After a year in which war ravaged Ukraine, stubbornly high inflation pushed the global economy to the brink of recession, a “tripledemic” revived pandemic fears, and limited progress was made on the climate crisis, it would be understandable to approach 2023 with a sense of unease.
Yet a string of scientific breakthroughs in 2022 are bringing cause for optimism in the new year.
From fusion energy to improved vaccines and organ transplants, from the artificial intelligence revolution to deflected asteroids, technologies previously only found in science fiction have come to fruition.
These seminal discoveries, some the culmination of decades of work, offer cause for hope.
The “holy grail” of nuclear fusion
In mid-December, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced yes carried out the first nuclear fusion experiment which created more energy than was used to start it.
Described as a ‘coup for the ages’, the historic achievement involved harnessing the same reaction that powers the sun and stars to produce zero-carbon energy for the first time.
The technology has been pursued since the 1950s and has sparked excitement at the prospect of replacing fossil fuels with a climate-friendly, renewable energy source.
Department of Energy (DOE) secretary Jennifer Granholm described the breakthrough as “one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,” on par with the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903.
According to to the DOE, a fusion reaction involves pushing two particles of nuclei from a light element together with enormous speed, fusing them together. The resulting mass produces a large amount of energy without creating much radioactive waste.
Like The independent reported in Januarydecades of research and billions of dollars had gone into trying to create this “holy grail” of nuclear reactions.
Secretary Granholm said the breakthrough had happened suddenly made possible the prospect of an abundant and carbon-free energy source for the future.
The poetry of artificial intelligence
The release of ChatGPT in November offered a glimpse of a future where computer-generated prose can provide the answers to a seemingly infinite number of questions.
You want to know how he would describe Shakespeare looking at the stars? Perhaps you have a tricky technical question about quantum physics? Maybe you want to know how to build a footwear wardrobe suitable for any climate? Or learn to play the piano?
Developed by OpenAI and free to use – at least for now – ChatGPT has been described as a revolution in artificial intelligence, almost as if you were having a direct conversation with Google.
The beauty of this chatbot is that it sifts through billions of data points in seconds, saving users the task of surfing the web for the precise information they are looking for.
The answers feel personal and human, as if the machine on the other end has carefully considered and adapted its response.
It can have its limitations though. Like OpenAI recognizesChatGPT will often confidently write plausible sounding answers that are incorrect or nonsensical.
Even educators feel this potential impact about cheating in exams and essays.
But there are many real world benefits such as; can help computer programmers spot bugs in coding, guess medical diagnoses, and also write jokes.
It has also taken steps to avoid being misused for bigoted and racist purposes.
OpenAI was launched in 2015 by a group that included Elon Musk and CEO Sam Altman years ago and is backed by Microsoft and several venture capitalist firms.
The New York Times called it “quite simply, the best AI chatbot ever released to the general public.”
While it might not be open for general use for long, it’s a fun way to come up with a new recipe for your favorite home-cooked meal or pick out a movie to watch.
In the 1998 movie ArmageddonBruce Willis and his gang of tough oil drillers are sent into space by NASA to insert and detonate a nuclear bomb in an asteroid that is about to wipe out humanity.
Twenty-four years later, the US space agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) team proved that deflecting an asteroid from its path wasn’t just the stuff of Hollywood.
In September, NASA sent a spacecraft crashing into a 525-foot-diameter Dimorphos asteroid at 14,000 miles (22,530 km) per hour, to find out if its trajectory could be altered.
Dimorphos was not on a collision course with Earth, but rather orbiting a larger asteroid, Didymos.
Before the crash, Dimorphos circled its parent asteroid every 11 hours and 55 minutes, after which its orbit was programmed to 11 hours and 23 minutes.
It marked the first time humanity had deliberately changed the “motion of a celestial object and the first large-scale demonstration of asteroid deflection technology,” NASA said in a press release.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the mission showed NASA preparing for “anything the universe throws at us.”
“We all have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it’s the only one we have,” she said.
The James Webb telescope
The launch of the James Webb Telescope has unearthed vivid images from the dark reaches of the galaxy in 2022.
Hailed as the Innovation of the Year in Aerospace Technology by Popular science magazine, the $10 billion telescope “can see deep into fields of forming stars” and peer “13 billion years back in time into ancient galaxies, still in their nursery.”
Since it began sending its mesmerizing images to Earth in February, the James Webb Telescope has been teaching scientists how ‘stars and galaxies formed from primordial matter’. Popular science magazine notes.
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits close to Earth, the James Webb was launched hundreds of thousands of miles farther and sits in the Earth’s shadow, which permanently blocks it from sunlight.
Since its launch, the James Webb Space Telescope has found the oldest galaxy in the known universe, as well as photos of the Carina and Southern Wheel nebulae, a collection of galaxies known as the Stephen’s Quartet, and a spectrum of light from the exoplanet WASP-96b .
Universal flu vaccine
Faced with a spike in Covid-19 cases and a possible “triple disease,” researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have created a flu vaccine based on mRNA molecules that has been used to create Covid vaccines to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Experts revealed in December that vaccinations of mice and ferrets had produced antibody responses to all 20 known strains of influenza A and B viruses that lasted four months. Science magazine reported.
With Covid-19 cases surging, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) clogging hospitals and winter flu season on track to be the worst in 10 years, vaccine could prove crucial in avoiding widespread death .
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already reported more than 4,500 deaths this season.
Because influenza evolves each season, creating an effective vaccine has proven elusive.
But based on the same mRNA technology used in Covid-19 vaccines, the researchers believe they may be on the verge of offering an effective flu vaccine.