1 million miles) from the Sun’s surface on its initial pass in April. In November, it slashed its own record, coming within 8.5 million kilometers (5.3 million miles) of the surface. It's officially the fastest human-made object in the universe. No biggie.

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"Parker Solar Probe 'touching the Sun' is a monumental moment for solar science and a truly remarkable feat," NASA's Dr Thomas Zurbuchen said of the achievement.

So there you go, our top 10 of 2021. See you in 2022 for more awesome science!


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