Top 10 Biggest Scientific Discoveries of 2020

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Top 10 Biggest Scientific Discoveries of 2020

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
2020 hasn't been all bad! For this list, we're looking at amazing discoveries announced in 2020 that added something new to our scientific understanding of the world. Our countdown includes Ghost Particles in Antarctica, The Origin of Carbon, Brain Cancer Vaccine, and more!
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Top 10 Biggest Scientific Discoveries of 2020


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 biggest scientific discoveries of 2020.

For this list, we’re looking at amazing discoveries announced in 2020 that added something new to our scientific understanding of the world.

Let us know in the comments which you’re most excited about!

#10: The First Extragalactic Planet

In 1992, history was made when astronomers finally confirmed the existence of the first exoplanets - that is, planets in a star system other than our own. Science has come a long way, and in 2020 it was announced that the first extragalactic planet had been discovered – a planet in a different galaxy! The planet is in a binary star system with a normal star and another, stranger object that may be a neutron star or a black hole. In either case, it’s strong enough to rip the larger star apart, and this process is producing x-rays. By studying these x-rays scientists were able to observe a planetary transit – incredible considering it happened over 23 million light years away!

#9: Ghost Particles in Antarctica

Neutrinos are particles that are so difficult to detect they’re widely nicknamed “ghost particles”. They have next to no mass and barely interact with gravity. But this year, the Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna detected neutrinos passing through the ice at a bizarre angle, as though the neutrinos were coming from inside the Earth itself. This led to theories that the particles are coming from a “parallel universe where time runs backward.” This is most likely not true, but these observations have taught us much more about these most mysterious particles and how they interact with the ice at the south pole.

#8: The Largest Known Explosion

If a black hole explodes and no one is around to see it, did it happen? We recently discovered the cavity left behind by the largest known explosion ever detected, roughly 390 million light years away from Earth in the Ophiuchus (awffy-YOU-kuss) galaxy cluster. This explosion didn’t come at the end of the black hole’s lifespan, however; in fact, the black hole is still there. It’s a supermassive black hole millions of times bigger than our sun, which seems to have spewed out a massive jet of radiation and matter. The vacuum left behind is 15 times larger than the Milky Way Galaxy.

#7: Water on the Moon

We’ve known that there’s ice on the moon for a long time. But in 2020 it was confirmed that liquid water exists on the lunar surface. NASA’s SOFIA, a flying observatory loaded onto an airliner, has detected water molecules on the near side of the moon. The molecules aren’t close enough to each other to form pools, but this is still incredibly significant, with space agencies planning to return to the moon. Another NASA study suggested that more water ice than previously thought could be trapped in pockets and shadowed regions. These discoveries mean that astronauts could draw upon a local supply of water from the moon itself, rather than depending exclusively on frequent deliveries from Earth.

#6: The Origin of Carbon

All life on Earth is based on carbon, the fourth most common chemical element in the universe. But it wasn’t until 2020 that we had a solid theory on how carbon actually forms. It turns out that white dwarfs - the stellar cores of dead stars - are the primary source of carbon in the galaxy. This is because white dwarf stars are better able to fuse heavier elements like carbon, as well as oxygen, compared with main-sequence stars. The latter typically fuse hydrogen, the lightest element, into helium, dying when they exhaust their fuel.

#5: The First Image of a System with Multiple Exoplanets

Extragalactic planets are all well and good, but there are plenty of planetary mysteries here in the Milky Way. While we’ve been able to photograph exoplanets a few times before, 2020 marked the first photograph of a multi-planet system around a sunlike star 300 light years away. The image was captured in July by the European Southern Observatory and shows the star and the two gas giants orbiting it. We also found out this year that new mathematical modeling used by NASA suggests many exoplanets may have oceans, and that more than half of sun-like stars in our galaxy could host planets in the Goldilocks zone!

#4: Doctor DeepMind

We may be wary of artificial intelligence, but there are some things that AI is far better at doing – like diagnosing breast cancer. It was recently found that Google’s DeepMind AI was actually better at reading mammograms and detecting breast cancer early than doctors. In clinical trials, the AI reduced instances of both false positives and false negatives. But don’t worry, DeepMind isn’t going to be a replacement for doctors that make informed decisions based on patient history; it’s going to work alongside medical professionals as an invaluable tool to help fight one of the most common cancers in the world.

#3: Synthetic Red Blood Cells

We may not have super powers yet … but we could soon have super powered blood cells. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, which is what makes them red, and carry oxygen from our lungs to our hearts and then to the rest of our body. Scientists have managed to create synthetic red blood cells that can do even more. They’re created by coating donated cells in silica, which is then covered with positively and negatively charged polymers. This creates artificial cells that are the same size, shape, and just as flexible. They’ve worked well in mice, and could become a new way to detect toxins, deliver therapeutic drugs, and fight cancer.

#2: The First Video of Atoms Forming Chemical Bonds

Atoms are so small that we need extremely powerful electron microscopes to study them. A lot of our knowledge is based on inference, rather than actually watching them doing their thing. But now, the first-ever video of atoms forming and breaking bonds to create molecules has been filmed by physicists, who trapped two rhenium atoms in a carbon nanotube. It may be hard to believe that the grainy footage came from 2020, but it’s the cutting edge of science and one of the most remarkable things ever seen. The technique will enable us to study atoms like never before.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few Honorable Mentions:

Signs of Life on Venus
Phosphine Detected in the Venusian Cloud Belt Could Be a Sign of Microbial Life

What Do Mummies Sound Like?
An Egyptian Mummy’s Vocal Cords Were 3D Printed

Wonderchicken
This Fossilized Fowl Is a Missing Link Between Dinosaurs & Birds

#1: Brain Cancer Vaccine

In 2019, researchers published a study showing that they’d successfully treated bone cancer in dogs with a new type of immunotherapy. They’d managed to create a vaccine from the cancerous tumors themselves. By summer 2020, these findings were being used to develop vaccines for human cancers, specifically certain brain cancers. It’s still early days, but the treatment has been approved to enter clinical trials by the FDA in the US. If successful, it could mean we have an amazing new treatment for human cancer that doesn’t require chemotherapy. And at the very least, this is good news for man’s best friend!
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