The Top Science News Stories of 2023
As the year comes to a close, we wanted to reflect on some of the top science stories of 2023: Scientific breakthroughs that will shape our lives in 2024 and beyond. Research that’s shifted how we understand the universe. And even a story or two that put a smile on our faces.
In 2020, the story of the year was the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines. And while there are now updated versions of those, vaccine development has gone much further. This year we saw approval of two exciting new vaccines, for RSV and malaria.
SciFri’s director and senior producer Charles Berquist talks with Sophie Bushwick, incoming senior news editor at New Scientist about this years vaccine breakthroughs and other top science news of the year, including a new generation of weight loss drugs, record high temperatures, completion of the human pangenome, an asteroid sample’s arrival on Earth, ripples in space-time, AI to understand pets’ emotions and T. rex’s new smile.
Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: This is Science Friday. I’m Charles Bergquist sitting in for Ira Flatow. As the year comes to a close, we wanted to take a bit of time to reflect on some of the top science stories of 2023, scientific breakthroughs that will shape our lives in 2024 and beyond, research that’s shifted how we understand the universe, and maybe even a story or two that’s going to put a smile on your face. A few years ago, of course, the story of the year was the rapid development of COVID vaccines.
And while, yeah, there are new updated vaccines out for COVID, vaccine development has gone much further. This year we saw approval of two exciting new vaccines for RSV and malaria. Joining me now to talk about that and other top science stories of the year is Sophie Bushwick, who’s about to start a new job as senior news editor at New Scientist based in New York City. Sophie, welcome back to Science Friday, and congrats on the new job.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you so much.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: OK. Let’s start with this new malaria vaccine first. How big of a deal is this?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is a really exciting vaccine because malaria is a huge problem. It kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. And about 80% of the people who die from it are very young children. So last year, the first malaria vaccine was developed, but it was kind of difficult to produce and expensive.
This year, we saw the approval of a new malaria vaccine that’s cheaper. It’ll be easier to distribute a greater number of doses of this. And that’s really exciting because malaria is a really serious disease, even if in the US it’s not as much on our radar.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So now, in the US, there were actually a couple of RSV vaccines approved, including for young people. Tell me about those.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So RSV is a pretty mild disease for healthy adults. But young children and the elderly can really suffer from it. So these new RSV vaccines, there’s one that’s supposed to be for the elderly population. They can take it and get inoculated before the winter illness season. And there’s another one that’s specifically designed for pregnant women. And so the idea is they can have this injection and pass the immunity on in utero before giving birth.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So we can’t get away without briefly mentioning there is a new COVID vaccine on the market, too.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. There’s this vaccine called Novavax. And unlike the mRNA vaccines that we’re used to, this one is a little easier to produce. It’s based on proteins. And it’s also able to be stored in refrigerators. So because it doesn’t need to be kept at such cold temperatures, it might be easier to store and distribute this one.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So moving on to one of the other big medical stories of the year, there’s been this rise of a new generation of weight loss drugs, like Ozempic and Wegovy. But it has not come without some controversy.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So these drugs were originally developed for people with diabetes. But they figured out pretty quickly that they also can trigger weight loss. And as a result, some trials have shown that they can reduce the risk of heart disease and other problems and that they could even be a potential treatment for addiction. A lot of these drugs reduce hunger and cravings for food for folks who are trying to lose weight but that it could also be having some effect on cravings for addictive substances. So clinical trials for that are still going on, but it’s really interesting.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, that is super interesting. So now that we’re approaching New Year’s Day, folks might have forgotten about one of the year’s literally hottest stories. This year has brought up some of the hottest days on record.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. July this year was the hottest month in recorded history. But even throughout the year, there were a lot of months that broke heat records for that month. The most was September. That was the most anomalously hot month, the biggest difference between average September temperatures and temperatures in September 2023
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Wow.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And this is a big issue because a lot of times when we think of climate change, we hear that they’re trying to keep it to 1.5 degrees Celsius heat increase or below. And that doesn’t sound very extreme. But just small increases in temperature like that can have huge effects.
So we saw heat waves in Europe this year that caused a lot of deaths. We are seeing increased likelihood of droughts, of more severe hurricanes. I think that for a lot of folks who sort of handwaved that we wouldn’t be seeing the effects of climate change for a very long time, we’re already seeing those effects now. And I think this year with record after broken record really drove that home.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, definitely. So there’s been exciting human genome news this year. I understand that this year marked the completion of the pangenome. But what is a pangenome?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So previously, researchers had mapped the human genome. They recorded all the details about the human DNA. But it was mostly the DNA of one individual, and they filled in with other people. This new pangenome includes the genetic information for 47 different people. It’s a more diverse group from regions all over the globe.
And this is really important if we want to be able to compare how different genes are expressed in different populations, for instance. It’s not perfect. There’s groups that have said they still want to have more humans added to this database. And the more that we understand about knowing the genetic makeup of all these different people and how they compare to each other, the more we’ll learn about how DNA impacts things like fertility, heart health, even Alzheimer’s disease, and other problems that affect humans.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So this is a better way of saying what a baseline is for what is, quote, unquote, normal and shared among many people versus looking at this one individual.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, that’s right. And they were mapping each chromosome from telomere to telomere, trying to get all the DNA that makes up that chromosome. And they also finally mapped out the Y chromosome, which previously had been missing.
The Y chromosome had been kind of neglected before. It was thought to be not that important. But by mapping it out, we’re going to learn more about just what it does.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So we can’t go without hitting a couple of big highlights in the world of space news. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx was the first mission to bring back a sample from the asteroid Bennu. And that was really kind of a nail biter.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. This was a very long-term difficult mission. So not only is Bennu really far away, about 200 million miles away from Earth, so it took this OSIRIS-REx flyer– it took about two years to get there. Then it had to map out the asteroid, figure out how to collect the sample. And then it had to come all the way back. Finally, it actually had to deliver this sample in this very well-protected case that could survive reentry through Earth’s atmosphere.
And so researchers were super excited to get their hands on it. But they couldn’t just unwrap the present right away because they don’t want to contaminate it with all of our Earth atmosphere and germs. And so they had to open it very, very carefully. And now they’ll finally be able to study this material that dates back, really, to the dawn of the solar system and could really teach us a lot about how it formed.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, so unwrapping this present from the stars, what all are they hoping to learn from it?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So Bennu is about 4.5 billion years old. And unlike Earth, which we were formed as part of the solar system, but we went through a lot of turmoil on the way whereas Bennu has been floating in the vacuum of space, which preserved a lot of these volatile compounds and will give us a better idea of the snapshot of what types of chemicals were around in the early solar system and then how that impacted the development of Earth and even life on Earth.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, so we’ll be looking forward to those results coming out later this year. And so zooming out for some big picture space news, this year astronomers also detected some gravitational waves. Remind us what those are and what they might help us understand.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So gravitational waves are essentially ripples in the very fabric of space time. And they’re very difficult to detect. In 2015, researchers used a telescope to make the first measurements of gravitational waves. But those gravitational waves came from black holes that were, I’m going to say, relatively small.
Researchers also want to study the gravitational waves coming from super massive black holes, which could be 100 million times more massive than our Sun. The problem is these waves are so low frequency that their wavelengths are really dragged out. It would take like a decade for a single wave to pass through our solar system, which makes them really hard to measure with a standard telescope.
So instead, researchers used the galaxy as a telescope. They looked at these objects called pulsars. These are these super dense, very quickly spinning stars that are releasing beams of electromagnetic radiation. And the idea is as the stars spin around, the beam spins around, like the beam of a lighthouse. And it creates this pulse that we can detect from Earth. And the researchers were studying discrepancies, these extremely, extremely tiny pauses in the pulse of all these different pulsars scattered around the galaxy, and they were able to detect this signal that came from these big, low-frequency gravitational waves disrupting the pulsars.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Interesting. So this year, there’s been headline after headline about AI, artificial intelligence. Personally, I’m almost getting sick of it.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS]
CHARLES BERGQUIST: But you wanted to bring us an aspect of machine learning that some of us might have missed this year.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. I think it’s very cool the way that AI and machine learning is making strides to translate between humans and the animal world. So a lot of the ways that animals communicate we can’t even detect as humans. It might be higher frequency than we’re used to picking up. It might involve pheromones or other signals that we don’t have the senses to detect.
But researchers have been able to develop these very small, unobtrusive sensors that can pick up a lot of these signals. And then they’re able to use AI to translate between what those signals are and what the animals are doing and trying to communicate. So this has been used to do things like learn more about how bats communicate with each other or bees. But now researchers are also using AI to look at our pets. Most recently, I got to talk about a study where they looked at cat faces and tried to use AI to learn whether that cat was in pain based on its facial expressions.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Wow, so CatGPT.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So this last one is probably my pick for the single most important science story of the year– paleontologists now believe that the Tyrannosaurus Rex had lips.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I know. It’s a big difference in the way we’re used to picturing T-Rex. So previously, researchers who tried to picture what these animals looked like based only on their skeletons had compared T-Rex to the crocodilian-type animals. You see a crocodile’s teeth sticking out of its mouth, and they thought, oh, this must have been what T-Rex’s mouth looked like as well.
But now they think it looked maybe more like a Komodo dragon’s mouth, where lips covered those teeth. And so it would have had a very different aspect than the version of T-Rex we’re used to imagining from media, like Jurassic Park.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Good to know. So if you need a last minute stocking stuffer for that special T-Rex in your life, fancy lip gloss might be the move.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: T-Rex would love to have some chapstick, absolutely.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Exactly. That’s all the time we have.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS]
CHARLES BERGQUIST: I want to thank my guest, Sophie Bushwick, incoming senior news editor at New Scientist based in New York City. Sophie, it’s always great to talk to you. Have a great holiday.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You, too.