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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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A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.
Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
A team of scientists managed to install onto a smartphone a spectrometer that's capable of identifying specific molecules — with cheap parts you can buy online.
- Spectroscopy provides a non-invasive way to study the chemical composition of matter.
- These techniques analyze the unique ways light interacts with certain materials.
- If spectrometers become a common feature of smartphones, it could someday potentially allow anyone to identify pathogens, detect impurities in food, and verify the authenticity of valuable minerals.
The quality of smartphone cameras has increased exponentially over the past decade. Today's smartphone cameras can not only capture photos that rival those of stand-alone camera systems but also offer practical applications, like heart-rate measurement, foreign-text translation, and augmented reality.
What's the next major functionality of smartphone cameras? It could be the ability to identify chemicals, drugs, and biological molecules, according to a new study published in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
The study describes how a team of scientists at Texas A&M turned a common smartphone into a "pocket-sized" Raman and emission spectral detector by modifying it with just $50 worth of extra equipment. With the added hardware, the smartphone was able to identify chemicals in the field within minutes.
The technology could have a wide range of applications, including diagnosing certain diseases, detecting the presence of pathogens and dangerous chemicals, identifying impurities in food, and verifying the authenticity of valuable artwork and minerals.
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies are techniques for discerning the chemical composition of materials. Both strategies exploit the fact that light interacts with certain types of matter in unique ways. But there are some differences between the two techniques.
As the name suggests, fluorescence spectroscopy measures the fluorescence — that is, the light emitted by a substance when it absorbs light or other electromagnetic radiation — of a given material. It works by shining light on a material, which excites the electrons within the molecules of the material. The electrons then emit fluorescent light toward a filter that measures fluorescence.
The particular spectra of fluorescent light that's emitted can help scientists detect small concentrations of particular types of biological molecules within a material. But some biomolecules, such as RNA and DNA, don't emit fluorescent light, or they only do so at extremely low levels. That's where Raman spectroscopy comes into play.
Raman spectroscopy involves shooting a laser at a sample and observing how the light scatters. When light hits molecules, the atoms within the molecules vibrate and photons get scattered. Most of the scattered light is of the same wavelength and color as the original light, so it provides no information. But a tiny fraction of the light gets scattered differently; that is, the wavelength and color are different. Known as Raman scattering, this is extremely useful because it provides highly precise information about the chemical composition of the molecule. In other words, all molecules have a unique Raman "fingerprint."
Creating an affordable, pocket-sized spectrometer
To build the spectrometer, the researchers connected a smartphone to a laser and a series of plastic lenses. The smartphone camera was placed facing a transmission diffraction grating, which splits incoming light into its constituent wavelengths and colors. After a laser is fired into a sample, the scattered light is diffracted through this grating, and the smartphone camera analyzes the light on the other side.
Schematic diagram of the designed system.Credit: Dhankhar et al.
To test the spectrometer, the researchers analyzed a range of sample materials, including carrots and bacteria. The laser used in the spectrometer emits a wavelength that's readily absorbed by the pigments in carrots and bacteria, which is why these materials were chosen.
The results showed that the smartphone spectrometer was able to correctly identify the materials, but it wasn't quite as effective as the best commercially available Raman spectrometers. The researchers noted that their system might be improved by using specific High Dynamic Range (HDR) smartphone camera applications.
Ultimately, the study highlights how improving the fundamentals of a technology, like smartphone cameras, can lead to a surprisingly wide range of useful applications.
"This inexpensive yet accurate recording pocket Raman system has the potential of being an integral part of ubiquitous cell phones that will make it possible to identify chemical impurities and pathogens, in situ within minutes," the researchers concluded.