2021 Science Wrapped

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 9, Volume 112

By Karina Gupta 

It’s needless to say that 2021 has been quite eventful. Here’s a recap of some of the most significant discoveries, discussions, and debates in the science community.

James Webb Telescope Launched

The James Webb Telescope was launched into space on December 25, 2021 with high hopes of getting a glimpse of the universe right after the Big Bang. This telescope isn’t traveling back in time, though—instead, it will view the Big Bang’s first glows and the emergence of the galaxies and celestial objects we know today. Similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, which can see 450 billion years after the Big Bang, Webb uses infrared vision to catch these faint, ancient light waves. Unlike the visible light waves that we can see with our naked eye, infrared light is dimmer and has longer wavelengths. This type of light is sometimes visible to us in the form of heat, appearing as “ripples” in the air on hot days or near a fire. The telescope’s 6200 kilograms of meticulous engineering hurtling 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth may be the gateway to our first glimpse of the beginning of the universe.

Vaccines and Variants

The nation entered 2021 with one main goal in mind: herd immunity. With the COVID-19 vaccinations approved by the FDA by the end of 2020, the next objective was to rapidly distribute them to the public. Currently, around 60 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with 70 to 90 percent needed to attain herd immunity. The peak period of vaccination was in April 2021 with three million shots distributed every day. However, this pace has slowed to a crawl as most people who were intending to get vaccinated have already done so. Now, common reasons for the unwillingness of those who are not yet vaccinated are the fear of the symptoms it may cause, religion, disbelief in science, and lack of trust in the government. In response, the government launched several campaigns to persuade the public to get vaccinated, whether it be through commercials, social media, billboards, or even posters on the subway. A common strategy used was publicizing the vaccination of certain celebrities and influencers. Big Bird, a famously fearful character in Sesame Street, was shown to get vaccinated to encourage kids—and their parents—who may be fearful of getting the shot. Just when people were starting to lower their masks, the world was put on edge again when new variants began to emerge, the most significant ones being the Delta variant, which dominated the summer of 2021, and the Omicron variant, which first appeared in November 2021. Both of these variants caused spikes in cases and sparked the fervent work to find a new means of protection. This led to the release of booster shots, which were shown to neutralize the omicron variant.

Climate Change Continues Climbing

Because of the decrease in industrial activity, the air and water quality of cities drastically improved and the false hope of a silver lining of the pandemic emerged: it may in fact give the Earth time to heal. However, though the past year has helped the planet in some ways, it has deeply damaged it in others. 2021 was reported to be one of the Earth’s hottest years in history. Ever since the start of the pandemic, huge amounts of waste have been accumulated and haphazardly disposed of due to the panicked hoarding mindset and the need for all things disposable, such as masks and other personal protective equipment. This new year’s resolution should be to save the planet.

Landing of Perseverance

After over one year in space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s rover, Perseverance, touched down on the dusty surface of Mars. This rover’s mission is to look for signs of past life on Mars and cache samples for its eventual return to Earth in around 148 days. Having launched on July 30 in the midst of a global pandemic, this rover’s name is relevant on many levels. Taken literally, this rover is persevering on a hostile planet, but this journey represents the perseverance of humanity in whatever challenges that may stand in the way.

Billionaires in the Space Race

Three prominent billionaires are taking the phrase “reach for the stars” literally. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson each have a new mission: filling space with tourists. Though they share a common goal, these businessmen have varying visions and have set different records along the way. Musk’s Falcon 9 made history on September 15 as the first space mission with an all-civilian crew; the passengers remained in orbit for three days. Branson, the first passenger on a rocket he helped fund, took a one-and-a-half-hour trip to and from space in his Virgin Galactic ship, while Bezos’s trip in New Shepard was only eleven minutes. Many suspect the cause for the sudden space craze to be the billionaires’ higher-than-sky egos. However, Branson claimed, “We are here to make space more accessible to all [...] for everybody.” He seems to have intentionally left out that the tickets to fly were $250,000 each, but the prices are likely to decrease as space travel becomes more common. Rather than throwing their money around, it is probable that these billionaires have embarked on these missions to show that the sky is not the limit.

Malaria, Managed

From 6,000 years ago in Ancient Mesopotamia, cuneiform engraved in clay tablets describe deadly and periodic fevers: the disease that we now know as malaria. Having taken countless lives for millennia, there is finally a reliable form of protection against this parasitic disease spread by infected mosquitoes; near the end of just last year, the WHO approved the first malaria vaccine. If not lower their masks, at least people may now lower their bug spray and sigh in relief.

Though 2021 was an extremely trying year, it is important to recount not just the bad, but the good, exciting, funny, and hopeful. The expectations for 2022 are focused on healing—for both the Earth and its people.