These groundbreaking scientific discoveries give us hope for 2023

Close-up of the interior of a tokamak fusion reactor before the start of a nuclear reaction (Getty/iStock)

Close-up of the interior of a tokamak fusion reactor before the start of a nuclear reaction (Getty/iStock)

After a year of war ravaging Ukraine, stubbornly high inflation pushing the global economy to the brink of recession, the “triple” epidemic rekindling pandemic fears, and limited progress in tackling the climate crisis, it would be understandable to approach 2023 with the wisdom of anxiety.

And yet, a series of scientific breakthroughs in 2022 gives reasons for optimism for the new year.

From fusion energy to improved vaccines and organ transplants, the AI ​​revolution to asteroid redirection, technologies previously only found in science fiction have come to fruition.

These groundbreaking discoveries, some of which are the culmination of decades of work, give cause for hope.

The Holy Grail of Nuclear Fusion

In mid-December, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced that they had conducted the first nuclear fusion experiment that produced more energy than was used to run it.

Described as the “shot 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.

This technology has been in development since the 1950s and has sparked interest in the prospect of replacing fossil fuels with a climate-friendly, renewable energy source.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, a center joined by Arati Prabhakar, the President's (AP) science adviser

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, a center joined by Arati Prabhakar, the President’s (AP) science adviser

The Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), Jennifer Granholm, described the breakthrough as “one of the most impressive scientific achievements of the 21st century”, on par with the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903.

According to the DOE, a fusion reaction consists of pushing two particles of nuclei from a light element together at tremendous speed, fusing them together. The resulting mass produces a large amount of energy without creating a large amount of radioactive waste.

As Independent published in January, decades of research and billions of dollars have gone into trying to create this “holy grail” of nuclear reactions.

Secretary Granholm said there was a breakthrough suddenly became possible the prospect of an abundant, carbon-free energy source for the future.

The poetry of artificial intelligence

The release of ChatGPT in November provided a glimpse into a future where computer-generated prose could provide answers to a seemingly endless number of questions.

Want to know how Shakespeare would describe looking at the stars? Maybe you have a tricky technical question about quantum physics? Or maybe you want to know how to build a wardrobe for shoes suitable for any climate? Or learn to play the piano?

OpenAI's ChatGPT language model offers users the ability to interact with advanced AI in a conversational way (Getty/iStock)

OpenAI’s ChatGPT language model offers users the ability to interact with advanced AI in a conversational way (Getty/iStock)

Developed by OpenAI and free – 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 searches billions of data points in seconds, saving users the task of searching the web for the exact information they are looking for.

The answers feel personal and human, as if the machine on the other side has carefully thought through and adapted its response.

However, it may have its limitations. As OpenAI admits, ChatGPT often confidently writes credible-sounding answers that are incorrect or nonsensical.

Teachers also warn of the potential consequences of cheating on exams and essays.

But there are many real benefits: it can help computer programmers spot coding errors, guess medical diagnoses, and even write jokes.

It has also taken steps to avoid misuse for bigoted and racist purposes.

OpenAI was launched in 2015 by a group that includes Elon Musk and CEO Sam Altman, and is backed by Microsoft and several venture capital firms.

The New York Times called it “simply the best AI chatbot ever made available to the general public.”

While it may not be open for general use for a long time, it’s a fun way to come up with a new recipe for your favorite home cooked meal or pick a movie to watch.

Redirecting asteroids

In the 1998 movie ArmageddonBruce Willis and his band of ruthless oil drillers are sent into space by NASA to place and detonate a nuclear bomb on an asteroid to destroy humanity.

This image provided by NOIRLab shows a plume of dust and debris blasted off the surface of the asteroid Dimorphos (Nasa)

This image provided by NOIRLab shows a plume of dust and debris blasted off the surface of the asteroid Dimorphos (Nasa)

Twenty-four years later, the US space agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test team proved that bouncing an asteroid off its path is not just a Hollywood thing.

In September, NASA sent a spacecraft that crashed into the 525-foot diameter Dimorphos asteroid at 14,000 miles (22,530 km) per hour to find out if its trajectory could be changed.

Dimorphos was not on a civilization-threatening collision course with Earth, but was orbiting a larger asteroid, Didymos. Before the crash, Dimorphos orbited its parent asteroid every 11 hours and 55 minutes, while later its orbit was set at 11 hours and 23 minutes.

It was the first time humanity had deliberately altered the “motion of a celestial object and the first full-scale demonstration of asteroid deflection technology,” NASA said.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the mission showed his organization was preparing for “whatever the universe throws at us.” Hea added: “We all have a responsibility to protect our planet. After all, it’s all we have.”

James Webb telescope

The launch of the James Webb Telescope brought vivid images from the dark corners of the galaxy fully visible in 2022.

Hailed as the innovation of the year in aerospace technology by Popular science magazine, the $10 billion telescope “can peer deep into star-forming fields” and look “13 billion years back at ancient galaxies, still in their nursery.”

The cosmic cliffs of the Carina nebula seen in combined observations by the James Webb Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory (Nasa)

The cosmic cliffs of the Carina nebula seen in combined observations by the James Webb Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory (Nasa)

Since it first began sending its captivating images back to Earth in February, the James Webb Telescope has been teaching scientists how “stars and galaxies formed together from primordial matter”, Popular science magazine notes.

Unlike the Hubble Telescope, which orbited close to the Earth, James Webb was launched hundreds of thousands of miles away and is 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 images of the Carina and Southern Wheel nebulae, a collection of galaxies known as the Stephen Quartet, and a spectrum of light from the exoplanet WASP-96b.

Universal flu vaccine

Faced with a surge in Covid-19 cases and a possible ‘triple epidemic’, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have created a flu vaccine based on mRNA molecules that have been used to create Covid vaccines to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Experts revealed in December that immunizations of mice and ferrets elicited antibody responses to all 20 known strains of influenza A and B viruses that lasted four months, Science reports the magazine.

With Covid-19 cases on the rise again, respiratory syncytial virus clogging up hospitals and a winter flu season that could be the worst in 10 years, a vaccine could prove crucial to avoiding widespread deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already reported more than 4,500 deaths this season.

Because influenza evolves every season, creating an effective vaccine has proven elusive. But based on the same mRNA technology used in Covid-19 vaccines, scientists believe they may be one step away from offering an effective flu vaccine.

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