what will happen this year

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

Hi Benjamin from Nature Podcast here. I wish you all a Happy New Year. This week, we ease ourselves into 2022, looking ahead to what the scientific community might have in store for us over the next 12 months.Doing this with me is Davide Castelvecchi, who has been working on nature. Hi David.

David Castelwich

Hello and happy new year, Ben.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, by your side, David. Thank you so much for joining me today. Well, in this outlook, I don’t think we start with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which of course is now in its third year. This time last year, I think everyone was pretty excited about the prospect of getting a vaccine, but a vaccine is also a 2022 thing. What happened in that space?

David Castelwich

Well, on the one hand, there are a lot of people, especially in low-income countries, who haven’t had the opportunity to get vaccinated. Initially, it was hoped that pharmaceutical companies would allow their patents to be suspended so that vaccines could also be produced in other countries, but this only happened in limited ways. So there is still a lot of work to be done to expand immunity and keep track of evolving viruses and new variants on the horizon, and how current vaccines will cover us from those variants, and whether there will be new ones that are needed and more specific vaccines.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, in your article, you talked about vaccine developers having their sights set on the next generation of vaccines.

David Castelwich

Yes, in fact, this technology may also help to improve inequalities around the world to a certain extent, since the messenger RNA vaccines that have been popular so far are quite expensive to produce, and they also usually need to be stored at low temperatures. And other technologies the researchers are working on, such as protein vaccines or DNA rather than RNA vaccines, may be cheaper to produce and easier to store, so distribution in low-income countries may be much easier.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

Some of these vaccine platforms may also be used for other diseases.

David Castelwich

Indeed it is. The hope is that this momentum, research and optimism in the vaccine world may extend to other pathogens. Lyme disease is one of them. Clinical trials are planned for HIV and malaria vaccines. So yes, we have reason to be hopeful.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

Absolutely, Davide, we are praying for good results there. But as you look ahead to 2022, let’s move on to another topic, which is space and space exploration, space missions, and what you have. 2021 is a big year for Mars exploration. We have many tasks to go there. But in 2022 it looks like a lot of tasks will take place closer to home.

David Castelwich

Yes, it’s pretty shocking to see a fleet of missions that are almost supposed to go to the moon. At my last count, our favorite satellites will be targeted by five different national space agencies, each sending at least one or even two missions, as well as several private space companies.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

So, as you said at the time, it’s a veritable Armada, but why focus on the moon in 2022?

David Castelwich

I think part of the reason there’s a lot of interest is that NASA has this long-term investment plan, and then there’s a general trend of expanding space operations globally with a lot of new countries. So, for example, we put Korea in the fray. The United Arab Emirates sent the Mars missions we’ve covered in the past to Mars, and now also provides a rover for one of those small landers. Japan is planning its first lander on the moon, and India, which has previously attempted a soft landing without success, will try again.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

So what are these missions trying to accomplish when they get to the moon?

David Castelwich

Well, in many cases, these missions coming up this year are really about building capabilities, developing know-how and technology. So, for example, the missions of Japan and South Korea are explicitly about learning how to do these things. The two NASA missions did indeed lay the groundwork for a permanent space station orbiting the moon and the goal of landing astronauts on the lunar surface again. One in particular is the first mission of a new launch system that NASA eventually plans to use to send astronauts. So, I mean, most of these tasks also have a science component. They do plan to collect data. But I would say that the focus here is on developing capabilities.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you said NASA is looking to build a space station in lunar orbit, and while that’s still some way off, of course a space station is being built right now.

David Castelwich

Yes, it’s called Tiangong and it was built in China. It will be completed this year, with more than 1,000 experiments lined up. Eventually, it will also be paired with a new space telescope that will fly in the same orbit as the space station, so astronauts will be able to repair and upgrade it, but not because I should say, fly for a few more years.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

Well, David, let’s move on. One of the things that you included in your outlook for 2022 is biodiversity. what happened there?

David Castelwich

A long-delayed convention on biological diversity was supposed to be held in Kunming, China. This is an emerging crisis, with more than a million plant and animal species now at risk of extinction due to habitat loss. The original plan was to hold the conference in 2020, but it was delayed due to the pandemic. It is hoped that the international community will establish new goals to address this issue. The original targets set in 2010 were largely missed by the 2020 deadline set by the last General Assembly.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

And, of course, Davide protecting biodiversity and tackling climate change are two things that go hand in hand, and last year’s COP26 was interesting in that regard because biodiversity is so often overlooked at meetings like this. But at COP26 there were pledges to help with things like deforestation, and of course many other goals and commitments. But that’s COP26. Now we’re thinking about the UN’s COP27 climate conference.

David Castelwich

Yes, this is scheduled for November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, so this will be the next round of UN climate talks, and this year we’ll see if the promises made in Glasgow last year are fulfilled. These promises have disappointed a lot of people, but will also address this to some extent, yes, the big question here is can we stop and reverse deforestation? Another question is whether countries will follow through on their stated goals of reducing or eliminating coal and gas subsidies. Carbon emissions fell in 2020 due to the pandemic, but then started to rebound in 2021, so they’ve gone back in the wrong direction. We’ll see what happens this year.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

So, let’s turn to another topic, which is something you talk about a lot on podcasts, physics of course, and you said this year contains a huge bonanza of physics. what do you mean?

David Castelwich

Well, in some ways, it’s a throwback to the big experiment. The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva is being restarted after several years of maintenance and work and some substantial upgrades to its experiments, especially two experiments where it is hoped that new particles will still be discovered. They are called ATLAS and CMS.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

So, is this something that might come out this year, or is it one of those things where they’re going to start the machine and take a while to chew through all the data?

David Castelwich

It will definitely take a while since particle physics is really a numbers game. The good news is that with these upgrades, they’ll be able to generate more and better data, and they’ll be able to test particle physics equations to increasingly detailed levels. So far, physicists are a little disappointed that nature hasn’t really revealed any big new secrets after the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson. So, they really hope to find new physics in tiny details and precise measurements.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

Well, one more, this is about a facility that will start operating in 2022 and hopefully give researchers a little more insight into the periodic table and, I guess, the elements in it.

David Castelwich

Yes, so this is indeed the next generation of nuclear physics experiments. Some say it could double the number of known isotopes. We now know 118 elements, and for each of them we know many isotopes—in some cases, dozens—and mapping the number of isotopes and their structures helps physicists understand, for example , how supernova explosions create new elements. We’re made of stardust, yes, and most of the elements that make up us didn’t come directly from the Big Bang. They are formed in stellar and supernova explosions through the fusion, splitting, and fattening of atoms and neutrons, all of which run across essentially the entire map of existing or possible isotopes. Hence, this facility is called the Rare Isotope Beam Facility or FRIB. It really feels like a giant leap in our ability to understand all of these phenomena.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

So, to learn more about the stardust we’re making up in 2022, David, it’s a good place to leave it. Thank you so much for joining me today.

David Castelwich

thank you very much.

Moderator: Benjamin Thompson

And, listeners, to stay up to date with all the latest developments in the scientific community, visit nature.com/news. I’ve always been Benjamin Thompson. See you all next time.

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