04.01.2021 change 04.01.2021

Science in 2020 – not just coronavirus

Photo: Fotolia Photo: Fotolia

The SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus dominated the year 2020, but a lot of interesting things also happened in science. For starters, a probe embarked towards the Sun, the Americans flew into Earth's orbit on a private shuttle, the legendary Arecibo Observatory radio telescope collapsed and record heat was recorded in Antarctica, to name but a few.

- Scientists recorded gravitational waves (a signal from a collision of neutron stars) for the second time, as announced by the LIGO-Virgo consortium. The first, historical detection of gravitational waves was announced on February 11, 2016.
- Simultaneous transplant of neck organs and bone marrow performed on a six-year-old boy who was severely burned was voted the best reconstruction surgery in the world in 2019 by the American Society for Reconstructive Microsurgery. The award was granted during the ASRM Annual Meeting. The members of the society are approx. 950 leading reconstructive surgeons from around the world. The recipient was the head of the team of surgeons and the Oncological and Reconstructive Surgery Clinic in the Gliwice branch of the National Cancer Institute, Professor Adam Maciejewski.
- The oldest fungi fossils were discovered in the Congo. They are more than 715 million years old. Until now, the oldest find was dated around 460 million years old.
- Researchers from the University of Warsaw discovered a new method for efficiently producing mRNA. The scientists described the results of their research in Nucleic Acids Research. The article was recognized by reviewers as a breakthrough in the development of science.
- ANS coding developed by Dr. Jarosław Duda from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków is freely available in computer software around the world. Google ceased its attempts to patent this solution.
- An act signed by President Andrzej Duda introduced a new public holiday - Polish Science Day, celebrated on February 19. The holiday is celebrated in recognition of the achievements of Polish scientists
- In the Czech Republic, during work in the Pardubice province, archaeologists discovered a wooden well considered to be the oldest wooden structure in the world. The find is dated to 5256 - 5255 BC.
- Researchers from the Institute of Paleobiology PAS presented the conclusions from their analysis of fossils from some of the world's oldest turtles, Proterochersis porebensis. The turtles, living 215 million years ago in today's province Silesia, measured about one meter; they were probably omnivorous and amphibious.
- The European Solar Orbiter probe intended for solar research launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida (USA). The first useful data are expected in 2021. Solar Orbiter will get closer to the Sun than was previously possible and study the Sun's poles, which are hardly visible from Earth, providing new data about our star and heliosphere.
- Another record temperature was recorded in Antarctica: 20.75 degrees Celsius. The measurement was recorded on the island of Seymour, located east of the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, at the Argentine research station Marambio.
- There could be an unknown tunnel a few meters from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, according to information in Nature. According to some researchers, it may lead to the resting place of Queen Nefertiti.
- An international team of scientists published in Science a list of all proteins present in the brain. The freely accessible database is an unprecedented tool for research into this most complex organ, its diseases and new therapies.
- Polish archaeologists at Deir el-Bahari in Egypt discovered a stone chest nearly 3,500 years old containing packages wrapped in linen cloths. According to the head of research Professor Andrzej Niwiński, the find indicates the presence of a royal tomb next to it.
- NASA published a new Mars panorama based on photos taken by the Curiosity rover. The 1.8 billion pixel image is the most detailed panorama of the surface of the Red Planet to date.
- Infected with HIV at least since 2003, 40-year-old Adam Castillejo, was recognized as the second person in history to be cured of HIV infection, The Lancet reported. The man underwent a stem cell transplant in 2016 due to a coexisting cancer - Hodgkin's lymphoma. As a result, his body remained virus free for over 30 months after the antiretroviral therapy was discontinued. The first person to be cured of HIV in this way (in 2011) was the 'Berlin patient' - Timothy Brown.
- The Abel Prize, considered the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize, was awarded to two retired professors: 84-year-old Hillel Furstenberg from the Hebrew University and 74 years old Gregory Margulis from Yale, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo announced. The winners showed that probabilistic methods could be of key importance for mathematics.
- The remains of a prehistoric forest from the time of the dinosaurs were discovered in West Antarctica. In the Cretaceous period, about 90 million years ago, the climate in those parts was exceptionally warm, scientists reported in Nature.
- Genetic information from prehistoric proteins was obtained from remains dated at 800,000 years. They concern one of our prehistoric cousins and will help organize the human evolutionary tree, scientists reported in Nature. The remains of the species called Homo antecessor were discovered in 1994 in Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain by a team of palaeoanthropologist Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro.
- On April 6, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Science and Higher Education Jarosław Gowin resigned in connection with the dispute over the date of the presidential election.
- The Universe might not be expanding, as astrophysicists have so far assumed, according to new observations made by scientists from the USA and Germany. They described the potentially revolutionary cosmological discovery in Astronomy & Astrophysics. According to the researchers, the Universe has been constantly expanding since the Big Bang, a bit like a bun with raisins left in a warm place to grow. Until now, experts assumed that the Universe was expanding at the same rate in every direction.
- An international team of scientists announced the discovery of SN2016aps, the brightest, most energetic and possibly also the most massive supernova identified to date. Research results were published in Nature Astronomy.
- On April 16, at the request of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, President Andrzej Duda appointed Wojciech Murdzek as Minister of Science and Higher Education.
- International research with the participation of Polish scientists shows that neutrinos oscillate differently to antineutrinos. The conclusions help understand why there is so much matter and so little antimatter in the Universe. The results were published in Nature.
- An important discovery by Polish scientists: photosynthesis is driven not only by light, but also by heat. Until now, it was thought that plants use only light quanta in photosynthesis. A team from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University and the Institute of Agrophysics of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Lublin identified an additional mechanism: photosynthesis also requires thermal energy. The results were published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.
- The structures of the human brain responsible for processing language began to form at least 25 million years ago in distant human ancestors, scientists reported in Nature Neuroscience. This means that they are 20 million years older than previously thought. They had evolved long before Homo sapiens appeared.
- Scientists developed a comprehensive geological map of the lunar surface, useful, for example, for future lunar exploration and when selecting sites for research missions. The map was made available to the public, the US Geological Survey (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona (USA) reported.
- Professor Magdalena Król from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences received Proof of Concept grant from the European Research Council. The funding will allow her to continue cancer research.
- Toxic methylmercury created by bacteria from mercury of volcanic origin could have caused mass extinction in the late Devonian period (the Hangenberg event). Polish scientists were the first to detect the presence of this toxic compound in fossil sediments from that period. The study was published in Scientific Reports.
- There is a black hole a thousand light years from Earth. It is closer to the Solar System than any previously known black hole. What's more, it forms a triple system with a star, visible to the naked eye, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) reported.
- The oldest human remains of the Homo sapiens species in Europe were identified in a Bulgarian cave, the scientists reported in a series of articles in Nature and Nature Ecology & Evolution.
- Professor Jacek Popiel, literary and theatre scholar, was elected the 306th rector of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.
- A team of researchers from the BioCruces Health Research Institute in Spain, the University of Tokyo and the University of Bordeaux connected an artificial and natural networks of neurons using blue light. According to researchers, this is a step towards creating prosthetic parts of the brain. A prosthesis can replace not only an arm or leg. According to some, in the future it will even be possible to replace damaged parts of the brain.
- A research team led by a Portuguese biologist developed a vaccine against malaria. Scientists declared that it had 95 percent effectiveness in human trials. According to team leader Miguel Prudencio, after the first successful phase of laboratory research, a team of biologists from the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon, supported by several other foreign scientists, began testing on humans.
- A manned mission to the International Space Station was launched from the USA for the first time in nearly 10 years. Falcon 9 carried the American astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The manned Dragon capsule was commissioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) and built Elon Musk's SpaceX. For the first time in history, a vehicle made by a private company took astronauts into space.
Scientists from the University of Central Florida created a geological model showing where on the Moon there might be water ice, useful for fuel production on the Silver Globe. This, in turn, can help plan lunar mining activities.
- It is possible that the 'primordial soup', from which life emerged, could have contained a DNA and RNA hybrid, suggests research published in Nature, in which Polish scientists participated.
- Dr. Przemysław Mróz from the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Warsaw was among the winners of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) PhD Prize. The IAU PhD Prize is awarded for the world's most outstanding doctoral dissertations in the field of astronomy.
- Only 15 percent of the composition of the diet of people living in the lands of today's southern Poland several thousand years ago was meat, plants accounted for nearly 50%, shows the analysis of bones of several dozen dead from the Neolithic and Bronze Age from Miechów (Małopolska). The research was conducted by scientists from several Polish centres: the Polish Academy of Sciences, The Jagiellonian University and the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University.
- Professor Alojzy Z. Nowak became the rector of the University of Warsaw for the 2020-2024 term. He replaced Professor Marcin Pałys, who was the rector of the university for the past two terms - from 2012.
- Scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider identified a previously unknown particle. The new particle consists of four quarks.
- Human trials of the vaccine against various types of cancer began. Animal tests showed promising results, reported the journal Clinical & Translational Immunology. Scientists assume that this vaccine will be used to treat blood cancers such as myeloid leukaemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, childhood leukaemia, and solid cancerous tumours including breast, lung, kidney, ovaries, pancreas cancers, and glioblastoma.
- Scientists read the complete sequence of the human X chromosome. This will help comprehensively understand genome functions and facilitate the use of genome information in healthcare.
- The European Space Agency (ESA) presented the first images of the Sun obtained by the Solar Orbiter spacecraft. These were the first photographs of this star obtained from such a close distance. They showed miniature solar flares that previously had not been observed in detail.
- Professor Franciszek Ziejka, literary historian, a professor of humanities, former rector of the Jagiellonian University, died at the age of 79 in Kraków.
- NASA's latest rover Perseverance set off on a mission to Mars from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The vehicle will arrive at the Martian crater after seven months of space travel to search for traces of life on the Red Planet.
- The first Chinese mission to Mars, Tianwen-1, set off from Wenchang in the south of China. According to commentators, the unmanned expedition to the Red Planet shows the ambitions of Beijing to take a leading position in the global space race.
- The United Arab Emirates launched its probe Al-Amal (Hope) to Mars from the space centre on the Japanese island of Tanegashima. This is the first interplanetary mission in the Arab world.
- Manned SpaceX Dragon capsule successfully splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. The two American astronauts on board had spent two months on the International Space Station (ISS). It was NASA's first water touchdown since 1975. Dragon, launched into orbit in late May on the Falcon 9 rocket, was commissioned by NASA from SpaceX. For the first time, a ship built by a private company took astronauts into space
- Researchers in PLOS Genetics reported that they had found DNA residues from another, yet unknown human species in the human genome. The latest research was conducted by a team of scientists from American scientific institutions: Cornell University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
- Eight Polish universities were among the top 1,000 universities in the world. The University of Warsaw returned to the fourth hundred, and the Jagiellonian University - better than the University of Warsaw last year - dropped to the fifth hundred, according to the Shanghai Ranking (ARWU) published in mid-August.
- Even if global warming suddenly stopped, Greenland's glaciers would continue to shrink. According to a team led by scientists from Ohio State University (USA), Greenland's ecosystem has reached the point of no return. The conclusions were based on 40 years of satellite research.
- In helium cooled to almost absolute zero, scientists for the first time observed an interaction between two time crystals - ones that have a repetitive structure not only in space but also in time. The discovery could have important practical applications, e.g. in quantum information processing. Time crystals, also known as space-time crystals, are a novelty. The Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek predicted their existence only in 2012, and the first such crystals were observed in 2016.
- Professor Maria Janion, an outstanding Polish literary historian, lecturer, professor of humanities, for many years affiliated with the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, author of books on Polish and European Romanticism died on August 23. She was 94 years old.
- During a live broadcast, Elon Musk's company Neuralink showed a chip that can connect the brain to a computer. For now, it has been implanted in a pig. In the future, this system is expected to help paralysed people control various devices, games, and even connect to artificial intelligence, the creators say.
- The European Research Council (ERC) announced the names of 436 winners of the new edition of the prestigious Starting Grant programme. Three projects will be carried out in Poland. Two projects will be carried out by researchers from the University of Warsaw: Dr. Michał Pilipczuk and Dr. Wojciech Czerwiński, and one by a researcher from AGH UST, Dr. Urszula Stachewicz.
- An international group of researchers detected gravitational waves from a system of two black holes that merged to form a black hole 142 times the mass of the Sun. The resulting object is the biggest black hole detected with gravitational waves. Scientists from Poland participated in the project.
- Research showed that Poland was home to the oldest remains of Neanderthals in Central Europe. In 2008, tools and remains of Neanderthals, our extinct evolutionary relatives were discovered in Stajnia Cave (Mirów, Silesia). These were the first Neanderthal remains discovered in Poland. Originally dated to approx. 52-42 thousand years ago, they turned out to be much older, scientists reported in Scientific Reports.
- An international research group including a Polish scientist announced the discovery of a rare phosphine molecule in the clouds on Venus. On Earth, this gas is produced only industrially and by microbes that develop in an anaerobic environment. Its source on Venus could be biological organisms present in the clouds.
- Human footprints, 120,000 years old, were identified in Saudi Arabia, researchers reported in Science Advances. It is the oldest evidence of human presence in this region.
- Jerzy Gwizdała resigned from the position of rector of the University of Gdańsk, which he held from 2016. In his resignation, he referred to his deteriorating health. In the days before his resignation, the media reported that the scientist had committed multiple plagiarism.
- Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.
- Roger Penrose, Richard Genzel and Andrea Ghez received the Nobel Prizes in Physics. The Nobel Committee awarded them for showing that general relativity leads to the formation of black holes and for discovering a supermassive dense object at the centre of our galaxy.
- The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to the creators of the 'gene scissors', Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna. Their method developed new anti-cancer therapies and is still being intensively developed.
- Our immediate ancestors, people anatomically like us, reached the western parts of Europe 5,000 years earlier than previously thought. It could be 41,000-38,000. years ago. This means that they lived in this area with the Neanderthals, our extinct relatives. A publication on the subject appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
- A 215-million-year-old jaw fragment with two double-rooted teeth, which belonged to a previously unknown shrew-like mammaliaform, measures barely 2 cm. Polish palaeontologists reported on the oldest find of this type in PNAS. The small fragment of the lower jaw was discovered in 2014 in eastern Greenland by Dr. Grzegorz Niedźwiecki from the University of Uppsala (Sweden). It took several years to analyse the find.
- Dr. Wojciech Fendler from the Medical University of Łódź, Dr. Jakub Growiec from the Warsaw School of Economics and Dr. Michał Tomza from the University of Warsaw won the 8th edition of the National Science Centre Award.
- The US and seven other countries signed Artemis Accords for moon exploration and beyond. Further countries can join the agreements closely related to the return to the Moon.
- Material consisting of hydrogen, carbon and sulphur, subjected to very high pressure, began to conduct electricity without loss at 15 degrees Celsius. The results of the study by scientists from the University of Rochester and the University of Nevada in Las Vegas were published in Nature.
- On October 19, President Andrzej Duda appointed Przemysław Czarnek as Minister of Education and Science.
- NASA's airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) confirmed the presence of water on the side of the Moon illuminated by the Sun. The information was published in Nature Astronomy.
- There could be billions of rogue planets not associated with stars in the Milky Way. An international team of scientists led by Polish astronomers announced the discovery of the smallest rogue Earth-like planet.
- After analysing the Kepler space telescope data, astronomers estimated that the Milky Way could contain 300 million Earth-like planets with liquid water and other living conditions. Many of them should be within 30 light years of the Sun.
- The winners of this year's winners of the Foundation for Polish Science Prizes were Professor Jacek Radwan from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Professor Ewa Górecka from the University of Warsaw, Professor Krzysztof M. Górski from the University of Warsaw and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Professor Romuald Schild from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.
- The Vega rocket with two satellites, including one co-created by Space Research Centre PAS (Taranis), was launched from the Guiana Space Centre near Kourou in French Guiana. However, exactly eight minutes after the rocket launched, it lost speed and changed its trajectory. Taranis' task was to investigate the mysterious high-energy TLE flares.
- A new version of the data on the detection of phosphine in Venus clouds was released. The discovery became famous in September, but in the following weeks there was a lot of controversy about its correctness. The criticism concerned several matters. The released spectral line of phosphine was very faint, at the  noise level. It is usually assumed that in order to reliably confirm the existence of a compound in space, it is necessary to observe more than one of its spectral lines. Other scientists made infrared observations (where phosphine should also have spectral lines) and found no signs of the compound on Venus. The way the data was processed was also questioned. Other arguments indicated that if the line was real, it had been misidentified.
- Professor Piotr Stepnowski was elected Rector of the University of Gdańsk for the years 2020-2024. The election was announced after the resignation of Dr. Jerzy Gwizdała.
- China launched Long March-5B, a lift vehicle that carried the prototype of the Chang'e 5 lunar probe into orbit. It was supposed to bring back rock samples from the Moon. This is the first such mission undertaken since the 1970s.
- Professor Marcin Król died. He was an outstanding historian of ideas, long-term lecturer at the University of Warsaw, activist of the democratic opposition in the People's Republic of Poland and a publicist.
- The most comprehensive and extensive list of known plant species was compiled. It contains 1,315,562 different vascular plants, which means an increase in their number by about 70,000. (approx. 20%) compared to the previous list. The authors also managed to add 181,000 previously unknown species. The lead author is Dr. Martin Freiberg from the Botanical Garden of the University of Leipzig.
- A 300 m radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory was destroyed. It served astronomy and space research for 57 years, it was with this radio telescope that Aleksander Wolszczan discovered the first extrasolar planetary system. The Arecibo Observatory telescope also appeared in culture, including the 1997 film Contact, the 1995 film Species, a Bond film (GoldenEye, 1995), and in an episode of X-Files.
- The Ministry of Science presented its academic freedom package, a draft amendment to the Law on Higher Education and Science. The package introduces legal changes to guarantee teachers freedom of teaching, freedom of speech and freedom of research.
- Dr. Justyna Olko from the University of Warsaw, Professor Piotr Faliszewski from AGH UST and Dr. Sebastian Glatt from the Jagiellonian University were among over 320 winners of the ERC Consolidator Grant, a prestigious grant awarded by the European Research Council to outstanding researchers in any scientific field with at least seven years of post-doctoral research record.
- SpaceX Starship prototype exploded in Texas during landing. There was no crew on board. The Starship program prepares vehicles for Moon and Mars travel.
- President of the Polish Academy of Sciences Professor Jerzy Duszyński established the new International Institute of Molecular Mechanisms and Machines of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IMol PAN). The new institute will continue the ReMedy project as part of the FNP's International Research Agendas programme. The aim of the Institute will be to conduct scientific research, research and development work and training in the field of biological, chemical, medical, biotechnological, pharmacological and related sciences, and to disseminate the results of these studies.
- The Moon mission was successfully carried out by the Chinese spacecraft Chang'e 5. China announced that it intended to share data and soil samples collected on the Silver Globe with scientists from other countries.
Agnieszka Tkacz, Ewelina Krajczyńska
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