Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Five Coolest Discoveries since the Birth of Sketchy Science

It may be hard to believe, but it's true. The blue and white marble that we call home has flung itself through one whole rotation of the sun since that bright June day in 2013 when a couple of science-loving fools first set out to explain the secrets of the universe. Sketchy Science is one year old. 

A year is a long time in the world of the internet. Fads come and go, nobodies become household names, science blogs add colour and detail to their sketches. A year is also a long time in the fast moving world of science. That is why for Sketchy Science’s first birthday we have decided to meander our way down memory lane to countdown the 5 coolest discoveries that have happened since we published our first article. If nothing else, it will prove that we have barely scratched the surface of all the cool stuff that is out there to learn about.

1 – Humanity Goes Interstellar
It took a remarkable 36 years from the moment in 1977 when someone at NASA pressed the “Go” button, but in August of 2013 the Voyager 1 spacecraft broke free of the solar system. At the time when the announcement finally came, the little-spaceship-that-could was 18.8 billion kilometers (11.7 billion miles) from Earth and finally free of the heliosphere (the limit of the Sun’s gravity). This marked the first time that anything created by humans has left the gravitational bubble that contains 8 planets, thousands of asteroids, and every single human being who has ever lived or died. It was a big moment in the lives of us apes and it is certainly worth taking a moment to reflect on. Bon voyage Voyager 1. We'll keep the porch light on for you.

2 – Seeing Like a Cyborg
In June 2013, at around the same time that we were putting together our first, rough little article explaining how lightning works, a group of Australian designers were unveiling the world’s first bionic eye. The way it works is a pair of glasses containing a camera send image data to an implant in a blind person’s brain. The implant stimulates the neurons that would typically be responsible for vision and over time those cells learn to respond to certain shapes, allowing someone with a visual disability to be able to see at least a basic outline of the world around them. There is certainly a long way to go before the technology is mastered or perfected, but the Australian invention is expected to be able to help 85% of people who are classified as legally blind.

3 – The Biome in your Belly
If you are a frequent visitor to our humble little corner of the internet, you may remember our article about how the bacteria that live throughout your body play a critical role in your overall health. The truth is, until very recently, scientists had no idea how important each person’s individual bacterial cocktail was. It was only in December 2013 when the journal Science published an article explaining how the micro-ecosystem inside each person is thought to be strongly linked with issues like malnutrition and even cancer. Next time you reach for a bar of anti-bacterial soap or are about to take a swig of antibacterial mouthwash, remember that the bacteria you are trying to kill might be helping keep you alive.

4 – DNA Surgery
Another breakthrough that made it just in time for the holidays was Genetic Micro-surgery. Basically how it works is scientists have begun to understand that a protein called Cas9 is used by bacteria as a weapon to break apart the DNA of viruses that try to harm them. In 2012, researchers discovered that they could use the same Cas9 protein as the world’s smallest scalpel to cut up pieces of our own DNA. That may not sound like such a great idea, but if you have a genetic disorder like cystic fibrosis or hemophilia and your doctor could send a protein into your cells to cut out the genes that are causing you harm, you might be keen to try it out. In 2013 the method took huge leaps forward with more than a dozen teams publishing papers on how they’ve used it to manipulate genes in everything from mice to human cells.

 5 – Our Not-So-Lonely Planet
Finally, as data continues to be processed from the now-defunct Kepler Space Telescope, we are getting closer and closer to proving that we aren’t alone in the Universe. In November 2013 astronomers announced that our galaxy alone is home to 8.8 billion stars with Earth sized planets orbiting in their habitable zones. Obviously they haven’t sat down and counted every single one, but based on the data they’ve collected so far they are confident with the estimation. Assuming 1% of those stars have planets that contain water, and 1% of those watery planets have life, you’re looking at a galaxy with 880,000 life-hosting planets. Getting to them is a whole other issue, though.

So there they are, the 5 (arguably) coolest scientific breakthroughs that have happened in a brief span of time that we have been around trying to explain things. It’s a real shame we couldn’t make the list 100 items long, but no one has time for that. The great thing about science is that discoveries of that caliber will continue to pour in. We are alive at a very exciting time, and we at Sketchy Science would just like to thank anyone reading this blog for allowing us to try and explain some of the reasons why that is true. 

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