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Five things we learnt in 2018

By Louis Shankar

Dec 26, 2018

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Bitcoin might not be the future of currency: After an unprecedented boom in 2017, peaking at $19,783.06 on December 17, the price of Bitcoin fell by around 65 per cent over the course of a month, between January 6 and February 6. There were various factors at play: speculation that South Korea might be banning trading in cryptocurrency; the hacking of Japan’s largest cryptocurrency market, Coincheck, and the theft of $530 million.

By September of this year, Bitcoin had lost 80 per cent of their peak value. Other cryptocurrencies followed. This collapse was worse than the Dot-com bubble crash of the early noughties. A Sky News investigation found that, as of this month, at least 340 companies related to cryptocurrencies or blockchain were either dissolved or liquidated this year in the U.K.

This collapse doesn’t look good for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies: it’s unlikely they’ll disappear forever but they won’t be a major part of our financial system anytime soon, as had been suspected a year or so ago. We have 12 years to prevent climate catastrophe: In October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a landmark paper warning that the world has only a dozen years to limit the extent of global warming to a 1.5 celsius rise in global temperatures. Even an aggregated warming of 2 celsius would significantly worsen the risks of floods, drought, unusual weather systems, extreme heat, and poverty and starvation for hundreds of millions of people.

The IPCC—a panel of the world’s leading climate scientists—insist that urgent and unprecedented changes are needed for this target to be met, which was the most ambition end of the pledge set out in the Paris agreement of 2015, which Trump infamously withdrew the United States from. Asked about the report, the US president said, “I want to look at who drew it—you know, which group drew it,” seemingly suggesting that he had never heard of the intergovernmental panel.

The 1.5 celsius limit is likely to be reached between 2030 and 2052 if the current rate of fossil fuel reliant production continues. The report notes that “carbon-dioxide removal” will be necessary in every scenario in order to curtail global warming. In short: we need to act now.

Endometriosis: A non-invasive test: A non-invasive test to diagnose endometriosis, has been made available in several countries this year, revolutionising the process. Currently, it takes an average of 7.5 years for women to get diagnosed with endometriosis; a 2017 US study found that 42 per cent of women with endometriosis surveyed had been told by their doctor that their pain was “simply part of being a woman.”

Endometriosis is a medical condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside of the womb. Its symptoms and effects include painful periods, painful intercourse, and infertility. Around ten percent of women have the condition.

A non-invasive test would revolutionise how the condition is diagnosed. As it stands, laparoscopic surgery is the only way to provide a definitive diagnosis, a process which is both risky and expensive. DotLab, an American startup, provide an alternative: “By measuring disease-specific biomarkers and applying advanced biostatistics, DotEndo provides the information you need to attribute her symptoms.” Heather Bowerman, the scientist and entrepreneur who set up DotLab, summarised: “Our goal is to help women live more productive, healthier, and happier lives.”

Water found on Mars: NASA confirmed in July that liquid water had been found beneath the surface of Mars. A lake is thought to sit under the planet’s south polar ice cap and is about 12 miles (20km) wide.

Elena Pettinelli, Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) co-investigator, says, “These results indicate that we are probably in the presence of a subglacial lake similar to the lakes present beneath the Antarctic ice. Alternatively, it could be a deep aquifer in which the liquid water fills the pores and fractures of the rock.”

The human race has destroyed over 80 per cent of wild mammals: Despite representing around 0.01 per cent of all life on earth, the human race has destroyed 83 per cent of all wild mammals and half of all plants, according to a comprehensive new study of biomass. “I was shocked to find there wasn’t already a comprehensive, holistic estimate of all the different components of biomass,” said Professor Ron Milo, who led the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The impact of humanity on the global ecosystem is staggering. Farmed poultry makes up over two-thirds of all birds on the planet, with just around 30 per cent being wild. It’s an even more stark difference for mammals: 60 per cent of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, while 36 per cent are human and just 4 per cent are wild animals.

Paul Falkowski, from Rutgers University, said: “There are two major takeaways from this paper. First, humans are extremely efficient in exploiting natural resources. Humans have culled, and in some cases eradicated, wild mammals for food or pleasure in virtually all continents. Second, the biomass of terrestrial plants overwhelmingly dominates on a global scale – and most of that biomass is in the form of wood.”