By Dan Morrison
2016 was the worst year in history.
Worse than 1914. Worse than any year from 1933-1945.
It was worse than the year that Ipswich- the ‘soccer’ outfit I support with both dread and pride- were beaten 9-0 by Manchester United (ironically the same year I was born).
2016 was the year an unprecedented number of stars and artistes slipped off this mortal coil. Chief among them was David Bowie, somebody who performed the dual role of entertainer and friend. He taught folks it was okay to be different.
The most recent was George Michael, former lead singer of wham! and of the solo artist “George Michael”. I don’t know whether I mean this genuinely or flippantly, but it wasn’t until his death that I realised how many people liked his music. Maybe that is the tragedy of existence, that death is alone in being able to show us the value in life.
Of course, there were loads of other people who died in 2016 who didn’t hit the headlines.
One of those was Roger Tsein. Tsein was a Nobel Prize winning biochemist “who helped develop a method to track cancer cells and follow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease”.
What he did was pretty cool.
With Osamu Shimomoura and Martin Chalfie, he won the 2008 Nobel Prize for helping “scientists peer within living cells and organisms”. They took green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish and converted it into a tool that could track brain cells, bacteria and other organisms. The luminosity allows the tracking of cellular processes.
Particularly, Tsein was responsible for ways to make to protein glow for longer and more brightly, then developing a range of proteins so that different processes could be tracked at the same time. After the Nobel Prize, Tsein helped to develop more fluorescent technology. These were fluorescent peptides, which allow surgeons to see peripheral nerves, which are usually hard-to-see, and avoid them when removing “damaged or cancerous tissues”.
On Christmas Day 2016, astrophysicist Vera Rubin died. Rubin was an American astronomer who confirmed the existence of dark matter. I don’t really know what dark matter is, so I’m relying on The Economist’s obituary for the next paragraph.
In the 1930s, it was suggested that shining stars are only a partial representation of the universe. Supposedly, there was an unseen matter that was revealed by gravity’s indirect effects. Rubin took on this suggestion, showing that:
Spiral galaxies such as Andromeda…were spinning so fast that their outer stars should be flying away into the never-never. They weren’t. So either Einstein was wrong about gravity, or gravitational pull from vast amounts of something invisible—dark matter—was holding the stars together.
Rubin proved that, rather than examining the whole universe, astronomers had actually just been examining a portion of it.
Among others who died in 2016 were climate scientist Gordon Hamilton and computer programmer Ray Tomlinson.
Hamilton “studied glaciers and their impact on sea levels in a warming climate”, using satellites and sensors to track changing shape of ice sheets. The monitoring of ice sheets is crucial in seeing how much the sea level is going to rise in coming years.
Tomlinson was responsible for the modern email. In 1971, he came up with a system that acted as a forerunner to the internet, coming up with code that allowed two computer users to send messages each other.
And you know the ‘@’ sign? Well that was Ray’s work, too.
Plenty of folks died in 2016, all of them leaving different legacies, but inevitably lives come to an end at some point. Maybe if we think about all the things these folks achieved, rather than that they’ve left us, then 2016 won’t seem like such a bad year, but more like the end of a good run.
Or maybe, as Sharlene said in editing this, they’ve laid the groundwork for another spell of good years, or at least a good place from which to resist the berks who have started reshaping the world.
Vive David Bowie! Vive George Michael!