11 People Who Made 2019 An Outstanding Year in Science

From incredible discoveries to bringing attention to important issues, these people made a difference in 2019.
Marcia Wendorf

Science journal Nature just released its "Ten People Who Mattered in Science in 2019" list, and it features some people who you should get to know. There are also some people who aren't on the list but we thought it would be a good idea to include.

1. Quantum computer builder - John Martinis

Physicist John Martinis works both at Google and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has spent the last 17 years fine-tuning the hardware that is Google's first quantum computer — Sycamore.

Quantum computer
Quantum computer Source: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Sycamore is comprised of superconducting units known as qubits. They are quantum systems that can simultaneously represent zeros, ones, or any point in between. The vast power of quantum computing will someday allow computers to do things that are not possible today, such as searching previously unsearchable databases and cracking encryption.

In October 2019, Sycamore calculated the spread of outputs from a kind of quantum random-number generator, and did it in 200 seconds. By comparison, it would take the world's best supercomputer either 10,000 years, or at least a number of days to get it done, depending on who you ask.

Martinis says the significance of the feat is that the quantum interactions on small quantum systems are the same as those on larger and more complex systems.

Martinis attributes his interest in quantum computing to a lecture he attended in the mid-1980s given by the famous physicist Richard Feynman, in which Feynman proposed the idea of using particles' quantum characteristics to make computers that could do things that are impossible on conventional computers.

In the future, Martinis hopes to use Sycamore to verify that random numbers are truly random.

2. Protector of the Amazon - Ricardo Galvão

Ricardo Galvão is a fusion physics professor who, until July 2019, was head of Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in São Paulo. The organization uses satellite imagery to gauge the amount of deforestation in the Amazon River Basin.

Amazon fires
Amazon fires Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

After INPE released a report on July 19, 2019, Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro accused its scientists of lying, and Galvão of being in cahoots with environmentalists. The 72-year-old Galvão was stunned by the accusation.

Weeks later, just as the burning season began in the Amazon, Galvão was relieved of his position. Farmers burn the rain forest to clear land for agriculture, and President Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental stance has allowed them to do it with impunity.

Figures released by INPE on November 18, 2019, showed that 9762 square kilometers (3769 sq miles) of land had been cleared in the year to August, the highest rate in 11 years.

Since being fired, Galvão has returned to doing fusion research at the University of São Paulo.

3. The first image of a black hole - Katie Bouman

When the 2014 movie Interstellar came out, audiences were blown away by the image of the black hole at the heart of the story. Far from being entirely black, the black hole was pictured surrounded by halos of light, and it was the brainchild of visual effects company Double Negative VFX and the astrophysicist Kip Thorne. Thorne was one of the recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

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A year before Interstellar came out, a group of some 200 researchers began trying to image a black hole using the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a network of radio telescopes scattered around the globe.

Joining that group was a 23-year-old Ph.D. student in computer science and artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) named Katie Bouman. Bouman was tasked with helping to build an algorithm that would analyze the data coming from the various telescopes and turn it into an image of a black hole.

In April 2019, the result of all that hard work was announced when the first image of a black hole popping up on Bouman's computer screen was released to the world. And, just as predicted by Thorne, the black hole was outlined by light.

4. Catching fast radio bursts - Victoria Kaspi

In southern British Columbia sits CHIME, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment. It sounds like it has a pretty prosaic intent, mapping hydrogen emissions from distant galaxies, but it is actually doing something much more interesting.

Artist's impression of a FRB
Artist's impression of a FRB Source: ESO/M. Kornmesser/Wikimedia Commons

CHIME is searching the Universe for fast radio bursts (FRBs), which are mysterious flashes of radio energy. So far, CHIME has discovered hundreds of bursts, more than any other telescope.

The first FRB wasn't discovered until 2007, and in 2013, four more flashes were found. Kaspi, whose area of expertise is neutron stars, and who is an astrophysicist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, realized that CHIME could not only study fast-rotating neutron stars, it could also detect FRBs.

But first, CHIME would have to be upgraded because 16,000 different frequencies would have to be gathered 1,000 times per second. Kaspi went to work networking and seeking additional funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

In 2016, for her efforts, Kaspi was awarded Canada's highest science prize, the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. She used the $760,000 prize money to hire students and postdocs for CHIME.

In 2019, Kaspi landed a $2.4 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to build additional "outrigger" telescopes 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away from CHIME to aid in pinpointing FRBs.

5. Bringing brains back to life - Nenad Sestan

In 2016, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut were working with dead pigs' brains in an effort to learn how to better preserve human brain tissue for research.

The human brain
The human brain Source: Bruce Blaus/Wikimedia Commons

The researchers infused the dead pigs' brains with ice-cold preservatives and oxygen, and amazingly, the organs began to show widespread electrical activity, which might indicate consciousness.

Sestan immediately shut down the experiment and contactedbioethicists at Yale and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds his research. Before restarting the experiment, Sestan's team anesthetized the pigs' brains to prevent neurons from firing in unison, a precursor to consciousness.

Sestan's research showed that brains that suffer oxygen deprivation may not be damaged nearly as badly as previously thought. Despite concerns from animal-rights activists, Sestan wants to continue his research, but he says any future research will be decided by a committee. Sestan told Nature, "When you explore uncharted territory, you have to be very, very thoughtful."

6. Protecting the world's biodiversity - Sandra Díaz

On May 4, 2019, Sandra Díaz, along with 144 other scientists, announced their findings on the world's biodiversity. The conclusions of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) were explosive: due to human activities, 1 million species are heading toward extinction.

Biodiversity Source: Sasata/Wikimedia Commons

As one of the group's three co-chairs, Díaz, who is an econologist at Argentina’s National University of Córdoba, coordinated the work done by experts in 51 countries.

Their conclusion states that nations must make huge changes in their economies. Díaz told Nature, "We cannot live a fulfilling life, a life as we know it, without nature." Díaz remains optimistic however, because she says, "there is no Plan B."

7. Ebola warrior - Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum

As a young man in 1976, Muyembe Tamfum traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in response to an outbreak of a new disease.

Ebola Source: CDC/Wikimedia Commons

Around him, nurses were dying, and Muyembe Tamfum noticed that when he took blood samples from patients, the punctures continued to bleed. This was Ebola.

In August 2018, a new outbreak of the disease began that has since killed over 2,200 people. In July 2019, Muyembe Tamfum was assigned to lead a response.

Muyembe Tamfum's approach is to get communities to trust him, to respectfully bury the dead in a way that minimizes the spread of infection, and to search for effective drugs and vaccines.

His team's most recent breakthrough is the use of antibody-based drugs, especially mAb114, which is derived from a survivor of a 1995 Ebola outbreak.

Before he retires, Muyembe Tamfum wants to find one last puzzle piece — the animal that serves as Ebola's vector. A vector is a living organism that transmits an infectious agent from an infected animal to a human or another animal. Common vectors include arthropods, such as mosquitoes, ticks, flies, fleas, and lice.

8. Shaking our family tree - Yohannes Haile-Selassie

In February 2016, a goat herder found a jawbone in the northern Woranso-Mille area of the Ethiopian desert. Following right behind the goat herder was Yohannes Haile-Selassie, a palaeoanthropologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio.

Australopithecus anamensis
Australopithecus anamensis Source: Ghedoghedo/Wikimedia Commons

Lying 3 meters away from the jawbone was a skull, and together, they formed a nearly complete hominin skull dating to 3.8 million years ago. Most importantly, the skull and jawbone belonged to the oldest and most elusive of all known human relatives — Australopithecus anamensis.

Announced to the world in August 2019, the skull, known as MRD, is from the Pliocene Era, between 5.3 million and 2.6 million years ago, a period that was relatively empty of fossils, and MRD has shaken up our family tree.

Previously, researchers had thought that Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old fossil of species Australopithecus afarensis, had evolved from Australopithecus anamensis, but MRD's features suggest that A. anamensis and A. afarensis may have overlapped for at least 100,000 years.

9. Climate warrior - Greta Thunberg

On December 12, 2019, President Donald Trump put out the following tweet about Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg: "Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!"

Greta Thunberg
Caption Source: European Parliament/Wikimedia Commons

What's scaring Trump is Thunberg's approach to climate change. In September 2019, Thunberg, who has Asperger's syndrome, addressed a U.S. Congressional hearing on climate change, telling the Congress: "I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists. I want you to unite behind the science and I want you to take real action."

In July 2019, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Thunberg's protests "drove us to act," when Merkel announced sweeping measures to reduce carbon emissions. In December 2019, Time Magazine named Thunberg its Time Person of the Year, and placed her on its cover.

This may have helped to rankle President Trump, who has long displayed a fake Time Magazine cover featuring himself at several of his golf clubs, including Doral, Florida, Loudoun County, Virgina, Doonbeg, Ireland, and Turnberry in Scotland.

Thunberg's greatest contribution, however, may be her mobilization of young people to protest climate change. Thunberg organized a "school strike for the climate," and on March 15, 2019, an estimated 1.4 million students from 112 countries joined Thunberg and walked out of their classrooms for a day.

Students marched across Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Philippines, India, Mauritius, Nigeria, Kenya, Luxembourg, Italy, France, Sweden, Spain, Iceland, Ukraine, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Chile, Poland, the Czech Republic, Israel, and South Africa.

10. CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing system - Hongkui Deng

In 2019, at his laboratory at Peking University in Beijing, Hongkui Deng showed that CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing can be used to create immune cells impervious to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

CRISPR–Cas9 Source: NIH/Flickr

Doctors had determined in the 1990s that those people who have a genetic mutation that disables CCR5, a protein that HIV uses to infect immune cells, were immune to HIV. Deng decided to try to edit CCR5 directly using CRISPR–Cas9.

Deng's test on a patient showed that CRISPR–edited cells were safe when included in bone-marrow transplants, and that the modified cells persisted in the patient's blood.

A biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, Fyodor Urnov, announced that he thought that Deng's approach was premature, but Deng hopes to continue his work.

11. Making sure transplants are ethical - Wendy Rogers

In February 2019, Wendy Rogers, a bioethicist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, blew the lid off the practice of using non-consenting donors for organ transplants in China.

Transplant Source: Global Panorama/Flickr

Rogers' team's report prompted Chinese researchers to retract more than two dozen reports of transplants that had been published in professional journals. The journal PLoS ONE retracted 19 of the 21 papers it published, and the journal Transplantation retracted 7.

Rogers activism stemmed from a 2016 conference at which the documentary Hard to Believe was screened. It showed forced organ donations from political prisoners in China. Rogers and her team found more than 400 instances in which it is likely that organs from prisoners were used between the years 2001 and 2017.