Well, here we are. Four months from the completion of the second decade in the third millennium.
2020 feels almost impossibly futuristic to me. Just look at it – it should, by rights, be appearing on a movie poster for some far-off utopic tale. But it isn’t, it really will be the here and now in, well, no time at all.
So, what do we have to show for it? The inexorable rise of AI, advanced genomics, scientific instruments so sensitive it really is mindboggling; all of them seem very ‘2020’ – but, somehow it doesn’t feel like we are living in the future does it? It never feels like we arrive. Today’s breakthrough swiftly becomes tomorrow’s history lesson.
But there are real reasons to remind one’s self that in an age where the new seems so relentless, that progress can be slow. Measles, for example. Back in 2017, after a decades long effort to vaccinate it out of the country, the UK was declared by the WHO to have ‘elimination status’. However, earlier this year our vaccination uptake levels had dropped so much the WHO no longer consider the virus eliminated. That really is a big, gulping, step backwards. It looks like the low uptake largely stems from the now entirely debunked MMR scandal of the nineties. Talk about slow progress.
And then there is Alzheimer’s. We have been working on a cure for a long time but we are nowhere. Almost all of the 150 or so drugs designed to tackle it have failed to work. The stakes are incredibly high, but we are only making millimetric progress. Find out why on p24.
Yet there have been of late a few unlikely – quaint even – stories that have snapped my mind out of its future-gazing torpor. ‘The future is here’ they scream. And those screams, in one case at least, are alcoholic.
Yes, it seems 2020 will bring with it a new artisan tipple from the exclusion zone of the nuclear powerplant disaster at Chernobyl. Atomik vodka is the result of a project run partly by Professor Jim Smith, an environmental scientist from Portsmouth University, to grow crops on a farm in the zone. So why booze? It turns out that the distillation part of the process is vital when dealing with contaminated grain. And it looks like it has worked – when tested the vodka was no more radioactive than any other vodka says Smith. This means we can see in the brave new world of 2020 with some ‘Chernobby Voddy’ – and given the half-life involved in the effusions of that disaster, that really does seem brave.
The final story to live-up to the shimmering futuristic edifice of the year 2020 is the staggering revelation that there is life on the moon. Probably. And we put it there... well, we crashed it there. Back in April the Israeli space probe Beresheet was meant to touch down on the moon. It failed to the tune of a failed engine and smashed itself onto the lunar surface. Thing is, it was carrying some of the toughest creatures we have ever discovered on Earth – tardigrades. Those creatures are now, more than likely, spewed over a section of the moon’s surface. Did they survive? We don’t know. Could they have survived? Most certainly.
By 2020, then, it is probable there will be life on an extra-terrestrial body. And that is exactly the kind of future I imagined when I was a boy. That we put it there... well, let’s gloss over that.