Why you should care
These innovations will change life as we know it.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
We rarely see science. For the most part, it’s through the application of science, in the form of tech — i.e., gadgets and machines — or medicines, that we experience the “developmental” advance of mankind.
Yet science is all around us, from why the sky looks blue to how doctors perform complex surgeries; from how simple atoms can generate powerful nuclear energy to why decoding the human genome could help find cures to seemingly intractable medical challenges. Science operates out of plain sight, but it’s in charge of our collective future.
OZY lifts the veil off the latest innovations — and the people behind them — that could fundamentally change the way we live a decade from now, or even sooner, with our latest original series, Scientific Breakthroughs. We also give you a glimpse of how the world of science itself is changing in fundamental ways — from those practicing it to those leading it.
Robotic surgery has long been too expensive for most patients, partly because a single company — Intuitive — controls key patents. Now, those patents are about to expire, which is sparking a race for the next innovations in the field that could help advance how machines fix our bodies, while making robotic surgeries more affordable.
Thanks to tech moguls like Elon Musk, most of our space attention goes to Mars. But in practice the red planet is still too far out for us to settle. More realistically, the moon offers a better chance. That’s why the European Space Agency is thinking about what a moon village might look like. Aidan Cowley, an ESA scientist, is leading the push to build a sustainable moon settlement.
For generations, female Indian scientists have been pushed to the fringes of their profession, rarely recognized or given the opportunity to reach still-higher achievements. That’s slowly changing, as Indian women take giant strides in science globally. From a 35-year-old mathematician who this year became India’s second woman to win the country’s top science prize to pathbreaking researchers in Sweden and the United Kingdom, India’s science landscape is changing.
Chinese-led research around nanoparticles is creating a number of firsts, propelling the country to the forefront of a field that could hold the key to sectors ranging from biomedicine and chemical engineering to electronics. Whether using nanoparticles for more precise gene editing than is currently possible or deploying the tiny specks to target malignant cells that cause breast cancer, Chinese researchers are on the cutting edge. And the world might need to follow their lead.
Peter Landschützer is devising models to compute just how much carbon dioxide oceans absorb. His work has sparked a debate, in particular over the ability of the Southern Ocean — which surrounds Antarctica — to save the planet. Previous estimates suggested that the Southern Ocean absorbs 40 percent of the planet’s CO2. But Landschützer’s work is calling such assumptions into question — and in the process challenging the reputation of a climate ally.
At the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Mileva Maric was a star student; her classmate, and subsequent lover, Albert Einstein was an enfant terrible who rarely attended lectures. The couple eventually married, but Maric long supported the iconic physicist, sacrificing her own career for his, and helping him write the scientific papers that propelled him to fame.
It isn’t just Solo cups and shopping bags; plastic particles are also clogging bodies of water. But waste has finally met its match. German architect Marcella Hansch is leading a team of three dozen engineers, biologists, designers and economists that’s developing a floating platform to filter plastic particles from oceans. The prototype is almost ready, and will be tested at the mouths of rivers. If it works, the platform could solve one of today’s most pressing climate challenges.
Is it a kite? A sail? No, it’s a satellite. Designed by David Spencer, an associate professor in Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, LightSail 2 is a spacecraft that uses solar radiation for propulsion. Launched in July 2019 by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy vehicle, LightSail 2 could prove critical in efforts to clean space debris from low Earth orbit that currently endangers spacecraft and the planet itself.
As the global campaign picks up against plastic use, the European Union and several of its countries are expanding research on not just breaking down plastic into component monomers but actually rebuilding plastic using them. The goal? To build a closed-loop, zero-waste plastic cycle that would keep the benefits of plastic — it’s light, easy to transport, easy for preservation of contents, easy to manipulate — while doing away with its negative impact on the environment. Europe is also beginning to share the technology with China and the Middle East.
Austrian physicist Lise Meitner was ahead of her time. Only the second woman to earn a doctorate from the University of Vienna, Meitner worked on the team that discovered nuclear fission — but wasn’t mentioned in colleague Otto Hahn’s receipt of the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the feat. Meitner was uneasy about the use of fission to create the atomic bomb, and famously refused to work on the Manhattan Project. Today, her legacy stands recognized in the form of element number 109 in the Periodic Table, named meitnerium after her.