Eight Times Science Exceeded Expectations in 2022

It’s no surprise that we keep finding and building cool things. But the things that we find and build can still surprise us. 2022 was another year full of science and technology advances. It’s too soon to identify the most important developments of the year; science takes time to mature. But here are eight moments that were remarkable to me, to experts in their respective fields, and even to those doing the work.

We Nudged an Asteroid

Our solar system is something of a minefield. Between the sun, the asteroid belt, and the planets and their rings and moons lies a sprinkling of smaller rocks, some of which cross paths with Earth. We’d like to avoid sharing the fate of the dinosaurs, and so have endeavored to spot potentially troublesome intruders; currently, we know of no asteroid larger than a hundred and forty metres across that poses a serious risk of collision in the next century. But what we don’t know can still hurt us, and we must prepare for the unexpected.

Last year, SpaceX launched a NASA mission, led by Johns Hopkins University, called DART—the Double Asteroid Redirection Test. As David W. Brown explains, in his blow-by-blow recounting of the mission, its target was an unassuming pair of asteroids, seven million miles away, dubbed Didymos (measured at nearly half a mile across) and Dimorphos (a bit more than five hundred feet across). At the time, Dimorphos orbited Didymos every eleven hours and fifty-five minutes. The DART spacecraft, whose mass at launch exceeded half a ton, was not meant to obliterate either object. But it could nudge one or both of the bodies off course—a proof of concept for the idea that humanity could change an incoming asteroid’s trajectory, averting a collision with Earth.

Success was defined as a head-on collision with Dimorphos that would alter its orbital period by at least seventy-three seconds. On September 26th, DART hit its mark at roughly fourteen thousand miles an hour, reducing the orbit by a full thirty-two minutes. (Earth-based observations measured the effect by tracking how often the two bodies eclipsed each other.) It might have been a shot heard round the solar system, if not for space’s deafening silence. Scientists are still analyzing data on the aftermath.

2022 in Review

New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s highs and lows.

In the movie “Armageddon,” from 1998, Bruce Willis’s character detonates a bomb on an Earth-bound asteroid, preventing the movie’s titular event. A quarter century later, we have the technology to achieve a similar aim more elegantly. DART-like spacecraft, teamed with careful observation and early detection, now gives us the ability to defend the planet we’re otherwise doing so much to despoil.

Magic Mushrooms Reduced Depression

Many people who’ve taken psychedelics understand their healing powers. I’m one of them: twenty-seven years ago, I profitably enlisted acid and ecstasy in my battle with depression. Because of long-standing laws restricting recreational, therapeutic, and even scientific use of the drugs, research is still catching up. But, this year, findings on the efficacy of psilocybin—the magic in magic mushrooms—against depression have left even some scientists dazed.

Though antidepressants are often a first line of defense in treating depression, they frequently fail to provide relief. More than a quarter of a billion people worldwide face what’s known as major depressive disorder, according to estimates, and some studies indicate that at least thirty per cent of them contend with so-called treatment-resistant depression. This past month, The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the largest-ever clinical trial of psilocybin, in which two hundred and thirty-three people with treatment-resistant depression took part. They each received just a single dose—one, ten, or twenty-five milligrams—under professional guidance. Three weeks later, those who’d received the largest dose rated significantly lower on depression than those in the lowest-dose group.

Another study, published in Nature Medicine, demonstrated the benefits of psilocybin over the antidepressant escitalopram (whose brand name is Lexapro). Using neuroimaging, the researchers also explored some possible mechanisms for the treatment: they found that the patients who received psilocybin experienced an increase in the integration of activity across the networks in their brains. Perhaps psilocybin, by increasing cognitive flexibility, allows people to escape ruts of thought. Another study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, looked at patients with major depressive disorder who’d received two psychedelic sessions. A full year later, seventy-five per cent maintained at least a fifty-per-cent reduction in their depression scores.

Authors of all three studies told me that they were surprised by the treatment’s durability. Work remains to be done—but these findings suggest that some people may be able to find a way out from under a disease that was previously immovable.

Earth Got Hotter—and Hotter

In an era of global warming, we expect temperature records to be broken. But they are now being broken with surprising frequency, and by surprising amounts. In July, the United Kingdom suffered a historic heat wave: the previous high had been 101.7 degrees Fahrenheit, but at least forty-six weather stations met or exceeded that temperature, the hottest by 2.9 degrees. Of more than a hundred weather stations that had been collecting data for at least half a century, the majority broke ceilings. One village cleared its hurdle by a hold-my-(warm-)beer 11.3 degrees.

The U.K. wasn’t alone. Other countries in Europe saw records topple, and the continent as a whole experienced its hottest-ever June-through-August, on average. Huge wildfires spread across the continent. Meanwhile, India suffered an apocalyptic heat wave this spring; several continents experienced drought; and China weathered its hottest and longest heat wave on record.

In August, an international team of eleven scientists published an analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios.” They argue that the international target of maintaining temperature increases well below two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) has led research to focus on lower-end warming scenarios, leaving us unprepared for more drastic changes. Carbon-dioxide-caused loss of stratocumulus cloud decks could heat the planet by an additional eight degrees Celsius by the end of the century. “Particularly worrying is a ‘tipping cascade,’ ” they write. Damages to the environment are likely to be nonlinear, leading to low-likelihood outcomes that should be looked into. The article notes that climate change might trigger or exacerbate blackouts, famine, pandemics, mass extinction, nuclear war. In short, we should expect the unexpected.

Brain Cells in a Dish Played Pong

A staple of science fiction (and philosophy) is the notion that you’re just a brain in vat, connected to the real world through wires. Another is that you’re just a simulated being in a virtual universe. An experiment reported this year in Neuron combined elements of both tropes. Layers of brain cells wired up to a computer experienced a world consisting of a variant of the video game Pong, and learned to play.

The researchers grew some brain cells out of human stem cells, and collected others from mouse embryos, then placed about eight hundred thousand mouse or human cells onto arrays of electrodes in dishes. (A human brain has roughly a hundred thousand times more neurons than that.) The electrical activity of two regions of neurons on each array were translated into the up-and-down movement of a paddle on a video screen. The position of the bouncing ball was fed back to a different set of neurons in the network; when the paddle connected with the ball, all the electrodes delivered a series of zaps, reinforcing the neurons’ behavior. Within a few minutes, the system could handle rallies of a few hits.

Karl J. Friston, a neuroscientist at University College London who is one of the paper’s co-authors, told me that, although the team had hypothesized that the neurons and silicon would be able to speak the same language and learn in this way, they weren’t at all sure that their “DishBrain” would work. “It was the same kind of surprise one might have if you came across a talking dog, ” he said. “Moreover, the fact that human neurons were able to sustain play longer than mouse neurons was a bit like discovering that dogs are better at talking than cats.”

The setup is more than a party trick. It allows for exploration of weighty questions: how cells communicate, how biological and synthetic intelligence combine, what happens in brain disorders such as epilepsy and dementia, and how drugs affect the brain. The group now plans to test the effects of alcohol on their system. “How would a ‘drunken DishBrain’ cope with playing Pong?” Friston asked, in a recent press release. Beer pong just got serious.

A Blockchain Reduced Its Energy Use by 99.95 Per Cent

Few mortals understand blockchains. What you may have heard is that they’re somehow related to cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, and that they use prodigious amounts of energy. Crypto assets consume more energy than many countries—a big problem.

In September, an important blockchain altered the way it verifies transactions, drastically cutting its energy use. Bitcoin, the first blockchain-based cryptocurrency, verifies transactions through a system called “proof of work”: computers around the world race to solve complex puzzles, and the winners get some cryptocurrency and the ability to add blocks of transactions to the ledger. It’s all the problem-solving that’s so energy intensive. By contrast, the Ethereum blockchain, launched in 2015, was meant to use “proof of stake.” Would-be validators would place their own cryptocurrency into a kind of escrow; when a block is added, they’re rewarded in proportion with their stake. (If the block’s contents are fraudulent, you lose a portion of your stake.) Proof of stake is far more energy-efficient—but it was so devilishly difficult to develop that Ethereum launched using proof of work instead.

In 2020, the Ethereum developer community created a parallel ledger called Beacon Chain that used proof of stake. After nearly two years of testing, they set a date for the Merge, which would combine the two chains into one that used proof of stake. Many people worried the Merge would overturn crypto markets; some experts compared the procedure to swapping plane engines mid-flight. But, on September 15th, the Merge succeeded with hardly a hitch. A developer named Tim Beiko told me that the blockchain looked so surprisingly stable afterward that he “had to double-check” the performance graph.

Ethereum was already more important than Bitcoin in many ways. It undergirds not only a cryptocurrency but, also, one-of-a-kind digital art works called N.F.T.s, automatically executing “smart contracts,” and many computer applications for finance, entertainment, and communications. The Merge now makes Ethereum transactions faster, cheaper, and more energy-efficient, by an estimated 99.95 per cent. In a Merge viewing party hosted by the Ethereum Foundation, one developer commented, “This is just an incredible feat. . . . People using the network will have no idea that anything has changed. But everything has changed.”

We Found Two-Million-Year-Old Mastodon DNA

DNA is fragile, geologically speaking. The double-helical molecule that gives cells their marching orders starts disintegrating as soon as we die—and even while we live—as our own enzymes cut it up. It’s also not immune to water, air, or microbes. One study estimated that its chemical bonds have a half-life of around five hundred years. Discover a very old specimen of DNA, and you have to assemble especially tiny puzzle pieces if you want to put the genome back together.

Last year, however, researchers managed to reconstruct DNA from two Siberian mammoths that were more than a million years old, using material extracted from their molars. That work nearly doubled the record for oldest DNA sequence. This year, a second group of researchers nearly doubled the record again. As they reported in Nature, they found their DNA not in a long-in-the-tooth tooth but in sediment deposits at the mouth of a fjord in northern Greenland, where, around two million years ago, plant and animal remains had washed up. The researchers found DNA in forty-one soil samples at five sites. Much of it had adhered to quartz or clay, which may have protected the delicate strands from the ravages of enzymes. “The preservation of the DNA and our ability to extract and sequence it has been a major leap for us,” Kurt H. Kjær, a geologist at the University of Copenhagen and one of the paper’s lead authors, told me.

The team was able to gather genetic material not just from one or two species but from more than a hundred types of plants, as well as animals including mastodons, reindeer, and horseshoe crabs. The researchers figure that the landscape, which is now a frozen wasteland, must once have been about twenty degrees warmer. The work provides clues to an earlier way of life, and demonstrates what’s possible going forward. Scientists have a hope of reconstructing biological lineages and pictures of entire historical ecosystems. They may even extract genes to help today’s plants and animals cope with a changing world.

Artificial Intelligence Learned Diplomacy

You’d think we’d learn our lesson: we set challenges for artificial intelligence, say it won’t meet them anytime soon, and then find that A.I. has vanquished us before we expect. It’s happened with chess, Go, poker, and StarCraft II. In 2019, Noam Brown, a computer scientist at Meta, had wrapped up his work on A.I. for multiplayer poker and was casting about for a new challenge; he chose one that he thought would safely keep him occupied for at least a decade.

The task was Diplomacy, a board game in which seven players controlling army and navy units vie for control over a map of Europe. Players can attack or support each other, and each turn begins with a round of nonbinding negotiation. You might propose back-scratching, then deliver backstabbing. It’s a game of trust and deceit, hammered out through the placement of pieces and the crafting of language.

As Brown told me, a bot for Diplomacy sounded like sci-fi. A.I. can strategize (see AlphaGo) and it can speak (see ChatGPT). But most language-spewing A.I.s have no notion of truth or falsehood. Meta, however, developed a system, called CICERO, that learned to ground its utterances in context and goals. After observing human Diplomacy games and playing copies of itself, CICERO joined an online community and played forty games. In a paper published in Science, Brown and his team reported that it outperformed nine out of ten players. Moreover, its written speech was so slick that only one player noted his suspicion of its silicon insides. On one occasion, the system, playing as France, went down for ten minutes due to a technical fault. When it came back online, it replied to England’s appeals—“Would really love to hear from you!”—with a made-up excuse: “i am on the phone with my gf.” Humanity is not ready.

We Generated Fusion Power (Finally, Sorta)

What counts as an expectation? In fusion power—the shotgun marriage of atoms to create electricity—progress is perpetually (and paradoxically) expected to underwhelm. An old joke holds that fusion is always thirty years away.

This month, though, researchers inched closer to controlled fusion power. Nuclear fusion, which occurs inside stars, requires intense heat and pressure; most fusion-power experiments heat hydrogen and confine it using magnetic fields, while others blast pellets of hydrogen with lasers. The National Ignition Facility, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, takes the second approach. The facility’s main aim is to contribute to nuclear-weapons research, with sustainable energy as a kind of by-product. Completed in 2009, at triple its initial budget, it was originally expected to achieve “ignition”—in which the energy emitted from the fusion reaction exceeds that imparted by the lasers—by 2012.

Progress was slower than expected: ignition finally occurred on December 5, 2022. A hundred and ninety-two lasers briefly blasted a cylinder the size of a pencil eraser, which emitted X-rays, which compressed a contained pellet of frozen hydrogen atoms, some of which fused into helium, releasing energetic neutrons. All told, the target received about two megajoules of energy (enough to light a hundred-watt bulb for five hours, but condensed into a flash) and released more than three—a little more energy than the scientists expected. The outcome both missed and surpassed predictions.

Science moves in fits and starts. Don’t expect the stadium-size National Ignition Facility to lead to a neighborhood fusion reactor anytime soon. For one thing, while the lasers conveyed two megajoules of energy, powering them required three hundred. So much for net gain. And any reactor made using this design would require rapid-fire lasers that blast multiple targets per second. The new fusion results are exceptional—and yet everyday fusion is still, probably, at least thirty years away. We’ll just have to manage our expectations. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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