Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Science marches on. It’s almost impossible to even keep track of all the standout new achievements and discoveries, as the search for knowledge shows no sign of slowing.

One of the biggest stories of the past week was the first-ever actual picture of a black hole. We’ve known they existed. Scientists are certain that there’s a supermassive black hole (4 million times the mass of our sun) at the core of our own galaxy. Now we actually have a picture of one that’s 6.5 billion solar masses in the heart of a galaxy called M87, about 54 light years from Earth. Of course, we’re not actually seeing the black hole itself (because they absorb all light and therefore are as black as you can get) but the gases around it. And it’s not a photo as we’d normally think of one, but the result of processing more than 5 petabytes of data from eight radio observatories around the world, an astonishing feat not possible only a few years ago. Let’s call it the first imaged evidence of a black hole. Still groundbreaking.

In other space news, a team has discovered a possible new planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbour, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, only about four light years away from us. More study is still needed to confirm its existence, but Proxima c is probably about six times the mass of Earth and takes about six of our years to orbit its sun, so it’s likely not habitable by our standards. Still, the discovery of any new exoplanet is exciting, and especially when it’s so close in galactic terms. A sister planet, Proxima b, was discovered in 2016 much nearer to its star, and is much more promising in terms of being hospitable to life.

Space technology continues to advance, too. The private company SpaceX succeeded in not only launching a Saudi communications satellite into orbit with its Falcon Heavy rocket (now the most powerful rocket on the planet) but also in safely landing its core booster and two additional booster rockets after the flight. Sadly, the core booster was still lost after high seas knocked it off its ocean-surface landing platform, but the technology worked!

Another new species related to humans has been identified from fossils found in a cave in the Philippines. Homo luzonensis is thought to have lived more than fifty million years ago, so other hominids like Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens existed at the same time, but distinctive pre-molar teeth are among the features that set Homo luzonensis apart.

In medical news, researchers in Tel Aviv have succeeded in 3D printing the first complete duplicate human heart made from material taken from a human patient. Previous efforts didn’t include all of the required blood vessels and other features, and this one isn’t transplantable either—it’s not full-size and it can’t (yet) beat on its own and pump blood. But with the severe shortage of donor hearts available for transplant, this new development is a huge step forward. Also exciting is the news that scientists have isolated several chemical compounds found to be in extra high concentrations in the skin secretions of patients with Parkinson’s Disease. This followed research involving a woman in Scotland who learned how to smell these compounds on her husband, a Parkinson’s sufferer. The finding offers hope of new ways to diagnose Parkinson’s much earlier than now possible, which could greatly improve treatment outcomes.

This is just a handful of the stories I could have mentioned, all reinforcing the fact that the human race is endlessly curious, inventive, resourceful, and determined. We have everything we need to create a bright future for our species. Don’t we? Don’t we?

Well maybe. But what about the many ways in which we’re threatening our very survival by destroying our environment? Climate change and other air pollution, ocean acidification, destruction of animal and fish habitat, and the spread of plastic garbage and microplastics throughout our air and water (and bodies!)

My point isn’t that human inventiveness can find technological solutions to these problems, although it probably could eventually. But it’s always better not to make messes in the first place than to have to figure out how to clean them up. And, really, the problems we’re causing are almost all the result of our addiction to consumerism in one form or another. We consume much more of everything, from raw materials to energy, than we could ever actually need. Our national and international economies are based on it—whole industries exist to persuade us to consume more and more, a road that must ultimately lead to disaster.

The Millennial generation’s movement toward downsizing, simplifying, decluttering etc. is a gleam of hope amid the gloom. We need to fully embrace that philosophy and put our species’ incredible ingenuity into finding other ways to keep us employed, to protect our planet, and to find alternatives to all of the things we’re doing wrong.

We can do it. Knowledge is power.