During the 2010s, researchers made tremendous discoveries across fields of science spanning from the microscopic to the cosmic. These breakthroughs include some of the most transformative and significant developments that humanity has yet made. They promise to change our world and our lives forever, and many are already doing so.
Here are the top 20 scientific breakthroughs of the past decade.
1. Detecting Gravitational Waves
In 2015, the U.S. observatory LIGO detected the gravitational wave aftershock caused by the collision of two black holes. Then, in 2017, LIGO and the observatory Vigo, in Europe, actually observed the gravitational waves produced by the collision of two neutron stars.
2. New Stages in Human Evolution
In 2015 in South Africa, a 300,000-year-old fossil of a previously unknown hominid, Homo Naledi, marked a stage of human evolution between modern Homo sapiens and our prehistoric forebears. In 2010, DNA testing on a bone from Siberia revealed the existence of another previously unknown hominid known as Denisovans.
3. Finding Exoplanets
Between 2009 and 2018, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope identified over 2,700 new exoplanets, orbiting other stars. In addition, other astro-surveys have found hundreds more, including, in 2016, an Earth-size planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, only 4.25 light-years from Earth.
4. Editing DNA
Scientists in 2012 announced that they had found a way to use the Crispr-Cas9 gene editing system to change DNA in any life form. This provided a tool that researchers could use for applications ranging from medicine to agriculture. It also has the potential to provide treatments for cancer and other maladies.
5. Seeing a Black Hole
Among the breakthroughs in measuring cosmic phenomena, from dark energy’s footprint to the movement of stars in the Milky Way, perhaps the most incredible occurred in 2019. That year, the Event Horizon Telescope captured the first-ever image of a black hole, located at the center of galaxy M87.
6. The World’s Oldest Art
The 2010s saw a remarkable sequence of discoveries in the world of art history, including several that pushed back even further the date of the oldest known art. The oldest was a cave in France that, in 2016, was found to have circles of stones dating back 176,000 years.
7. Traveling the Stars
In 2012, the first man-made vehicle left our Solar System when NASA’s Voyager 1 probe traveled over the heliosphere boundary. In 2018, Voyager 2 repeated the feat and sent back to Earth vast amounts of information about its journey into interstellar space.
8. Unearthing Archaeological Wonders
The 2010s saw a range of exciting discoveries in the excavation of sites from ancient cultures. Perhaps the most stunning occurred in Guatemala in 2018. Researchers used a system of lasers on aircraft to locate over 60,000 previously unknown structures of the ancient Mayan civilization.
9. Sampling the Solar System
After decades of work, NASA finally captured photos of Pluto when the New Horizons probe arrived at the dwarf planet in July 2015. The probe continued on past Pluto and caught photos of Arrokoth. It’s a Kuiper Belt object that shows a complex geology, giving clues about the Solar System’s earliest composition.
10. Combatting Disease
When the Ebola virus ravaged West Africa from 2014 to 2016, global health officials and pharmaceutical companies launched an unprecedented campaign to find a vaccine.
In 2015, Merck developed rVSV-ZEBOV, rapidly turning around the fight to stop the spread of Ebola across the continent and saving countless lives.
11. Advances in Cloning
Taking advantage of innovations in genetic sciences, researchers in the 2010s developed new therapies for in-vitro fertilization. Perhaps the most remarkable genetic advance of the decade came when scientists in China in 2018 cloned two macaque monkeys—the first primates to be cloned.
12. Finding the Higgs Boson
In the 1970s, Peter Higgs developed a theory that an undetected energy field is what allows matter to have mass. To function, the field would have to produce a fundamental particle: the Higgs boson. A team of researchers at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider facility in July 2012 was finally able to detect the Higgs boson and confirm the Higgs energy field theory.
13. Dinosaurs in Color
Paleontologists around the globe made some spectacular finds in the past decade. Perhaps the most remarkable came over several years. In 2010, researchers drew upon advances in the chemical analysis of fossilized pigments to identify the brilliant original colors of dinosaur scales and feathers.
14. Organic Compounds from Other Worlds
A series of discoveries by astrobiologists in the 2010s revealed that the organic molecules exist beyond our planet. Perhaps the most significant for life on Earth came between 2014 and 2016. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe found organic compounds on Comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko that resemble the materials that might have first brought life to Earth.
15. Monitoring Climate Change
The devastating cost of two centuries of burning carbon fuel sources became apparent in the 2010s through several studies. The most important of these was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment of climate change, in 2014. It lead to the 2015 Paris Climate Accords.
16. Finding Species and Losing Species
Over the 2010s, biologists identified approximately 180,000 new species, including the olinguito, the first western hemisphere carnivore found since the late 1970s. At the same time, though, an inventory in 2019 determined that nearly a quarter of all plant and animal species are at risk of extinction within the next few decades.
17. Advances in Spaceflight
New technologies resulted in some radical leaps forward in space flight in the 2010s. This include the first use, in 2015, of reusable rockets allowing for a vertical return landing. One of the more remarkable achievements of the decade was the 2019 arrival of China’s Chang’e-4 mission on the dark side of the Moon.
18. The Oldest Non-Human Tool Users
Scientists in the 2010s made stunning discoveries about animal life. Perhaps the most notable discovery came in 2019.
Researchers found that the capuchin monkeys of Brazil have been using tools for over 3,000 years. This makes them the oldest non-human tool users outside of Africa.
19. Changing Unit Standards
For decades, the unit of mass in science has been the kilogram—a weight determined by a single metal cylinder kept in France. Scientists in 2019 came to an agreement that the kilogram would be based instead on Planck’s constant. This means that all scientific units of measurement are now based on universal constants.
20. Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens Together
In 2010, researchers sequencing the Neanderthal genome made a surprising discovery: it included one piece of DNA specific to the modern human, Homo sapiens. This showed that the two distinct species interbred at some point. Since the finding, scientists have determined that 2 percent of the Eurasian genome derives from Neanderthal gene lines.
Science is always advancing and researchers around the globe are making ground-breaking new findings every day. The decade of the 2010s was no exception, giving us some of the most important innovations and discoveries that will continue to transform our lives into the 2020s and beyond.