Say hello to another great year of contributions to science

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The year 2021 was unusual in a special way: The rapid advances in science and technology had an immediate and enormous impact on mankind.

The unprecedented development of warp-speed vaccines has helped to significantly bend the curve of the Covid pandemic. To date, over 9.2 billion vaccine doses have been administered in 184 countries worldwide, at a rate of nearly 40 million vaccine doses per day. The science of mRNA vaccines, particularly represented by mRNA-1273 from Moderna and BNT162b2 from Pfizer-BioNTech, are examples of truly futuristic science, coming to market early out of necessity. You can think of mRNA vaccines as repurposing human cells to become their own vaccine factories.

The year 2022 comes with a similar promise from science and technology. Rapid genome sequencing, another contribution from the Covid era, combined with the innate ability of new vaccine platforms to adapt to virus variants, has enabled the development of booster vaccinations that better help a pandemic caused by an evolving pathogen can fight. Pharmaceutical companies are also developing new antiviral drugs that are making significant advances in early treatment as well as for serious illnesses caused by the virus.

Even as we make advances in current vaccines and therapeutic protocols, we may see new protein-based vaccines, an earlier and fairly well-established method of vaccine development. Our first DNA-based vaccines may also hit the market, which would be cheaper to manufacture and easier to store at room temperature. In addition, there are early indications that the mRNA revolution could be extended to vaccines against malaria, HIV and Lyme disease. If a vaccine can be developed to fight the malaria parasite Plasmodium, it will have a tremendous positive impact on public health, as malaria is the number one killer of all communicable diseases.

The ongoing revolution in physics and space science is just as exciting. After several years of shutdown, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern in Geneva will resume operations. Although the LHC led to the discovery of over 50 new particles, the last major discovery was that of the so-called “God Particle” or Higgs boson in 2012 (the name “boson” becomes a whole class of particles named after the Indian scientist SN Bose). Physicists are looking for new evidence that will take their thinking beyond the “Standard Model”. During this 50 The largest particle accelerator with a circumference of 100 km is expected to begin. To mix up some physics metaphors, the center of gravity of particle accelerators is shifting to the east.

In 2021 there was a lot of hype around space tourism and hypersonic weapons. Space science has made great strides beyond these widely reported achievements. China’s ship Chang’e 5 landed on the dark side of the moon late last year, but its experiments continue with its Yutu 2 lunar rover. The sun has had a relatively quiet period in the past decade, but is now leaving this phase. Its eruptions have begun to spew charged particles towards Earth, causing large geomagnetic storms and potentially glowing aurora borealis, satellite interference, and energy loss. Iceland may even be able to base its tourist attraction strategy on these northern lights.

The successful launch of a new large space telescope, James Webb (JWST), took place towards the end of last year. The JWST will replace the Hubble Telescope, but it is 100 times more powerful and will orbit about a million miles from the Earth’s surface (and orbit the Sun, not the Earth, more than 2,500 times Hubble’s orbit) . The JWST will join the company of two other space observatories, Herschel and Planck, at a location called Lagrange 2 to clarify the origin of the universe. Between quantum mechanics and the universe, exciting things are ahead of chemical biology, nanotechnology, quantum computers and artificial organs.

India’s contribution to theoretical physics and mathematics continues unabated and 2022 should be no exception. The Infosys Science Award winners in these areas over the years are representative of India’s accomplishments and potential. In areas that require significant resources, Indian efforts have focused on adapting basic science to economical technologies. Examples include our space missions to the moon and Mars, the development of the world’s only large-scale interoperable payments system, and the achievements in the development and deployment of rockets. During the pandemic, the country’s global contribution as a major vaccine maker was a continuation of its usual role.

As with everything else in modern society, the lead time between basic research and its translation into technology, and the time it takes to affect our lives, is rapidly decreasing. Even though the world faces major threats like climate change, cyber wars, and the possible emergence of new zoonotic diseases, the role that science plays is going to affect us all at quite a speed. The year 2022 will extend and accelerate the forces of change that began two years ago.

PS “You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the sunset,” said Shmi Skywalker on the Star Wars franchise.

Narayan Ramachandran is the chairman of InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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