Top 10 Biggest Scientific Discoveries of 2021

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Top 10 Biggest Scientific Discoveries of 2021

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
These scientific discoveries will shape the world for years to come. For this list, we'll be looking at the most fascinating and significant things that scientists learned about the world in 2021. Our countdown includes The Maximum Human Lifespan, Complex Thoughts Mirror Fractals, New Organic Molecules on Mars, and more!
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Top 10 Biggest Scientific Discoveries of 2021


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Biggest Scientific Discoveries of 2021.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the most fascinating and significant things that scientists learned about the world in 2021. We’ll be focusing on findings that add new information to scientific knowledge.

What recent scientific discovery excites you? Tell us in the comments.

#10: The Maximum Human Lifespan

We can put a man on the moon, and even edit our own genes. But we can’t cheat death … yet. Mind you, 2021 saw some promising progress in this area. A research team from Italy and Switzerland has discovered that people who live past 105 tend to have genes linked to efficient DNA repair. Could this be the key that unlocks immortality? Well, maybe. But in the meantime, another set of researchers, from Singapore, Moscow and Buffalo, New York, believe that our maximum lifespan is probably between 120 and 150. Based on blood cell and step counts, they concluded that independent of stress factors, our body experiences a “progressive loss of physiological resilience” - putting a hard cap of 150 on the human lifespan.

#9: Borgs

The history of scientific progress is often the story of science fiction becoming reality. That may be a stretch in this case … but “Star Trek” did inspire the name of the “Borg” structures discovered in 2021. Microbiologist Jill Banfield stumbled upon them while studying mud from her backyard in California. She noticed long strands of DNA that seem to include genes from another microbe - suggesting the strand had assimilated them into itself. Banfield’s son, a “Star Trek” fan, suggested the name. We can only hope that they’re not preparing to take over Earth. As of writing, Banfield’s paper was a preprint, yet to be peer reviewed - so take all this with a grain of salt. But if validated, it’s a fascinating find.

#8: Warp Drives

Warp drives have long been considered the stuff of science fiction. But physicist Erik Lentz might have discovered a way to make them work - at least in principle. According to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, it’s impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. So how can we fulfill our dreams of reaching far-flung stars? Well, one method could be to ‘warp’ the fabric of space-time to shorten the distance between destinations. Lentz’s paper proposes that energy from familiar sources could produce a soliton, or self-reinforcing wave, that ‘warps’ space-time around a craft - allowing hyper-fast travel. However, the energy required would be massive - hundreds of times the mass of Jupiter. So we still have some work to do. But it is an exciting prospect!

#7: Early Human Arrival in the Americas

There’s a lot we’re still to learn about our migration out of Africa. For example, we can’t really pinpoint when exactly we separated from our ancestors. We’re also hazy on how long ago humans arrived in the Americas. Researchers in the 1950s estimated that the first arrivals crossed a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska some 13,000 years ago. However, since then, we keep finding evidence of even earlier settlements. In September 2021, scientists announced the discovery of human footprints near White Sands National Park in New Mexico that date back 21-23,000 years! That means that people made their way to the Americas while the glaciers of the last Ice Age were still very frosty - no mean feat.

#6: The Furthest Water in the Universe

Our galaxy has an estimated 100-400 billion stars, and one star per planet. About 300 million of these could be habitable. And there are an estimated 200 billion other galaxies in the observable universe! When you put all these numbers together, it seems almost certain that there’s alien life out there. But how can we find it? Well, one way is to look for water, which is essential for all known forms of life. And we’re getting better and better at it. In 2021, researchers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile detected water in a galaxy located a staggering 12.88 billion light-years away. Technically, it’s actually two galaxies merging together, creating interesting chemical reactions. It’s the furthest water detected so far in the universe.


#5: Muons Misbehave

Given how well we’ve mastered the world around us, it’s easy to forget just how little we really understand about the fundamental nature of the universe. The Standard Model of particle physics works well at small scales, but includes enigmatic gaps, and has yet to be reconciled with general relativity. Fortunately, the misbehavior of muons, particles similar to electrons, might provide a clue to what we’re missing. In April 2021, physicists announced that they’d confirmed the results of an experiment conducted 20 years before. When shot through a magnetic field, muons don’t behave as current models predict. This could indicate unknown forms of matter and energy at work. It’s a tantalizing thread that could lead to a new understanding of physics.


#4: Complex Thoughts Mirror Fractals

What IS a thought? What does it look like? Every year, we come closer and closer to understanding the brain and its relationship with the mind. 2021 saw significant progress in brain scanning technologies, with scientists at the University of Sussex developing a quantum brain scanner, and scientists in China creating the first high-resolution, 3D map of a monkey’s brain. Scientists also made new inroads in developing brain-computer interfaces. But perhaps most intriguing of all, a research team at Dartmouth has used imaging to discover that when people have complex thoughts, their neural networks organize into fractals - shapes that appear similar at different scales. The paper’s co-author Jeremy R. Manning describes the results as an “amazing lightning storm” of beautiful, incredibly complicated patterns.

#3: We May Have Detected Dark Energy

Thanks to gravity, the expansion of the universe should be slowing down. Instead, it’s accelerating. To explain this, physicists posit the existence of a mysterious form of energy called “dark energy”, which is thought to account for 68% of the total energy in the universe. But we don’t actually know what it is! Fortunately, there are hopeful signs for our search. In 2020, an experiment in Italy named XENON1T, which is designed to detect dark matter, received an unexpected signal. A year later, a study led by researchers at the University of Cambridge suggested that the experiment had accidentally detected dark energy particles produced in the Sun. If this is confirmed, it would represent a huge breakthrough in our search.


#2: New Organic Molecules on Mars

Are we alone in the universe? It’s a question we seem to come closer to answering every year. The Red Planet has long been our most promising prospect, and searching for signs of life - past or present - is one of the main mission goals of NASA’s rovers. In 2021, NASA announced that samples taken by Curiosity pointed to the presence of organic salts, and several previously undetected organic compounds. Organic compounds aren’t proof of life, but are the building blocks for it. While these aren’t the first organic compounds that Curiosity found, the discovery does enrich our knowledge of what’s possible on Mars - and add to the odds that someday, we’ll finally find signs of life.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are some honorable mentions.

The Earliest Known Fossil Life on Earth
From Microorganisms Living 3.42 billion Years Ago

Current Temperatures Are “Unprecedented” in 24,000 Years
A New Reconstruction Shows How Greenhouse Gases Have Changed the Planet

Carbon Dioxide Cold Traps on the Moon
They Could Be Used to Manufacture Rocket Fuel & Steel

#1: A New Human

The human family tree is a complicated one. But every new piece of the puzzle gets us closer to understanding our history. In August 2021, paleoanthropologists in China announced the discovery of a new species of early human, dubbed Homo longi or “Dragon Man”. The skull on which they based their report was originally discovered in Harbin; like other archaic humans, it has big brow ridges, wide eye sockets, and a large mouth, but is unusually long. Dragon Man would have roamed the steppes in the Northeast China Plain 146,000 years ago, alongside wooly mammoths and giant deer. More research is needed, and there is debate over the find, but scientists are hopeful that the skull could fill in some gaps in the story of our evolution.
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