Scientists Select The Top 10 Science Stories Of 2023
Scientists select the top 10 science stories of 2023, from insights into our human ancestry and breakthroughs on the moon to the flourishing of AI and terrifying new developments in the climate.
Tyrese GriffinDec 25, 20234839 Shares72219 Views
Scientists select the top 10 science stories of 2023, from insights into our human ancestry and breakthroughs on the moon to the flourishing of AI and terrifying new developments in the climate. Below are some of the best scientific moments of the year, according to The Guardian.
While Western billionaires were occupied with launching rockets into space, resulting in crashes and failures, The Guardian highlights a notable achievement by scientists in India. In a groundbreaking accomplishment, the Chandrayaan-3 moon lander became the first mission to reach the lunar south pole - a region believed to contain frozen water reservoirs. The images of the jubilant senior female scientists celebrating in the control room spread across social media, symbolizing a remarkable moment.
Launched in July 2023, Chandrayaan-3 not only showcased India as a significant player in space exploration but also demonstrated that a moonlander could be successfully launched for $75 million (£60 million). While still a substantial expense, this figure is considerably lower than the budgets of most other countries undertaking lunar missions.
July 2023 witnessed a flurry of space-related milestones. The month commenced with the launch of the Euclid satellite, designed for an in-depth exploration of dark matter and dark energy. Shortly thereafter, China achieved success with the Zhuque-2, the world's first methane-fueled rocket, suggesting a potentially more environmentally friendly approach to space travel, all at a significantly reduced cost.
Chandrayaan-3, after landing, entered a dormant state during the lunar night-time and never reawakened. Nevertheless, it fulfilled its mission by detecting sulfur on the moon's surface and highlighting the lunar soil's effectiveness as an insulator. With increased diversity, reduced costs, and greener rocket technology, humanity appears to be on the cusp of a new, more accessible era in space exploration.
In 2023, a definitive shift occurred in the technological landscape, marking a rare watershed moment that reshaped the world. This pivotal year witnessed the mainstream integration of artificial intelligence (AI), notably exemplified by the widespread adoption of ChatGPT and its companion large language models.
Initially released in late 2022, ChatGPT garnered viral acclaim in 2023, captivating users with its remarkable fluency and seemingly boundless knowledge. Surprisingly, a small business with only a few hundred employees achieved success, leaving the trillion-dollar corporations that dominate the tech sector scrambling to adjust to this unexpected development. The current environment is one of fierce competition as businesses fight for supremacy in the burgeoning "generative AI" market, which ChatGPT has sparked.
What propelled ChatGPT to such spectacular heights? Firstly, its accessibility sets it apart, as anyone with a web browser can engage with the most advanced AI available. Secondly, ChatGPT embodies the long-promised vision of AI, resembling the sophisticated intelligence portrayed in movies and surpassing the fluency of the fictional Star Trek computer.
Although society has unwittingly utilized AI for an extended period, ChatGPT represents a significant leap forward, providing a tangible glimpse of authentic AI. While this milestone does not signify the conclusion of the AI journey, it undeniably marks the inception of a transformative era.
Calcea Johnson and Ne’Kiya Jackson seated at a table
In March, at a regional meeting of the American Mathematical Society, two teenage girls from New Orleans, Calcea Johnson and Ne’Kiya Jackson, unveiled a novel mathematical proof of the Pythagorean theorem using trigonometry.
What makes their achievement remarkable is its defiance of historical skepticism. In 1940, Elisha Loomis's renowned book, "The Pythagorean Proposition," explicitly declared a barrier to trigonometric, analytic geometry, and calculus proofs of the theorem with a section titled "Why No Trigonometric, Analytic Geometry Nor Calculus Proof Possible." According to this view, the equation a² + b² = c² couldn't be demonstrated using sin²(θ) + cos²(θ) = 1 due to their circular relationship - a conundrum explored in Loomis's work, questioning how the truth of one statement depends on the truth of the other.
Johnson and Jackson joined a select group challenging this historical stance by presenting a trigonometry proof for the Pythagorean theorem. Their unique "waffle cone" proof, utilizing the sine rule and infinite geometric series, demonstrated both creativity and mathematical dexterity. While their approach has limitations, particularly when ∅ equals π/4 (45 degrees), they have shown that such issues are addressable.
This accomplishment resonates against the backdrop of previous comments by Katharine Birbalsingh, former social mobility adviser to the UK government, who faced criticism for asserting that girls might avoid physics A-level due to its "hard maths" content. The success of Johnson and Jackson eloquently counters this notion, highlighting the capability and determination of young women to tackle advanced mathematical concepts.
As a species, Homo sapiensoriginated in Africa, and the majority of our evolutionary journey unfolded on the African continent over the past half a million years. People who left this pan-African cradle within the last 100,000 years populated the rest of the world.
Historically, this knowledge was derived primarily from the examination of ancient skeletal remains. However, recent advancements in DNA extraction from these ancient bones have yielded significant insights.
In October, a study led by Sarah Tishkoff at the University of Pennsylvania revealed that the presence of a small amount of Neanderthal DNA in present-day Africans originated in the Homo sapiens lineage as early as 250,000 years ago, somewhere in Eurasia. This finding suggests that migrations out of Africa occurred multiple times and much earlier than previously believed.
Interestingly, these revelations were brought to light through a method that has been somewhat overlooked in the study of African origins - examining the genomes of African populations. While seemingly incremental, this approach has proven invaluable. The more we delve into genomic analyses, particularly among populations and regions traditionally underrepresented in research, the more we discover the intricate narrative of our own human story.
A firefighter uses a driptorch to set a controlled burn during a wildfire
2023 is poised to claim the dubious distinction of being the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous record set seven years ago in 2016. In a somber reflection, King Charles remarked at Cop28 that humanity seems to be growing immune to the stark messages conveyed by these temperature records, drawing an analogy to the proverbial frog in hot water - unaware until the lethally high temperatures are reached.
The repercussions of this rising heat are becoming increasingly evident. Warmer seas and a hotter atmosphere have fueled catastrophic events, leading to a disturbing toll of death and devastation.
In Libya, over 10,000 lives were lost as a flood engulfed a city and swept it into the sea. Greek islands and Canadian forests witnessed destructive fires, while Tropical Cyclone Freddy inflicted further hardship on East African communities already grappling with poverty. Unrelenting drought and heat rendered certain regions uninhabitable.
Despite these alarming developments, there is a glimmer of hope in existing solutions. The UK achieved a milestone by producing more green energy than ever before. Artificial intelligence (AI) forecasts emerged as a powerful tool, surpassing the capabilities of a million human forecasters, to analyze weather and climate data at an unprecedented pace. Additionally, the NASA SWOT satellite commenced measuring Earth's water distribution, offering insights to prevent future disasters.
In a sobering conclusion, the analogy underscores the need for collective awareness. While humans may perceive themselves as more intelligent than frogs, the key to self-preservation lies in acknowledging that, like the frogs, we are both the recipients and sources of the escalating heat and perhaps unwittingly engaged in a perilous experiment.
Red blood cells from an individual with sickle cell disease
In recent times, healthcare disparities based on race have garnered significant attention, eroding trust in health sciences and services, particularly concerning preventive measures like vaccines. However, a noteworthy development in the UK offers a reason for celebration as it pioneers a groundbreaking biotechnology therapy for sickle cell disease and beta thalassaemia.
These conditions, which can be debilitating and even fatal, disproportionately affect black populations and individuals with roots in the southern Mediterranean, Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. In a historic move, the UK medicines regulator has approved the use of the Crispr - Cas9 genome-editing tool, named Casgevy, to treat these diseases. The therapy has demonstrated efficacy in alleviating pain episodes in sickle cell disease and reducing or eliminating the need for red-blood cell transfusions in thalassaemia for a minimum of one year.
While this approval is a positive step forward, the long-term implications and potential risks are yet to be fully understood. Questions linger about the durability of positive outcomes and the safety considerations, including the possibility of unintended genetic modifications by Crispr - Cas9 with unknown effects. Additionally, the significant cost of the therapy, estimated at up to $2 million (£1.6 million) per person, raises concerns about its accessibility within budgetary constraints.
Nevertheless, the approval engenders a sense of cautious optimism, particularly because it signifies a potential shift toward greater equity in healthcare by addressing conditions that have often been overlooked.
The global food dilemma persists with 650 million adults grappling with obesity, characterized by a body mass index (BMI) exceeding 30 kg/m², as they consume more calories than their bodies can expend. In stark contrast, 735 million people worldwide endure starvation.
Notably, obesity claims more lives than undernourishment. A ray of hope emerges with the identification of a class of drugs called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor stimulants. Initially approved for diabetes management, these GLP-1 drugs have now been authorized as weight-loss medications.
Wegovy, a prominent member of this drug category, operates by lowering blood glucose levels and inducing a quicker sensation of fullness during meals. In a comprehensive two-year clinical trial involving 304 participants, those on Wegovy witnessed a remarkable 15% reduction in body weight, while the control group experienced a mere 3% decrease.
Excitingly, insights from a three-year study involving individuals with heart disease reveal that Wegovy not only aids weight loss but also diminishes the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and death from heart disease. While it might seem tempting to indulge without restraint and rely on injections, it's essential to acknowledge Wegovy's side effects, including nausea, vomiting, headaches, tiredness, and a potential risk of certain thyroid cancers. Moreover, the persistent challenge of addressing global hunger remains unresolved.
For decades, scientists have pursued the elusive goal of discovering a room-temperature superconductor, a material capable of conducting electric current without resistance. However, this extraordinary property has only been observed at temperatures more than 100°C below room temperature.
In July, a South Korean research team led by Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim claimed a groundbreaking achievement - the creation of the first room-temperature superconductor at normal pressure using a lead-based compound called LK-99. The potential applications of such a breakthrough include loss-free power cables and more compact MRI scanners, sparking considerable excitement and skepticism within the scientific community.
Lee, Kim, and their colleagues shared their findings by uploading two papers to the arXiv website, where studies are sometimes posted before undergoing peer review. This led to a global rush by laboratories to replicate the results, with LK-99 even trending on Twitter (now known as X).
However, by late August, prominent laboratories had failed to reproduce the results, casting doubt on the original claim. The prevailing consensus is that there is insufficient evidence of the critical hallmarks of room-temperature superconductivity.
This narrative highlights the importance of meticulous materials characterization before embracing hyped conclusions and emphasizes the constructive and thrilling role of scientific peer review. Even if LK-99 falls short of being the coveted holy grail, it shouldn't discourage the ongoing quest for a genuine room-temperature superconductor. Instead, it may pave the way for unexpected avenues of exciting new research.
This year has marked a record-breaking period, albeit for all the wrong reasons, particularly in the realm of the environment. Concurrent with the challenges posed by global heating, another environmental crisis is rapidly unfolding - the alarming decline of wildlife.
Despite its urgency, the biodiversity crisis receives a fraction of the attention given to the climate emergency, garnering up to eight times less coverage. While I generally gravitate toward positive research stories, such as the rediscovery of Attenborough's long-beaked echidna or investigations into the peculiar behavior of primates, my pick for the year is a study shedding light on the decline of European birds.
Over the past four decades, the population of birds across Europe has plummeted by an astonishing 550 million. While it was initially believed that habitat loss and pollution were the main causes, a research team under the direction of Stanislas Rigal examined data on 170 bird species across 20,000 sites in 28 countries. This comprehensive study, incorporating records collected by citizen scientists, revealed that the leading threat to birds is agricultural intensification. More precisely, the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers not only deprives birds of their food sources but also directly impacts their health.
Large-scale studies like these are pivotal in shaping decision-making and influencing policy priorities. As we look ahead to 2024, let's remain hopeful for positive changes in these critical domains.
In June, a surge of papers and preprint articles unveiled a groundbreaking capability to initiate cultures of pluripotent stem cells and, within a culture dish, generate structures resembling early post-implantation human embryos. This breakthrough garnered extensive media coverage, with some newspapers even featuring front-page stories.
The scientific significance of these experiments lies in the remarkable ability of stem cells to differentiate into relevant tissues, self-organizing into the appropriate patterns. The heightened media interest may have been fueled by robust competition among various research groups involved in these endeavors.
The aspiration is that stem cell-based embryo models could offer a practical and "more ethical" alternative to working with normal embryos. Scientists anticipate gaining valuable insights into human development, unraveling the complexities of congenital diseases, miscarriages, and the challenges associated with assisted reproduction, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF). These models may potentially lead to solutions for these issues.
However, even the most advanced models fall short of equivalence to normal human embryos. The stringent test of implantation into a womb, unanimously agreed upon as currently inappropriate, is not feasible. Presently, approximately 99% of the aggregates placed into culture fail to produce anything resembling a human embryo. The efficiency of these models must be enhanced significantly for them to find practical applications.