A Look Back At The Top Science Stories of 2022
2022 was chock full of big science news.
Scientists announced an important milestone toward the feasibility of nuclear fusion. Doctors transplanted a pig heart into a human for the very first time. And NASA returned to the moon with the successful launch of the Artemis I mission.
Ira recaps the year in science news with Tim Revell, deputy United States editor of New Scientist, including what the James Webb Space telescope has taught us about our universe, the significance of ChatGPT on the future of artificial intelligence, the spread of Mpox and more.
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Tim Revell is Deputy United States Editor for New Scientist in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, how the beaver literally shaped North America and why restoring beavers to more places could reduce the harms of global warming. Plus, with the holiday season in full gear, we’re re-airing one of our seasonal favorites. I’m talking about tips and tricks to keep your Christmas tree in tip-top shape, and please, whatever you do, don’t put your fruit basket underneath your tree. We’ll dig into the science of that to tell you why.
But first, a look back at the biggest science stories of 2022– here are a few just to get us going. Just last week, scientists announced an important milestone in the decades-long quest to harness nuclear fusion. Earlier this year, doctors transplanted a pig heart into a human for the very first time. And NASA made headway in returning to the moon with that successful launch and return of the Artemis 1 mission. And let us not forget the mesmerizing images of our cosmos sent back to Earth from the James Webb Space Telescope.
Joining me now to recap the year in science news is Tim Revell, deputy US editor at New Scientist based in New York. Welcome back.
TIM REVELL: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: There’s lots of space news. Let’s start with that JWST, the Webb Space Telescope. And after many delays, it finally launched this year, and the images have been, what, stunning. Do you have a favorite, Tim?
TIM REVELL: Oh, absolutely I’ve got a favorite. Mine was the Pillars of Creation image that it sent back, which, if you remember, this was one of the most famous images from the Hubble Space Telescope. And JWST pointed in the same direction and took a photograph of it, too.
And I’m sure many people will have seen this image before. It’s like got these very tall towers of gas and dust, which is effectively a stellar nursery, where stars are born. And in the Hubble Space Telescope image, they’re quite opaque. You can’t really see through them.
But what JWST was able to do because it sees in a different wavelength of light was look through these pillars and see some of those very early stars forming behind it. I just think it’s an incredible new take on an old image.
IRA FLATOW: It is a gorgeous image. It reminds me of a lot of movies now being reissued, old movies in 4K.
TIM REVELL: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Beyond these images of planets, stars, and nebulas, what are some new discoveries coming from the telescope?
TIM REVELL: Yeah, the new discoveries have been coming pretty quickly. It felt like such a long wait for JWST to go up and then a long wait for the first images to come out. But then just a few days after those first images, researchers spotted within the JWST data one of the oldest galaxies we’ve ever discovered, and that galaxy is from just 300 million years after the Big Bang. That’s about 100 million years older than the previous record oldest galaxy that we’d seen.
And then in December, JWST broke another record in finding the most distant galaxy ever confirmed, and that one formed within about 325 million years of the Big Bang and is somewhere in the region of about 30 billion light years away from Earth. And this is just the beginning. There’s a lot more to come from JWST next year. And findings like these are really helping us to unpick how galaxies and, in particular, stars form in the universe.
IRA FLATOW: Amazing stuff. Speaking of firsts, something that sort of flew under the radar this year because of all these other firsts, the Chinese Space Station completed and fully crewed with three taikonauts. We didn’t hear very much about that.
TIM REVELL: Yeah, that was really exciting. They’ve been building it for a year or two in space. It consists of three modules, and over the last year or two, there’ve been taikonauts who’ve been helping put it together. And one of the modules is a living quarters, and then the other two are effectively laboratories to test stuff in space.
And then in November, it was officially completed, and now for the foreseeable, there’s going to be three taikonauts living up there for about six months at a time, so swapping twice a year. And that will continue for at least the next 10 years.
IRA FLATOW: And let’s see if we could round up our space news with the DART mission. NASA successfully tested this DART system, or Double Asteroid Redirect Test, able to change the orbit of an asteroid. Sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie. Oh, wait, it was. [LAUGHS]
So what does that tell us? What does it mean for Earth’s prospects should an asteroid actually come close to colliding with the Earth?
TIM REVELL: Yeah, this was absolutely outrageous that this happened, really, and so just to recap, the DART mission was that NASA sent this spacecraft to an asteroid hundreds of thousands of miles away to see whether it could hit it and then, if it hit it, what would happen. And by the time DART reached Dimorphos, which is the name of this asteroid, it was traveling at 14,000 miles per hour, and it smashed so hard into Dimorphos that an enormous plume of material shot off the asteroid surface and corresponded to about two pounds million of dusty rocks sent out into space.
But the thing we’re most interested in if it would affect Dimorphos’s orbit. Dimorphos, it orbits around a larger asteroid, and DART managed to tweak that orbit by about 32 minutes. And in the grand scheme of things, that really is just a little nudge, but the idea is that, if an object was barreling towards us on Earth, a little nudge like this far enough out from us would be enough to make it a miss rather than a hit. At least, that’s the plan.
IRA FLATOW: That is good news. Moving on to another topic in artificial intelligence. Now there’s this new thing, an AI chat program called ChatGPT. Why does it have so many people excited and maybe a little bit wary of this thing?
TIM REVELL: Yeah, so ChatGPT, it’s an artificial intelligence, a chatbot built by the company OpenAI, and essentially you can talk to it. And when it launched in November, it’s publicly accessible. , so anyone can have a go. And you can ask it to do things. You can interact with it, and it just seems to be very good at a lot of things.
So people have used it to find information, and people are already talking about it as a potential Google killer because it’s so good at retrieving information. But it can also write essays, or computer code, or even fiction, and it’s really impressive a lot of the time. But then it also does somewhat worryingly seem to throw in misinformation periodically, so there’s still a lot to be wary about with a ChatGPT.
IRA FLATOW: So I’m not too worried yet about my job as a journalist and a writer. It’s safe for now.
TIM REVELL: Yeah, I think you’re safe for now.
IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] We’re going to talk a lot more about this in the new year and have some fun with it. I want to talk now about some new research that shook up the world of particle physics earlier this year. I’m talking about the W boson particle being heavier than we thought. Can you give us a quick refresher on what the W boson particle is, and why this was such a big deal?
TIM REVELL: Yeah, so this was really shocking when this happened, and the thing with the W boson is it’s a fundamental particle. And it sort of X as a messenger for one of the main forces of nature called the weak nuclear force, which is responsible for a certain type of radioactivity. But exactly what it does is by the by. The main thing is that it’s absolutely integral to the standard model of particle physics, which is our best understanding of how the building blocks of the universe work.
And so since the discovery of the W boson in the 1980s, physicists have been measuring it more and more accurately, and pretty much all of those measurements have agreed with each other until this one back in April from the collider detector at Fermilab in Illinois. And it was slightly different but slightly different enough for it to be an issue in our understanding of the standard model.
And so researchers, they have performed a lot of checks to make sure it wasn’t just a mistake, and their calculations suggest that the probability of it being a fluke is about 1 in 780 billion. And it’s extraordinary because it could overturn our understanding of physics as we know it at the moment, and hundreds of papers have been written trying to explain what is going on, including some that suggest new particles may exist that we were entirely unaware of.
But either way, it’s really exciting because we’ve known for a long time that there’s something wrong with the standard model of particle physics. It can’t explain gravity or dark matter. So this new finding might help reveal where we need to make improvements to make it better.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, Tim, details, details, you bring in the details all the time, especially in physics. Let’s move on and talk about, this year, seeing another pathogen spreading rapidly around the world this summer. I’m talking about mpox, which, until a few weeks ago, was known as monkeypox. How did we go from an average of 400 cases a day in the US at its peak to just a trickle of cases now? You hardly hear about it.
TIM REVELL: Yeah, there was a really drastic change. It very quickly spiraled quickly. So back in May, there were only a few cases, and by the summer it was, as you say, tens of thousands of cases globally. And thankfully, that has now really drastically changed.
So the outbreak, it was spreading mostly among men who have sex with men through skin contact. And the CDC looked into this, and they found that many men in the group, as awareness spread, were reducing the number of sexual contacts that they had and taking greater precautions if they had symptoms. So that took it from what the World Health Organization declared as a public health emergency of international concern to what now is, really, having a minimal impact across the US but also the countries where it started spreading.
IRA FLATOW: Any public health lessons learned from the handling of this outbreak?
TIM REVELL: Yeah, I think the big one is that behavior change matters when there’s an outbreak, and what we saw here was that quick awareness campaigns and changing of behavior really drastically reduce the spread of mpox.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to some really cool discoveries. This year, scientists found the Endurance, great story, the lost ship of Antarctic Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton from 1915. Let’s review what’s so special about that discovery.
TIM REVELL: Yeah, absolutely incredible, probably the greatest ever undiscovered shipwreck. So at the bottom of the sea near Antarctica, under 10,000 feet of water, is where they found the endurance, and it had been lying there for 107 years since it had been sort of crushed and penned in by sea ice and sank to the bottom of the sea.
And what’s just so incredible is that it’s sitting upright. Many of the timbers are still intact, and the name Endurance is still visible on the stern. And so it seems there’s very little in the way of wood-consuming parasites in that part of the sea, and so it’s just so incredibly well preserved.
IRA FLATOW: That’s really cool. I want to end on a simply amazing discovery in the plant world, and that’s the world’s largest plant. It’s called Poseidon’s ribbon weed, and it clones itself. Tell me more about that.
TIM REVELL: Yeah, there’s also an amazing discovery, where in Western Australia’s Shark Bay, which is about 500 miles north of Perth, researchers were just looking at some of the plants there. And they took thousands of samples and suddenly found that thousands of them turned out to covers about a 70 square mile area, and it’s grown to that size over about 4,500 years by just repeatedly cloning itself.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s got to be the largest clone ever, right?
TIM REVELL: Yeah, it is. It’s the largest known example of a clone in any environment on Earth.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, this plant has seen a lot in 4,500 years, Tim. Thank you. Thank you for taking time to be with us today, and happy holiday to you.
TIM REVELL: Happy holiday to you, too.
IRA FLATOW: Tim Revell, deputy US editor at New Scientist based in New York City.