Image Courtesy: Smithsonian Magazine. Image depicts some of the skull caps excavated from Ngandong.
In development of science, what should matter the most is the findings that help the humanity, the findings that have the potential to open up new paradigms or those which change our understanding of the past or open our eyes to the future. The year 2019 also witnessed several such findings in the science world.
HUMAN HISTORY THROUGH GENETICS
Tracing human history has been achieved with the realm of genetics research as well. Year 2019 also witnessed some of the breakthroughs about human history based on analysis done on ancient DNA found on fossils and other sources.
One of such important findings has come up with a claim about the origin of modern human. What it says is that anatomically, modern humans first appeared in Southern part of Africa. A wetland that covered present day Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe was where the first humans lived some 200,000 years ago. Eventually, humans migrated out of this region. How was the study conducted? Researchers gathered blood samples from 200 living people in groups whose DNA is poorly known, including foragers and hunter-gatherers in Namibia and South Africa. The authors analyzed the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), a type of DNA inherited only from mothers, and compared it to mtDNA in databases from more than 1000 other Africans, mostly from southern Africa. Then the researchers sorted how all the samples were related to each other on a family tree. The data reveals that one mtDNA lineage in the Khoisan speakers—L0—is the oldest known mtDNA lineage in living people. The work also tightens the date of origin of L0 to about 200,000 years ago
Another very important and interesting finding in this field is that Homo Erectus, the closest ancestor of modern humans, marked its last presence on the island of Java, Indonesia. The team of scientists has estimated that the species existed in a place known as Ngandong near the Solo river—based on dating of animal fossils from a bone bed where Homo Erectus skull caps and leg bones were found earlier. Scientists used to believe that Homo Erectus migrated out of Africa, into Asia, some two million years back. They also believed that the early human ancestor became extinct from the earth around 4 lakh years ago. But the new findings indicate that the species continued to exist in Ngandong even about 117,000 to 108,000 years ago.
So far, anything that is known about the Denisovans, the mysterious archaic human species, was confined to the Denisova caves in Altai Mountain in Siberia. Because the remnants of this ancient species could be discovered in the fossils of the Denisova cave only. But a recent report published in Nature about the discovery of a Denisovan jawbone in a cave in the Tibetan Plateau has revealed many interesting facts about archaic humans. The fossil has been found to be 1,60,000 years old with a powerful jaw and unusually large teeth, resembling the most primitive Neanderthals. Protein analysis of the fossil revealed that they are closer to the Siberian Denisovans.
QUANTUM COMPUTING AND SUPREMACY:
Computer scientists nowadays are concentrating on going far beyond the speed that the present genre of computing can achieve. Now the principles of quantum mechanics are being tried to incorporate into the next-generation computing. There have been some advances, but the issue in this realm that has sparked controversies is Google’s claim to have obtained quantum supremacy.
Sycamore, Google’s 53-qubit computer has solved a problem in 200 seconds which would have taken even a supercomputer 10,000 years. In fact, it is a first step. It has shown that a quantum computer can do a functional computation and that quantum computing does indeed solve a special class of problems much faster than conventional computers.
On the other hand, IBM researchers have countered saying that Google hadn’t done anything special. This clash indeed highlights the intense commercial interest in quantum computing.
NATURE, CLIMATE AND AMAZON FOREST
The man-made climate change has already reached a critical state. Climate researches have already shown how crossing the critical state would bring irreversible changes to the global climate and an accompanying disaster for humanity.
In the year 2019 also, the world has witnessed many devastations in the forms of storms, floods and wildfires.
Apart from the extreme weather events that climate change is prodding, the nature itself is in the most perilous state ever, and the reason is human-made environmental destruction.
The global report submitted by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reviewed some 15,000 scientific papers and also researched other sources of data on trends in biodiversity and its ability to provide people everything from food and fiber to clean water and air.
The report notes that out of 8 million known species of animals and plants, almost 1 million are under the threat of getting extinct and this includes more than 40% of amphibian species and almost a third of marine mammals.
The month of August witnessed an unprecedented wildfire in Amazon rainforest, the biggest in the world. The fire was so large-scale that the smoke covered nearby cities with dark clouds. It has been reported that Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) recorded over 72,000 fires this year, which is an increase of about 80% from last year. More worrisome is the fact that more than 9,000 of these fires have taken place in the last week alone.
The fires have engulfed several large Amazon states in Northwestern Brazil. NASA, on August 11 noted that the fires were huge enough to be spotted from the space.
The main reason attributable to Amazon fires is widescale deforestation due to policy-level changes made by Bolsonaro regime. Many parts of the forest are now made open for the companies to set up business ventures—even the deeper parts of the forest. This has led to massive deforestation.
NEW DIMENSION TO THE TREATMENT OF EBOLA
In the past, there had been no drugs that could have cured Ebola.
However, two out of four experimental trials carried out in Democratic Republic of Congo were found to be highly effective in saving patients’ lives. The new treatment method used a combination of existing drugs and newly developed ones. Named as PALM trial, the new method uses monoclonal antibodies and antiviral agencies.
Monoclonal antibodies are antibodies that are made by identical immune cells that are all clones of a unique parent cell. The monoclonal antibodies bind to specific cells or proteins. The objective is that this treatment will stimulate the patient’s immune system to attack those cells.
Kilogram, the unit to measure mass was defined by a hunk of metal in France. This hunk of metal, also known as the International Prototype Kilogram or Big K, is a platinum-iridium alloy having a mass of 1 kilogram housed at the Bureau of Weights and Measures in France since 1889. The IPK has many copies around the world and are used to calibrate scales to make sure that the whole world follows a standard system of measurement.
But the definition of the Kilogram will no longer be the same. On the International Metrology Day this year, the way a Kilogram has been measured for more than a century has been changed completely. Now, the kilogram would be defined using the Planck constant, something that does not change.