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The issues and ideas that mattered most to Americans in 2020
Google's "Year in Search 2020" results reveal a year when "why" was searched more than ever.
2020 sucked. That's hardly news to anyone, nor a hot take that will stir up much in the way of debate. But a look at Google's past "Year in Search" results shows how starkly different 2020 has been from any other year the tech giant has chronicled.
Every year since 2001, Google has tabulated its annual "Year in Search" results by aggregating the trillions of searches on its site. Google then highlights the searches that showed the highest percentage increase over the year. This method means terms like "Netflix," "Facebook," and "YouTube" don't appear on the list despite a high search volume as their percentage change is negligible compared to previous years. What the method does provide, however, is a window into our changing needs, desires, and questions year-over-year.
In 2011, for example, Google's analytics reveal an America obsession with sports, DIY glitter shoes, and images of planking. We craved information on the latest technology, home appliances, and diets we absolutely stuck with (thank you very much). Political impasses and scandals remained as ubiquitous as ever, but there was a sense that we were finally rebuilding from the Great Recession. And the year's biggest letdowns—Google+ and "Game of Thrones"—wouldn't disappoint for several years yet.
Google's "Year in Search 2020" results inflect with a markedly different tone—one that's bleary, scared, and subdued, but also humane and compassionate. It was the year that, according to Google, more Americans than ever were asking, "Why?" It was also the year that, more than ever, we needed those answers.
The year of coronavirus
Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
In any other year, an outbreak of a novel coronavirus strain—such as SARS and MERS—would have been a story tucked into the Science and Health section. In 2020, it was the issue that mattered most. The term "coronavirus" saw the second-largest increase in searches in the U.S., behind only "election results." Worldwide, it was number one.
Those entries, however, don't reflect coronavirus's hold over the year. The pandemic infected nearly every category in Google's annual analytics. People needed to know about coronavirus symptoms and keep up-to-date on the virus's spread. Trending news terms included "stock market," "stimulus check," and "unemployment," all driven by the dire economic straits the pandemic plunged the U.S. into this March. And top word searches ensured "pandemic," "quarantine," and "asymptomatic" would become commonplace in our national word-stock.
Coronavirus widened the country's already intractable polarization, revealed its devastating health gaps, and, as of this writing, has killed nearly 300,000 Americans. The potential long-term effects faced by America's 15 million COVID-19 survivors are unknown but may include complications of the cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological systems.
While Russia announced the world's first COVID-19 vaccine in August, those claims were scientifically dubious. Since then, more rigorously tested vaccines have been green-lighted in the United Kingdom and the United States, and both countries have begun administering it to high-risk populations and front-line workers. However, the vaccine's effectiveness and how readily it will be available to everyone remains to be seen. For its first few months, at least, 2021 may be the pandemic sequel no one asked for.
The new national pastime
The Electoral College recently cemented Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election. Congress is scheduled to confirm the votes on January 6, 2021.
Thanks to an anemic baseball season, politics became not just America's new pastime but the world's. The U.S.'s number one trending search term was "election results," and it was number two globally. Politicians became popular search terms, too, with "Joe Biden," "Kamala Harris," and "Pete Buttigieg" leading the pack. And coronavirus-related changes to traditional voting methods in many states propelled Americas to google about early voting, how to vote, and where they could vote.
While American politics have been contentious more often than not, the 2020 election proved fraught, vitriolic, all-encompassing, and seemingly everlasting. The political parties sparred over issues such as the economy, immigration, violent crime, racial inequality, climate change, and, of course, the incumbent's response to the coronavirus. The September passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added another ideological melee into the larger political fray, and the entire process was further complicated by social media and the debate over its culpability in the spread of false information.
Worse, for many, the usual avenues of escape and mental decompression were barricaded by pandemic restrictions and mandates.
This national drama, which normally would have ended on Super Tuesday, entered its third act with a protracted vote count. As critical battleground states slowly tallied the influx of mail-in ballots, "who is winning the election" quickly became one of Google's most searched for questions of the year. The answer was determined to be challenger Joe Biden, bringing a decisive end to one of 2020's most challenging moments.
Kidding! In an unprecedented move, incumbent Donald Trump claimed the results were fraudulent and has (as of this writing) refused to concede. He and his legal team have filed more than 50 lawsuits to contest the results, most of which have been shot down as frivolous. For the record: There has been no evidence of widespread fraud in the election.
The Electoral College has since cemented Joe Biden's victory, and it looks like this is one 2020 contention that we can safely put behind us come New Year's. Kidding, kidding! A cohort of Republican lawmakers has proposed challenging the Electoral College votes when Congress convenes to confirm them on January 6. Sigh.
Livin' in virtual insanity
New York students returned to school for in-person learning this December.
Conspicuously absent from Google's "Year in Search 2020" are the usual events and happenings. With Americans forced to shelter-in-place and events canceled under pandemic restrictions, we've transitioned to a year of virtual living.
"Zoom" entered the top trending searches at number six, and "virtual" became a trending category. Many of the year's virtual inquiries related to education and student enrichment—with "virtual field trips," "virtual museum tours," "virtual learning," and "virtual classroom" all landing in the top ten virtual searches.
For schools, parents, and students alike, remote learning has proven one of the year's Herculean labors. While there is evidence that remote education has decreased anxiety for some children, there's also evidence suggesting that such setups are taking a mental health toll on others. Unfortunately, we likely won't know for some time how a year of peer separation will affect student's social development or their scholastic achievements.
American adults have also felt the social claustrophobia of stay-at-home orders and are seeking a virtual escape. Trending searches include "virtual marriage," "virtual baby shower," "virtual NBA fans," and "virtual EDC raves." As with their pint-sized peers, it remains unknown how this year of isolation will affect mental health in adults. However, data suggest stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental maladies have become more widespread alongside altered health habits and a lack of access to mental health support services.
These virtual events may serve as an analgesic, but they aren't a cure for the problem.
Personal growth becomes personal beauty
Credit: Eugenio Marongiu / Adobe Stock
Personal growth and health habits typically have a strong standing in Google's "Year of Search," but in 2020, diets and mindfulness took a backseat to the how-to's. How-to questions became trending searches thanks to Americans being cut off from amenities such as beauty parlors and nail salons.
Most of the trending how-to searches were for hair care. How to cut men's hair and women's hair. How to plop hair, color hair, and style curtain bangs. Americans clearly pined for their stylists in 2020.
Other notable how-to's included dermaplaning, washing hands properly, sewing a face mask, and rocking sweatpants with style. And if that list doesn't signal just how difficult 2020 was, then what else does?
Mother Nature pushes back
Well, science news may. 2020's trending science searches centered on natural disasters. Americans googled "fires near me" as conflagrations devoured the West Coast, destroying forests, neighborhoods, and even whole towns as they went. Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm, also trended after slamming into Louisiana this August.
All told, 2020 witnessed record-breaking levels of natural disasters, many hitting with a force more devastating than previous years. This rise in climate emergencies is part of a two-decade trend that scientists have linked to climate change and increased global temperatures.
When not worrying about natural disasters, Americans were fretting over "murder hornets," another trending term. Entomologists discovered the murder hornets—actually named the Asian giant hornets—in Washington state this year. Because native bees have no natural defenses against this invasive species, their colonies can be massacred by a few dozen hornets in mere hours. While one murder hornet's nest was discovered and destroyed near Blaine, Washington, experts worry there may be more.
Aiming to make 2021 a better year
Students line up to receive food aid packages provided by the charity Secours Populaire in France.
If we're looking for a silver lining to 2020—and at this point it'd be nice—it's that people were actively searching for ways to make the world better.
The categories "how to donate" and "how to help" both trended in the United States. People wanted to know how to help Yemen, Beirut, Black Lives Matter, and the Australian bushfires. They searched how to assist during the pandemic or help someone having a panic attack. They wanted to donate to Goodwill and send N95 masks to medical facilities. Even search terms about how to donate blood and plasma became trending in 2020.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, that means that more people were searching for answers to these questions than in previous years, a likely sign of people trying to help others. So while 2020 certainly sucked, it would have been worse without the people who made it better in their own small way.
As we look to New Year's Eve, we can crank up Elton John's "I'm Still Standing" and take heart that if next year is better, it is because of the efforts we made in 2020. Because 2021 has got to be a better year. Right?
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Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."
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