The triumph and fallibility of science in a historic year

Two years ago, Science News closed out 2019 with a lively cover illustrating 10 big news stories of the year, including the first image of a black hole, a claim of quantum supremacy in computing and the first U.S. clinical trials to test CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing in humans. But this year-end cover, like last year’s, features just one story: humankind’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s not how I imagined celebrating Science News’ 100th anniversary, but it seems apt that our centennial coincides with what will probably be the biggest story of our lives.

Last December, despite the horrors of 2020, there was reason for hope. Multiple vaccines had proved highly effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19, and new treatments were emerging. But even with the vaccine rollouts, we have continued to see wave after wave of new infections, including in places with widespread access to vaccines like the United States and Europe.

This long pandemic is a cruel reminder of just how good viruses are at evolving, with the emergence of the delta variant, and now the newly discovered omicron variant as well. We learned once again how hard it is to mount a public health effort for lifesaving vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy is not new; people have been skeptical of vaccines since the very first one, for smallpox, was invented by Edward Jenner in the 18th century (SN: 5/8/21 & 5/22/21, p. 32). During this pandemic, that skepticism has been amplified by global misinformation campaigns.

This year has also reminded us that while science can do extraordinary things, it’s a human endeavor, inevitably a work in progress. Early in the pandemic, scientists thought that the coronavirus spread primarily by people touching contaminated surfaces. Despite growing evidence in 2020 that the virus spreads largely through the air, it wasn’t until this spring that the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged the importance of airborne transmission. That slow process was also an example of how science does work, by questioning assumptions and rigorously testing hypotheses.

This year-end issue offers many other examples of scientists’ search for answers. And many of their findings were surprising, illuminating and often delightful. That includes the physics of a finger snap, how Stone Age “networking” events may have powered human evolution and amazing animal feats — including squirrels that parkour and spiders that can lift 50 times their weight.

And despite the year’s travails, we have been able to celebrate our centennial in a big way, with our Century of Science project. There, you can immerse yourself in stories of the biggest scientific advances of the last 100 years, along with reporting from our archive of more than 80,000 articles. As we provide accurate, engaging news of science in the next century, I hope you’ll continue to be among our 21 million–plus readers exploring the challenges and wonders of science.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.