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Science: 

The 5 biggest scientific discoveries of 2015

Science can be a tediously slow process. Scientific discoveries often take years, decades and even centuries worth of research to materialize, so it’s not much good standing behind the nearest person in a lab coat and waiting for them to announce something. These things take time.

Having said that, December is a good time to stand back and reflect and, when you look at the year’s news, it’s really been quite an amazing 12 months for huge, life-altering scientific discoveries. Here are five of the biggest.

The 5 biggest scientific discoveries of 2015:

1. There’s water on Mars

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Nearly 40 years after NASA first landed on Mars, and 45 years since ‘Life on Mars?’ – in 2015, we got closer to answering David Bowie than ever before. Back in September the space agency announced that yes, there is likely water on Mars, a key requisite for the existence of extraterrestrial life.

It’s all down to those vertical steaks you can see in the above image – at least if you look really, really closely anyway. They might not look all that exciting, but scientists say they’re created by streams of water that can travel hundreds of meters during the planet’s warmer summer months. As well as the potential for alien life, water on mars might be used to grow crops on the Red Planet, and could even eventually make it inhabitable.

2. A painless surgery for perfect vision

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“My heroes were cowboys, and cowboys just did not wear glasses,” says Dr Garth Webb, a British optometrist on the brink on one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the last century.

His new ‘bionic eye lens’ takes just 8 minutes to surgically insert, enhancing the patient’s sight, however old they are, to three times greater than 20×20 vision. Not only will the receiver of the lens have superhuman sight, but it’ll also last forever and remove the risk of getting cataracts in old age.

It sounds like the stuff of comic books, but could be available as soon as two years from now. The lens will still need to pass clinical trials so a lot could still go wrong, but ophthalmologists are hopeful this discovery could provide a major breakthrough in eye-care.

3. We have new ancestors

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Back in September we had our first encounter with Homo naledi, our human ancestors believed to have lived between 2.5 and 2.8 million years ago. Around 1,500 fossils were dug up from a cave in South Africa, and researchers believe there could be thousands more.

A discovery of this magnitude is hugely significant, as it’s not just few pieces of the jigsaw that have been recovered, but several whole jigsaws that are now being frantically completed. The skeletal remnants are believed to belong to around 15 individuals in total, ranging from infants to elderly, while the mass find indicates that the bodies were purposefully disposed of together in the isolated chamber they were found – a trait previously believed to be unique to humans.

4. We’re entering a period of mass extinction

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It’s good that we’re learning a bit more about our ancestors, but the outlook is sadly quite bleak for many of the species we share our planet with today. In June of this year a Science Advances report claimed that Earth is about to enter it’s sixth period of mass extinction, with species becoming extinct at between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate.

For the sake of perspective, the last time this happened was when a comet wiped out the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago. This time the causes are believed to be man-made, and if we don’t start taking action soon, the infrastructures that many animals exist off will be gradually broken down.

Admittedly, it’s not the the most cheerful scientific discovery, but important nonetheless.

5. A proper look at Pluto

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In space terms, Pluto is actually a relatively new discovery, spotted by the most advanced telescopes that the 1930s had to offer. It took until 2006 for NASA to send a spacecraft for a closer look, embarking on a 9-year, 3.6 billion mile journey – in which time it was actually downgraded from planet to dwarf planet.

Still, planet or not, a first proper look at Pluto is a big deal when it comes to understanding our universe. When the New Horizons spacecraft launched nearly a decade ago it was little more than a blurry brown disk in the distance, but we can now see it’s really a rather beautiful thing. The spacecraft is now expected to drip feed information back to Earth for at least another year.

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