Highlights of 2015

I don’t think anyone can deny that 2015 witnessed more than its usual share of misery and suffering, but staying true to my personal belief in optimism, I wanted to focus on the positive stories and events that have emerged over the past 12 months. Stories that inspired people, raised their spirits and provided hope for a better tomorrow.

A good year for science, both fiction and fact

NASA made some big revelations in 2015. The first of these were the stunning images of Pluto courtesy of space agency’s New Horizons spacecraft, the first of its kind to reach the dwarf planet following a nine-year journey.

Pluto, captured by the NASA spacecraft New Horizons
Pluto, captured by the NASA spacecraft New Horizons

The pictures reveal a diverse and fascinating terrain. From valleys dotted with hills and veined with trenches to super-massive glaciers, red hued atmospheric fog and vast fields resembling dunes.

Rolling, grooved mountains nicknamed “snakeskin” by NASA scientists have been described by geology and geophysics researcher, Bill McKinnon, as “more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology”.

Hot on the heels of the Pluto images that dazzled the world, NASA pulled another rabbit out of the hat when its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.
Darkish streaks of hydrated minerals appearing to ebb and flow on slopes of the Red Planet during warm seasons suggests the presence of water which, in turn, gives hope for the potential of alien lifeforms.

Je suis Paris

At the turn of the year, Paris was in the headlines for the callous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, an atrocity made worse by the horrible events that unfolded in November when a second series of coordinated terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 130 innocent victims in the French capital.

San Francisco City Hall illuminated with the tricolours of the French national flag.
The Sydney Opera House illuminated with the tricolours of the French national flag.

Despite being rocked by not one, but two tragedies, Paris has been at the heart of much to celebrate in 2015. Firstly, it became a centre of defiance in the face of violence. In the attempts to divide a nation, the attacks instead only achieved unification on a global scale as people around the world lined up to offer their support and solidarity with the people of France.

World leaders and heads of state offered messages of condolence, iconic landmarks from around the world were illuminated with the tricolours of the French national flag and on social media, the international community staunchly condemned the attacks and gave their thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.

In December, the city that had witnessed so much heartache ended on a high and instead turned to hope as it hosted COP21 – the United Nations Climate Change Conference – drawing leaders from around the world to negotiate and discuss plans to tackle climate change and deliver a brighter future for the younger generations.

The Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty, was struck between 195 different nations. Its aim, a long-term plan to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and reduce greenhouse emissions by at least 40% through building resilience to climate change impacts.

This was boosted by the announcement of the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) from a coalition of African heads of state. The initiative is a large-scale renewable energy plan designed to make the entire African continent entirely renewable energy efficient by the year 2030.

Significant medical breakthroughs

There were a number of promising strides in the medical industry this year, two, in particular, stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Malaria Protein Could Help Treat Cancer
Malaria Protein Could Help Treat Cancer

Firstly, a case study published in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation reported that researchers at the University of California Irvine had successfully used brain-to-computer technology which enabled 28-year-old, Adam Fritz, to become the first paraplegic in the world to walk without the use of robotic aids.

Following a spinal cord injury suffered during a motorcycle accident when he was just 21 years old, Adam Fritz was told that he would never walk again. Thanks to an elaborate combination of virtual reality, computer algorithms and lots of ingenuity, Fritz was able to turn that prognosis on its head.

Associate professor in biomedical engineering at the University of California Irvine, Zoran Nenadic, acknowledged that while a spinal cord injury severs the neural connection to the legs, there is no damage to the region of the brain responsible for sending commands which control leg movement.

By developing the technology that allows the brain to bypass the damaged spinal cord and instead send messages via a computer algorithm to electrodes on the patient’s knees, Adam was able to walk again.

In other good news, Danish scientists from the University of Copenhagen and the University of British Columbia may have inadvertently stumbled across a potential cure for cancer whilst working on a vaccine for malaria.

Researchers discovered that by adding a toxin to malaria proteins which seek out and absorb cancerous cells, the protein can then release the toxin once inside the cancer cell and kill it. The process has been successful in both cell cultures and mice with cancer and it is hoped that tests conducted on human subjects can be underway over the next few years.

Nature, football, Obama and democracy

On top of the above, I was also pleased to see FIFA taking steps to end the corruption that has blackened the organisations name in recent years when its own ethics committee handed out eight-year bans to its president, Sepp Blatter, and the president of UEFA, Michel Platini.

Etmopterus benchleyi - The Ninja Lanternshark
Etmopterus benchleyi – The Ninja Lanternshark

American President, Barack Obama, in his last term in the White House, continued to restore America’s international reputation when he met President of the Council of State of Cuba, Raúl Castro at the United Nations General Assembly on 29 September 2015.

The historic event, the first between leaders of the two nations in 50 years, was hailed as a new era in diplomatic relations with both agreeing to reopen embassies in each other’s countries.

Obama was also party to a deal that saw the lifting of crippling economic sanctions against Iran. A move that brings the international community closer together.

Myanmar took a step away from dictatorship and towards embracing democracy when the first election of its kind in 25 years took place on 8 November 2015. The National League for Democracy winning an absolute majority.

Finally, the shark family got a new addition when a team at the Pacific Shark Research Centre discovered a curious new species off the Pacific Coast of Central America. The Etmopterus benchleyi, or Ninja Lanternshark, is a deep-sea shark with an 18-inch long, jet black streamlined frame, electric blue eyes and the ability to glow in the dark.

With planet earth continuing to conjure up such weird and fascinating creatures, it’s a wonder why we need the escapism of rebooting much-loved science-fiction fantasy franchises, but then again, I don’t think a shark can wield a light sabre.

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