Millions of new Scientific Discoveries of the Decade research papers are published every year. Shedding light on everything from the evolution of stars to ongoing impacts of climate change to health benefits of coffee. With so much research coming out every year, it can be difficult to know what is significant. What is interesting but largely insignificant, and what is just plain bad science.
But over a decade, we can look back at some of the most important and awe-inspiring areas of research. Often expressed in multiple findings and research papers that lead to a true proliferation of knowledge. Here are ten of the biggest Scientific Discoveries of the Decade.
1. New Human Relatives
The human family tree expanded significantly in the past decade. With fossils of new hominin species discovered in Africa and the Philippines. The decade began with the discovery and identification of Australopithecus sediba, a hominin species that lived nearly two million years ago in present-day South Africa. Matthew Berger, the son of paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, stumbled upon the first fossil of the species, a right clavicle, in 2008, when he was only 9 years old. The species represents a transitionary phase between the genus Australopithecus and the genus Homo, with some traits of the older primate group but a style of walking that resembled modern humans.
These three major finds in the last ten years suggest that the bones of more species of ancient human relatives are likely hidden in the caves and sediment deposits of the world, waiting to be discovered.
2. Taking Measure of the Cosmos
When Albert Einstein first published the general theory of relativity in 1915, he likely couldn’t have imagined that 100 years later, astronomers would test the theory’s predictions with some of the most sophisticated instruments ever built—and the theory would pass each test. General relativity describes the universe as a “fabric” of space-time that is warped by large masses. It’s this warping that causes gravity, rather than an internal property of mass as Isaac Newton thought.
3. The Hottest Years on Record
Scientists have been predicting the effects of burning coal and fossil fuels on the temperature of the planet for over 100 years. A 1912 issue of Popular Mechanics contains an article titled “Remarkable Weather of 1911: The Effect of the Combustion of Coal on the Climate—What Scientists Predict for the Future,” which has a caption that reads: “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”
4. Editing Genes
The first approved gene therapy trial occurred in 1990 when a four-year-old girl had her white blood cells removed, augmented with the genes that produce an enzyme called adenosine deaminase (ADA), and then reinjected into her body to treat ADA deficiency, a genetic condition that hampers the immune system’s ability to fight disease. The patient’s body began producing the ADA enzyme, but new white blood cells with the corrected gene were not produced, and she had to continue receiving injections.
Now, genetic engineering is more precise and available than ever before. All thanks in large part to a new tool first used to modify eukaryotic cells in 2013. The gene-editing tool works by locating a targeted section of DNA and “cutting” out that section with the Cas9 enzyme.
5. Mysteries of Other Worlds Revealed
Spacecraft and telescopes have revealed a wealth of information about worlds beyond our own in the last decade. In 2015, the New Horizons probe made a close pass of Pluto, taking the first nearby observations of the dwarf planet and its moons. The spacecraft also revealed a surprisingly dynamic and active world, with icy mountains reaching up to nearly 20,000 feet and shifting plains that are no more than 10 million years old—meaning the geology is constantly changing. The fact is Pluto is so geologically active suggests that even cold, distant worlds could get enough energy to heat their interiors, possibly harboring subsurface liquid water or even life.
6. Fossilized Pigments Reveal the Colors of Dinosaurs
The decade began with a revolution in paleontology as scientists got their first look at the true colors of dinosaurs. First, in January 2010, an analysis of melanosomes—organelles that contain pigments—in the fossilized feathers of Sinosauropteryx, a dinosaur that lived in China some 120 to 125 million years ago, revealed that the prehistoric creature had “reddish-brown tones” and stripes along its tail. Shortly after, a full-body reconstruction revealed the colors of a small feathered dinosaur that lived some 160 million years ago, Anchiornis, which had black and white feathers on its body and a striking plume of red feathers on its head.
In 2017, a remarkably well-preserved armored dinosaur that lived about 110 million years ago, Borealopelta, was found to have reddish-brown tones to help blend into the environment. This new ability to identify and study the colors of dinosaurs will continue to play an important role in paleontological research as scientists study the evolution of past life.
7. Redefining the Fundamental Unit of Mass
In November 2018, measurement scientists around the world voted to officially change the definition of a kilogram. Rather than basing the kilogram off of an object—a platinum-iridium alloy cylinder about the size of a golf ball—the new definition uses a constant of nature to set the unit of mass. The change replaced the last physical artifact used to define a unit of measure.
They used a sophisticated weighing machine known as a Kibble balance. Through this, scientists were able to precisely measure a kilogram according to the electromagnetic force required to hold it up.
8. First Ancient Human Genome Sequenced
In 2010, scientists gained a new tool to study the ancient past and the people who inhabited it. Researchers used a hair preserved in permafrost to sequence the genome of a man who lived some 4,000 years ago. This is now revealing the physical traits and blood type of a member of one of the first cultures to settle in that part. The first nearly complete reconstruction of a genome from ancient DNA opened the door for anthropologists and geneticists. It allows them to learn more about the cultures of the distant past than ever before.
9. A Vaccine and New Treatments to Fight Ebola
This decade included the worst outbreak of Ebola virus diseases in history. Moreover, the disease quickly spread to neighboring countries, reaching the capitals of Liberia and Sierra Leone by July 2014. Providing an unprecedented opportunity for the transmission of the disease to a large number of people. Ebola virus compromises the immune system and can cause massive hemorrhaging and multiple organ failure.
10. CERN Detects the Higgs Boson
The event recorded with the CMS detector of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in 2012. It showed characteristics expected from the decay of the Higgs boson to a pair of photons.
Over the past several decades, physicists have worked tirelessly to model the workings of the universe. Developing what we called as the Standard Model. This model describes four basic interactions of matter, known as the fundamental forces. Two are familiar in everyday life: the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force.