2015: New horizons for science


14 Jan 2022

Image: © 24K-Production/Stock.adobe.com (with elements furnished by NASA)

Scientists say hello to Pluto and gene editing, entrepreneurs enter the space race, and Ireland scores its first Nobel Prize for science in more than 60 years.

Celebrating 20 years of Silicon Republic, 2001-2021

2015 was a milestone year for Silicon Republic, with a new look, responsive design website and the inaugural Inspirefest, our major international sci-tech event.

Future Human

Sadly, the incredible science communicator Mary Mulvihill was not with us for Inspirefest as planned. She died just a week before after a short illness, and Inspirefest founder and curator Ann O’Dea paid tribute to her instrumental role in Silicon Republic’s Women Invent Tomorrow campaign, the precursor to creating a sci-tech event with inclusivity at its core.

At the time, Ireland was in a state of transformation into a more progressive nation. The marriage equality referendum dominated headlines for the first half of the year, and Silicon Republic joined the Business for Yes campaign to legalise same-sex marriage.

#MarRef was the chief topic of conversation on Irish Twitter, which also brought us the heartwarming #HomeToVote hashtag as the referendum drew nearer. The Yes was won and, later that summer, love would win again when the US Supreme Court ruled that states could not ban same-sex marriage.

At the very least, it gave us something to talk about other than The Dress.

Pluto flyby

Another star of social media in 2015 was the dwarf planet Pluto.

When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft set out for Pluto in 2006, it was still considered the ninth planet in our solar system. Nearly a decade later, New Horizons captured its first pictures of this demoted dwarf planet on the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt (which is half named after an Irish scientist).

After a brief breakdown in July, New Horizons awoke to take the first grainy snaps of Pluto’s surface – a closer look than ever before. Then it was one breathtaking snap after another, amazing scientists and Twitter folk alike.

New Horizons also marked a monumental moment for women in STEM, with women making up a quarter of the team, led by mission operations manager Alice Bowman.

Space race 2.0

Space travel was starting to open up in 2015, with astronauts aboard the ISS preparing the craft for visiting tourists and SpaceX giving us a first glimpse of the Crew Dragon capsule being built to take them there.

Some had ambitions to go even further, and the Mars One programme was exploiting these desires. Dr Joseph Roche was kicked off the shortlist for the one-way private mission to Mars after he spoke out about the selection process, which was driving applicants to raise money for the spurious project.

Meanwhile, two of the world’s best-known entrepreneurs were eager to take the lead in commercial space travel. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX engaged in a space race to launch a reusable, self-landing rocket for future space missions.

SpaceX got off to a good start with missions to the ISS and deep space, but the Falcon9 rocket just couldn’t stick the landing. By April, Blue Origin was preparing to launch its own spacecraft while SpaceX was teasing out issues with velocity and weather.

A summertime explosion delayed Musk’s space-faring plans, giving Bezos the chance to take the lead when the New Shepard rocket successfully landed after a test launch in November.

But SpaceX came back swinging, launching the first reusable rocket to successfully enter orbital space and return, landing upright at the end of December.

Cut-and-paste genes

Reusable rockets may have sounded like a far-flung concept even at the turn of the century, but 2015 didn’t stop there with its science-fiction-level advances.

Considered by many to be the breakthrough of the year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier developed CRISPR-Cas9 as a method for genome editing. The duo received the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences to develop the genetic ‘cut and paste’ technology, which had promising potential for tackling diseases such as diabetes, cancer and HIV.

While it had been around for a few years, this was the year CRISPR-Cas9 became cheaper and research exploded.

Scientists were largely in support of low-level research on CRISPR but not its clinical use in the human germline, making heritable changes. But in April, it was confirmed that scientists in China had used CRISPR to edit the genomes of non-viable human embryos to see if they could remove the genes responsible for a serious blood disorder.

Ethical questions were raised and at December’s International Summit on Gene Editing, scientists agreed to establish an international forum to address concerns around CRISPR and harmonise regulations globally.

Ireland’s newest Nobel laureate

Doudna and Charpentier would later receive a Nobel Prize for their work on CRISPR, but 2015’s honourees included Donegal-born Trinity College Dublin graduate William C Campbell.

Campbell was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on an anti-parasitic drug used on domestic farm animals. He developed the drug, Avermectin, while working with Merck in the US. It was then further refined as Ivermectin, a treatment for the condition known as ‘river blindness’.

He was the first Irish person to receive a Nobel Prize for the sciences since Waterford man and ‘atom splitter’ Ernest Walton in 1951.

Campbell was not the only Irish award-winner of 2015. Beats Medical founder Ciara Clancy was named Cartier Laureate for Europe for her work with Parkinson’s patients; 13-year-old Niamh Scanlon was the second Irish girl in a row to be crowned EU Digital Girl of the Year; and Prof Louise Kenny scooped an award from the American Heart Association for her work on foetal and neonatal research.

To protect and surveil

Ireland gained international attention for other reasons in 2015. In October, Safe Harbour was submerged when the Court of Justice of the European Union declared this EU-US data-sharing agreement to be invalid in the case of Max Schrems versus the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.

By December, EU legislators had agreed the text of a data protection package that included the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The EU was determined to draw a line between its data regime and that of the US, which had simultaneously passed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), which effectively legalised government snooping.

Terrorist attacks in Paris were used to justify government tech surveillance, reigniting a fiery debate on encryption and backdoors. And it wasn’t just the US government looking for a way in. In the UK, prime minister David Cameron had already threatened to ban encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat if British intelligence services were unable to monitor them.

Later in the year, the UK government showcased a raft of new surveillance laws that further strengthened the spying capabilities of one of the most advanced surveillance states in the world. Edward Snowden was quick to criticise and Apple followed, warning that there was no guarantee backdoors could be built for use by ‘good guys’ only.

All shook up

From splits to reshuffles and births to departures, Big Tech went through big changes in 2015.

Yahoo followed HP’s example, deciding to split into two separate entities following a months-long battle with the IRS over its continued attempts to spin-off its $32bn stake in Alibaba.

Earlier, Yahoo rival Google announced it was rebranding as Alphabet. The move saw Alphabet Inc replace Google as the company’s public trading entity. Sergey Brin became president of Alphabet and its subsidiary companies (including Google) while Sundar Pichai became Google CEO.

Jack Dorsey returned to Twitter as CEO seven years after his departure from the role. He replaced outgoing CEO Dick Costolo.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg celebrated the birth of his first child as well as that of his philanthropy career when he and wife Priscilla Chan pledged to donate 99pc of their fortune to charity.

Closer to home, an Irish telecoms provider underwent a rebrand and leadership change. In September, Eircom became Eir under new CEO Richard Moat. A week later, Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave decided to take his business elsewhere, announcing that the annual event would be held in Lisbon instead of Dublin from 2016 onwards.

In other news:

12 January: An open letter signed by Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and many others commits to ensuring the development of AI won’t end humanity.

14 January: Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe Systems reach a $415m settlement agreement after almost four years battling an antitrust class action lawsuit claiming they restricted Silicon Valley employees from changing jobs.

4 February: Ireland’s €10m National Lottery jackpot draw is postponed due to a 3G telecoms crash.

11 March: Scientist publish their discovery of a warm ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

30 April: John Herlihy steps down after 10 years leading Google in Ireland. (He would later be appointed EMEA MD for LinkedIn.)

30 April: NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft crashes into the surface of Mercury after years of sending back stunning images of the planet it was circling.

14 May: HTTP/2, the first new version of HTTP since 1997, is introduced.

19 May: Silicon Republic reveals Facebook’s plans to build a €200m data centre at Clonee in Co Meath.

23 June: Researchers aboard the MV Celtic Explorer report the surprising discovery of a coral reef off the Kerry coast.

2 July: Irish start-up Hassle, described as ‘Hailo for cleaners’, is acquired by Berlin-based Helpling for €32m.

27 July: Outbox Incubator, the world’s first incubator programme for young women under 22, kicks off in London.

27 July: Details of Stagefright, the first in a series of bugs affecting hundreds of millions of Android devices, are disclosed.

1 August: Isis Anchalee starts the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag in response to those sceptical of her appearance in a tech recruitment campaign.

11 August: Apple gets the green light for an €850m data centre in Athenry, Galway.

21 August: Google announces that it has begun construction of a new €150m data centre in west Dublin.

24 August: Facebook achieves a milestone 1bn users in a single day.

10 September: Scientists announce the discovery of Homo naledi, a new species in the ancestry of humans.

18 September: The Volkswagen emissions scandal breaks when the US Environmental Protection Agency issues the carmaker with a clean air violation, alleging that it concealed 1m tonnes of pollutants.

22 September: A team of researchers claims to have quadrupled the distance record for quantum teleportation, having transferred quantum information carried in light particles over 100km of optical fibre.

28 September: NASA confirms that liquid water has been found on Mars.

29 September: Edward Snowden joins Twitter and quickly amasses more than 1m followers though he only follows one account: @NSAGov.

30 September: Google and Microsoft call a truce after five years of patent lawsuits.

13 October: UCD data spin-out Logentries is acquired by security analytics giant Rapid7 for $68m.

29 October: By a narrow margin, the European Parliament votes to drop all criminal charges against Edward Snowden, recognising his status as a “whistleblower and international human rights defender”.

11 November: Apple CEO Tim Cook visits Ireland, announcing 1,000 new jobs in Cork.

29 November: Bill Gates announces two initiatives at COP21: Mission Innovation, a commitment by more than 10 countries to invest more in research on clean energy; and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a private green energy fund backed by Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Marc Benioff, Meg Whitman, Priscilla Chan, Jeff Bezos and Jack Ma.

30 November: 26-year-old Trinity researcher Haytham Assem is named the youngest-ever IBM Master Inventor.

2 December: The €26m Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG) opens at University College Dublin.

10 December: Chicago’s TransUnion buys Irish start-up Trustev for $44m, making serial entrepreneur Pat Phelan and his co-founders millionaires.

12 December: The final wording of the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions and limit global heating to “1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” is agreed at COP21.

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