Since the dawn of the 21st century, the reputation and importance of scientists in the zeitgeist have declined significantly. Perhaps in part due to the often contradicting results of studies that cause laymen to lose faith in the accuracy of science, the general declining trust in institutions, or maybe just because we don’t have flying cars yet.
20th century scientists improved our lives in countless ways that we take for granted today. This includes everything from antibiotics, radios and televisions to microprocessors, batteries and even the internet itself.
Maybe it’s because not enough time has past yet, despite the nature of our current world being more connected than ever, but 21st century scientists have been hard at work trying to tackle some of our most pressing problems. Here are some of the most important and inspirational ones along with their most impactful contributions.
Andre Geim (Graphene)
We’ve recently discussed graphene’s long-awaited arrival to the market, making this one of the discoveries on this list that we’re already starting to see mainstream applications of.
Graphene has been theorized since as early as 1947 by physicist Philip R. Wallace, although it didn’t get its name however until 1986. The -ene suffix denotes the hexagonal nature of the carbon atoms.
In 2004, Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov accidentally isolated graphene when they realized that flakes of graphite got stuck to scotch tape. They were able to narrow those flakes down to a thickness of a single atom. They also noticed that graphene electrons have very high mobility, which lead to the exploding interest in its application in electronics.
In 2010, Geim and Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.
Satoshi Nakamoto (Blockchain)
The blockchain has its roots in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta published in the Journal of Cryptology their proposal to time-stamp digital files as a way to determine their validity. The following year, they decided to enhance the process by employing Merkle trees, which connects all nodes to each other by the use of hashes within the data block.
It wasn’t fully realized in its current form however until 2008. An entity known only as Satoshi Nakamoto improved the design exponentially as part of his launch of the world’s first cryptocurrency; Bitcoin.
Bitcoin’s appeal, as well as its main weakness, is that it’s completely untethered. This aspect of cryptocurrencies is appealing for those who don’t want their money to be controlled by a government, but it also means that Bitcoin’s value is extremely volatile and depends entirely on supply and demand. This has been the main barrier to its popularity. That said, other cryptocurrencies have come out that try to be more stable, instantaneous and private.
Beyond Bitcoin, the blockchain is touted to be the backbone of the future internet, dubbed Web 3.0. Its decentralized and distributed nature eliminates concentration of media powers and the censorship that often comes along with that, even by authoritarian governments.
LIGO (Gravitational Waves)
Back in 1916, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves as part of his theory of general relativity. A whole century later, LIGO made an announcement that they have successfully detected gravitational waves as the result of two black holes colliding 1.3 billion light-years from Earth. This discovery netted the group a Nobel Prize in physics in 2017.
Without getting into the complicated specifics, the reason this discovery is important is because gravitational waves travel at the speed of light. This extremely high velocity causes ripples in space-time, and could potentially unlock the secret of time travel.
Dr. Garth Webb (Bionic Lenses)
20/20 vision is the ideal ceiling of “perfect vision” that everyone longs for. Canadian optometrist Dr. Garth Webb wants to take that a bit further with his new Ocumetics Bionic Lense that he claims lets you see “three times better than 20/20 vision” without glasses or contact lenses.
After eight years of research, $3 million in funding and a number of international patents, Ocumetics promises permanent results from just an eight minute surgery no different from the cataract procedure. The lenses allegedly don’t degrade over time and will never require replacement.
Apparently, it works by using something akin to a tiny digital camera that can shift focus faster than a human eye and is powered entirely by the human body.
Despite passing initial testing, Ocumetics redesigned their Bionic Lense for mass production. The new design now must undergo testing all over again. All of us nerds with glasses have our fingers crossed.
Dr. Shinya Yamanaka (iPStem Cells)
Embryonic stem cells have existed since the mid 20th century, and have made great advancements over the following decades. However, they still come with the ethical issue of coming from human embryos.
In 2012, Dr Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University resolved the ethical conundrum by transforming human skin cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells; which behave identically to embryonic stem cells without the moral cost.
Initially, stem cells saw usage in treating cancer, damaged hearts, and other ailments that require growing natural tissue. We’ve come a long way since then, however. Researchers are now been able to create fully functioning, natural human organs from scratch.
So far, researchers have been able to create a natural heart, bladder, lungs, pancreas and even blood. Using unrelated technology, scientists have recently also become able to create 3D printed bones – and they say science is dead in the 21st century!
Steve Ramirez (Memory manipulation)
In 2014, Steve Ramirez and his team shocked the world with their announcement that they’ve been able to successfully plant false memories into mice while they were asleep. The memories persisted when they woke up and the mice acted on them as if they were real.
Since then, his team was able to do the inverse this research: they have successfully erased memories in mice. The hope is now to be able to replace negative memories with positive ones in humans.
Another team from San Diego has been able to go a step further and manipulate memories without permanently removing them. They used long-term depression (LTD) and long-term potentiation (LTP) to weaken and strengthen the neurons respectively to effectively switch memories on or off at will.
Once you get past the scary headlines like “implanting false memories”, these advancements can have an extremely valuable impact on psychotherapy. It can help patients deal with trauma, depression, PTSD and even anxiety.
Bin He (Brain-Computer Interface)
Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) have been around for a some time now in one form or another, ever since Hans Berger discovered the brain’s electric activity. He was able to measure and record human brain activity using electroencephalography, more commonly known today as an EEG.
Over the last few decades, most applications of BCI have been rather invasive; requiring the implant of electric rod in the person’s brain, while non-invasive ones simply weren’t very effective.
In 2019, Bin and his team successfully completely research that enhances the efficacy of non-invasive EEG-based BCI applications by up to 500% for repetitive tasks, which makes up the majority of what most people do regularly.
We’re already seeing this technology in use for the control of prosthetic limbs with a great deal of success. This offers enhanced quality of life compared to current prostheses which are either uncontrollable (in the case of lower limbs) or electrically-operated. Current prostheses also require cables, batteries and other annoyances.
Other applications include allowing those suffering from locked-in syndrome – a state of paralysis that only allows them to move their eyelids – to be able to successfully communicate with the outside world. This might not sound like much as the rest of us take it for granted, but to them this could make all the difference.
Jennifer Doudna (CRISPR)
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) is a long and confusing name for certain DNA. Since the late 20th century and into the 21st, scientists have been able to map DNA, including the human genome.
In 2012, American biochemist Jennifer Doudna proposed that CRISPR could be used for programmable editing of genomes. This revolutionary effort on her part has landed her several prestigious awards in the scientific community.
CRISPR has already benefited us in a lot of ways, including a current attempt to cure blindness. Potential applications beyond the obvious ones in biology to prevent and cure illness also include uses in agriculture.
Additionally, CRISPR offers the potential for clean biofuels. Scientists have found a way to modify bacteria to produce energy out of methane and other waste products.
Hopefully this piece has restored some excitement and interest around scientific achievement, especially at a time of pandemic. Many feel let down by scientists and authorities that haven’t been able to contain it yet.
As you can see, our scientists have been hard at work to achieve impressive breakthroughs in just the first two decades of the 21st century. Scientific advancements will likely continue to improve and increase exponentially over the coming decades.