It's Not All Bad! 11 Things That Made The World A Better Place In 2018
It has been a bruising year for the optimists. Adding to the endless political turmoil and desperate environmental outlook is the numbing realisation that we’re not going to wake up from this nightmare any time soon. But it hasn’t been all bad news. Thanks to the hard-work of scientists and a handful of rational policy-makers, some rays of light are poking through the storm clouds.
Nepal’s endangered tiger population has doubled
In 2009, there were only 120 wild Bengal tigers in Nepal, but that figure has almost doubled since then. The country’s government has pledged to double numbers by 2022, and is on track to meet that target. It achieved the increase by expanding the Parsa National Park, increasing the number of of soldiers patrolling it, and working with villagers in the protected area to voluntarily relocate, or reduce their dependence on forest products.
A chemical breakthrough could tackle the plastic pollution problem
It takes 450 years for a single-use plastic bag to degrade, but a breakthrough from US start-up BioCellection could make it happen in as little as three hours. The firm, founded by childhood friends Miranda Yang and Jeanny Yao, has developed a liquid catalyst that breaks the long molecules contained in polyethylene into smaller chunks. The technology works on dirty or contaminated plastic, and the company is currently scaling up its operations.
A 747 flew from Orlando to London on recycled fuel
By 2050, air travel could account for 22 per cent of global emissions, but a new type of fuel could cut flying’s carbon footprint. In October, a Virgin Atlantic passenger flight flew from Orlando to London Gatwick, using fuel that was a mixture of normal jet fuel, and ethanol made from waste gases from industrial factories. The initial flight used five per cent recycled fuel, but its maker LanzaTech hopes that figure can eventually reach 50 percent.
We're interstellar once again
On August 25, 2012, the Voyager 1 spacecraft left our solar system and went interstellar. However, one of its key instruments for tracking solar winds failed in 1980, meaning it hasn't been able to send back as much data to Earth as possible. This isn't the case with Voyager 2. In December it became the second space craft to leave the heliosphere and it's still in good shape. For the next two years, before it at Voyager 1 run out of electric power and thruster fuel, they'll be continuing to beam data back to Earth. After that, they'll float through space for eternity.
A smartwatch is helping people live with epilepsy
Embrace is a medical device, but it looks like a fashion accessory, with a sleek face and changeable straps. It measures subtle changes in the wearer’s sweat levels, and can detect if they are about to have an epileptic seizure. When triggered, the device glows red and automatically messages and calls the person’s caregiver. The device became the first smartwatch to be granted US FDA approval in February, and its makers Empatica are now working on adapting it for other conditions, such as autism.
Artificial intelligence is helping doctors make better diagnoses
DeepMind, the Google-backed AI company, has come under fire recently over its partnership with the NHS and concerns over the use of patient data. However, it is starting to make a difference. A trial conducted at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, found that DeepMind’s AI correctly spotted eye disease in scans 94.5 per cent of the time. That’s as good or better than leading ophthalmologists
The Nobel prize for physics went to a woman for the first time in 55 years
Only three women have ever won the Nobel prize for physics, and until this year it had been a long wait. Donna Strickland from Canada’s University of Waterloo was awarded a share of the prize for her work on using powerful lasers to study tiny particles. She shared the prize with Gérard Mourou from the University of Michigan, and Arthur Ashkin from Bell Laboratories, who at 96 is the oldest ever recipient of a Nobel prize.
Mosquitoes are helping to eradicate malaria
Genetically modified mosquitoes could tackle malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. A project in Burkina Faso is releasing 10,000 insects whose DNA has been tweaked so that they are more likely to produce male offspring, which do not bite and therefore don’t transmit malaria. Over several generations, the numbers of disease carrying bugs will drop sharply.
The first hint of an exomoon is a big step in our hunt for alien life
Astronomers have potentially discovered a moon orbiting a distant planet. David Kipping and Alex Teachey spotted evidence for the satellite while using the Hubble telescope to look for changes in brightness of Kepler 1625b, a gas giant 8000 light-years away. Finding exomoons is difficult, but by doing so we increase the likelihood of coming across a world with the right conditions for life.
People are spending less time on Facebook
In January, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that people were spending 50 million fewer hours a day on the social media site, after the company implemented sweeping changes to its News Feed algorithm. Now, the site pushes posts from friends and family over content from publishers, with the result that average user was spending two minutes less on the site each day.
Tech helped rescue the Thai football team
Hundreds of people from all over the world banded together in July to help rescue a youth football team that were trapped in a cave in Thailand by rising flood waters. Led by a team of British divers, the rescuers used a combination of old and new technology, including drones, AI-powered walkie-talkies, and good old fashioned pumps to get the boys out safely. And not a submarine in sight.