From Black Hole to Covid-19 Vaccines: nine times curiosity-led science brought us to unexpected places

The EU’s European Research Council (ERC) supports scientists globally to push the boundaries of frontier research in different fields and help advance scientific knowledge. Here’s a small glimpse of the work the ERC has been supporting over the years.

Blackhole images generated in 2019 (left) and 2021 (right). EU-supported science has helped break barriers over the years. © Event Horizon Telescope

here are things we know that we do not know and then there are unknown unknowns. We are aware that we cannot yet cure all types of cancer or generate energy sustainably. But we are oblivious to many current and future challenges, as well as to untapped solutions lurking in unexpected places. Pushing back these boundaries of human knowledge is the European Research Council (ERC)’s mission.

Two years ago this week, ERC-funded scientists helped reveal the first-ever image of a black hole. The ‘black hole anniversary’ is a good occasion to revisit that moment and to look at some of the other frontier research funded by the ERC!

1. Return to the Black Hole

These exotic cosmic objects have enormous mass but are small in size. Curving spacetime, black holes heat surrounding matter to super-high temperatures. They also raise some of the most complex questions about the nature of reality, and ultimately of our existence.
The second anniversary was celebrated by the release of an even more revealing image, showing how the black hole looks in polarised light. This is the first time astronomers have been able to measure polarisation, a signature of magnetic fields, this close to the edge of a black hole. The observations are key to explaining the mystery of how galaxies can project streams of energy thousands of light-years outward from their core.

2. From cancer to COVID-19

“It is the first time in human history that an effective vaccine against a new pathogen has been developed from scratch, evaluated in a phase 3 trial, and is authorised while a pandemic is ongoing,” said Prof. Uğur Şahin. The eminent researcher, together with his partner Özlem Türeci, has been studying messenger ribonucleic acids (mRNA) for more than two decades. They recognised that their mRNA vaccines — originally intended to fight cancer — could be adapted to address threats from newly emerging viruses. More

News about a new disease in China reached European media outlets in January 2020. Dr. Türeci and Prof. Sahin gathered their staff and announced their biggest challenge to date: develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus.

Within three months, the scientists had developed a vaccine against COVID-19 and in December, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine as safe and effective. Today, the vaccine is being rolled out across the EU and world to fight the pandemic. More

3. Microchip to detect tumour cells

There are trillions of cells of different sizes and shapes in the human body. In such a densely populated environment, the chances of detecting a single tumour cell seem pretty weak. Yet, to prevent potential metastasis — responsible for 90% of cancer-related deaths — early detection is a must. Liesbet Lagae, a Belgian engineer, is developing a microchip device that hunts for, inspects, and separates malignant cells circulating in the blood, quickly and cheaply. More

4. Vaulting through history

Craftsmen and technicians from the Strasbourg Cathedral restoration workshop replicated the medieval process behind making vaults at St. Anne’s Church in Annaberg, Germany. Image credit — María José Ventas

When we think about fascinating architectural work, vaulted ceilings may not necessarily be the first elements to spring to mind. However, they were key to limiting interior damage when a fire broke out beneath the roof of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris in April 2019. While medieval stonemasons seem to have known very well what they were doing, today their techniques are still not completely understood. The challenge of restoring Notre Dame presents an opportunity to finally unravel their mystery. More

5. Next-generation AI

Artificial intelligence enables machines to learn from experience, adjust to new situations and perform tasks in a human-like way. AI is increasingly being adopted by businesses and governments around the world. One computer scientist, Martin Vechev, is pioneering techniques that can help expand a new area in science. He is combining advanced programming languages with machine learning techniques, aiming to fundamentally change how developers build software. More on this

6. Tackling electoral hostility

Why do people hate each other for supporting different sides in a referendum or an election, and how can democratic societies reconcile after such a rift? Electoral disagreements have always existed, but situations where people end up despising others for their different voting preferences, seem increasingly common. ERC-funded research by Michael Bruter analyses how electoral hostility develops over time and potential solutions to resolve it. See a graphic story about electoral hostility.

7. Heart disease and women

Each year, there are more than 6 million new cases of cardiovascular disease in the EU. Unfortunately, due to obsolete stereotypes women are much more likely than men to be misdiagnosed when affected by heart disease.

Nabila Bouatia-Naji, a geneticist aims to uncover the causes of two atypical cardiovascular diseases, 80–90% of whose sufferers are women who do not present the “traditional” clinical symptoms. Gender-related factors such as hormonal cycles and pregnancy may trigger the diseases, but we do not yet understand how this happens. More

8. Sharing food

What is the impact of food sharing on society, the economy and the environment? And what about the food we share beyond the family setting?

A project that set out to map urban food-sharing practices discovered early on that it would need the help of citizen scientists. Without public engagement, the project could not have produced as much useful data and insights. It resulted in the first-ever crowdsourced, international, food sharing database, covering 100 cities worldwide. Now the research team wants to find the most sustainable ways for city dwellers to feed themselves in years to come. More
Podcast

9. Jazz and physics

“I was always fascinated by the relation between the unpredictability of quantum mechanics and the unpredictability of a free improviser playing an instrument,” Maciej Lewenstein said. He used his passion for free-improvised music to help explain the intrinsic connections between quantum physics and jazz. The randomness of things in music could help us understand scientific issues that otherwise would be very difficult to comprehend. Find out how he did it.

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