Turning Points: Guest Essay
Surprising and serious events and trends noted for the first time ever this year.
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This article is part of a series called Turning Points, in which writers explore what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.
1. An African woman leads the World Trade Organization.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made history in March by becoming the first African and the first woman to serve as director-general of the World Trade Organization. Ms. Okonjo-Iweala was also the first woman to serve as finance minister in her native Nigeria, a position she held twice.
2. A purely digital artwork sells at auction for millions.
“Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” by the artist Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple, was auctioned for $69.3 million at Christie’s. The photo collage was the first NFT, or nonfungible token, artwork to be offered by a major auction house. The sale also marked the first time that Christie’s accepted cryptocurrency as a form of payment.
3. An autonomous drone was deployed to attack humans, the U.N. says.
A drone may have autonomously hunted down and killed human targets in Libya, according to a U.N. report. A Kargu-2 drone, manufactured by a Turkish military contractor, was deployed in March in an area where the U.N.-sanctioned transitional government and soldiers of Khalifa Haftar, the de facto leader of the Libyan National Army, were fighting. Though remote-controlled drone warfare has long been in existence, this would be the first recorded instance of artificial intelligence being given free rein to find and kill human targets.
4. A Dutch museum permanently features women artists.
For the first time in its two-century history, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam hung three 17th century paintings by women artists. Works by Judith Leyster, Gesina ter Borch and Rachel Ruysch are now on permanent display in the area reserved for the museum’s most prized Dutch masterpieces, including Rembrandt van Rijn’s “The Night Watch.”
5. A human brain wirelessly connects to a computer.
In a possible breakthrough for those with spinal cord injuries, scientists at Brown University fully connected a human brain to a computer via a transmitter device. Trial participants with paralysis were able to move robotic limbs by simply imagining their movements.
6. NASA’s Perseverance rover makes oxygen on Mars.
An instrument called MOXIE — or Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — aboard the Perseverance rover successfully converted some of the Martian atmosphere, which is composed mostly of carbon dioxide, into oxygen. While the technology is still in its early stages, it could help make future human missions to the Red Planet a reality.
7. The world’s largest jewelry brand releases its first lab-created diamond collection.
Pandora announced it would stop using mined diamonds in its jewelry and introduced its first synthetic stones. The Pandora Brilliance collection has already debuted in Britain and is expected to hit other markets in 2022. The company cited affordability and customer demand for ethically sourced and environmentally responsible materials as reasons for the shift.
8. Mexico elects the country’s first transgender lawmakers.
María Clemente García and Salma Luévano made history in Mexico as the first openly transgender lawmakers elected to the country’s lower house of Congress. Both members of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s governing party have pledged to tackle poverty and address issues concerning the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
9. Tibet debuts its first bullet train.
The $5.6 billion electric railway line went into service in June, connecting the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to the city of Nyingchi. The 250-mile line snakes through 47 tunnels and 121 bridges. Given Tibet’s high altitudes — most of the line is about 3,000 meters (about 9,840 feet) above sea level — the train is equipped with an automated system that maintains oxygen levels inside its cars.
10. National Geographic cartographers recognize the world’s fifth ocean.
On World Oceans Day, the National Geographic Society officially recognized the swift current encircling Antarctica as the Southern Ocean. The organization, which has been publishing maps and atlases since 1915, has drawn up a new map that acknowledges the body of water, which scientists and researchers for years have distinguished as separate from the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans.
11. Richard Branson becomes the first private citizen to enter space in his own spaceship.
In a huge step toward making astrotourism a reality, the Virgin Galactic founder won the billionaire space race, rocketing into the July sky aboard the supersonic SpaceShipTwo, a winged spacecraft developed by his company. Nine days later, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, joined the billionaire space club in his own rocket, New Shepard.
12. Astronomers see light coming from behind a black hole.
Light may not be able to escape a black hole, but for the first time, astronomers observed light bending behind one — 800 million light years away from Earth. This finding, detailed in the journal Nature, once again confirmed Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
13. The world’s first 3-D-printed school opens in Malawi.
The world’s first 3-D-printed school opened its doors in July in Malawi. The school was built by 14Trees, a joint venture between a British development firm and a Swiss company that specializes in building materials. Organizers hope that the quick and affordable technology can help address the severe shortage of schools in the country.
14. Rain is recorded at the highest point of Greenland’s ice sheet.
In what experts warned was yet another harbinger of global climate change, rain fell in Greenland’s Summit region, approximately two miles above sea level, for the first time since observations began in the 1980s. Temperatures rose above freezing in August, causing rain to fall for several hours, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.
15. El Salvador becomes the first country to make Bitcoin a national currency.
El Salvador passed a law in September adopting Bitcoin as legal tender, alongside the U.S. dollar. The move was met with doubt among many Salvadorans who are skeptical of Bitcoin’s inherent volatility. Financial experts have voiced concerns that the cryptocurrency could bring further economic instability to El Salvador and encourage money laundering.
16. Dapper Dan becomes the first Black designer to receive the CFDA’s lifetime achievement award.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America announced in September that Daniel Day, known as Dapper Dan, would receive its 2021 lifetime achievement award. Dapper Dan is widely known for introducing luxury fashion to the hip-hop world in the 1980s through his shop in Harlem. He is the first Black designer, as well as the first designer who has not had a solo runway show, to win the award.
17. An ocean drone captures the first footage inside a major hurricane.
The unmanned vessel steered into the heart of Hurricane Sam, a Category 4 storm packing winds of more than 120 miles per hour, in September. Researchers from Saildrone, which makes oceanic research drones, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hope that the data collected will help them better understand how hurricanes intensify.
18. SpaceX launches the first all-civilian crew into space.
Jared Isaacman, the billionaire chief executive of Shift4 Payments, led the Inspiration4 mission to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and its four-person crew orbited Earth for three days with no professional astronauts onboard.
19. France recalls ambassadors to the United States for the first time in the alliance’s history.
President Biden announced in September that the United States would share closely guarded submarine propulsion technology with Australia — a rare move widely thought to be a countermeasure against China’s looming influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Just before this deal was made, Australia reneged on a prior agreement to purchase conventional submarines from France. In protest, France, which was not informed of the deal, angrily recalled its ambassadors in the United States for the first time in its long diplomatic history with the country, which started in 1778.
20. Sales of zero-emission vehicles surpass diesel sales in Europe.
In September, electric vehicles outsold diesel vehicles for the first time in Europe, according to The European Electric Car Report. While analysts predict it may be a blip for now, partly because of persistent global supply chain woes, they say they have seen a fundamental shift toward zero-emission technology.
21. A Filipino is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a first for her country.
The journalist Maria Ressa was co-awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her enterprising reporting in the Philippines on President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial strongman tactics in the war on drugs. She is the first Filipino Nobel laureate and won the award alongside Russia’s Dmitry Muratov, the editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which is known for its critical reporting on the Kremlin.