Nuclear fusion, infectious diseases and an incredible new space telescope were ongoing stories in 2022, but what were some of the other big scientific developments, discoveries and events of the year?
16 December 2022
War in Europe, a momentous volcanic eruption and a surprise finding that could rewrite our understanding of reality – 2022 really has been a busy year for science, technology, health and environment news, and all that happened in just the first few months. From stunning space imagery to pig heart transplants, here are the New Scientist news editors’ picks of the biggest scientific developments, discoveries and events of the year.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has sparked devastation across the country and affected many areas of life around the world, as both nations play a key role in the global supply chains for energy, food and more. It has also raised the spectre of nuclear weapons, with Russian president Vladimir Putin making not-so veiled threats about deploying his atomic arsenal. Thankfully, Armageddon has been avoided, but Russia’s offensive has sparked discussion of a new kind of nuclear war, as Ukraine’s nuclear power plants became a battleground this year.
In more positive nuclear news, a steady drumbeat of progress on fusion power in 2022 culminated in an announcement on 13 December that researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California had finally achieved a major breakthrough. The National Ignition Facility, a huge bank of lasers designed to heat a tiny core of hydrogen fuel and create intense pressure, is the first to create a fusion reaction in which more energy was produced than put in. There is still much, much more work to be done in making commercial fusion a reality, however.
With the third year of the coronavirus pandemic drawing to a close, covid-19 continues to be a major health issue for countries around the world, even as many have opened up and adopted “living with covid” strategies. Health services were also strained by outbreaks of a range of other viruses. The surprise emergence of monkeypox (later renamed mpox) in many nations lead the World Health Organization to declare its highest level of global health emergency in July. Uganda turned to lockdowns in an effort to control Ebola, while in the UK, levels of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and strep A concerned health officials.
But again, there were positives. Gene therapies advanced greatly in 2022, with multiple good-news stories about children with severe genetic conditions receiving treatment. One girl’s therapy allowed her to walk and talk for the first time, while children who would previously have died at an early age can now expect typical life expectancies.
The field of xenotransplantation also saw significant advances, with the first transplant of a pig heart into a living human taking place on 7 January. The recipient, David Bennett, died two months later, but other work transplanting pig hearts into brain-dead humans on life support also showed the emerging promise of the technique, which could increase the supply of organs for donation.
One story that delighted millions throughout the year was the successful operation of the James Webb Space Telescope, following its launch at the end of 2021. The first images beamed down in July offered jaw-dropping views of the cosmos. After that, JWST went from strength to strength, whether that be taking pictures of planets in the solar system and further afield, or finding the oldest and most distant galaxies in the known universe.
The world continued to feel the effects of climate change, with extreme weather around the globe. Heatwaves were a frequent event throughout the year, from India to the UK, which experienced its hottest day on record. The worst affected was China, where a two-month heatwave was the most extreme in recorded human history. Devastating floods in Pakistan were labelled a climate catastrophe by the UN. Even in the Arctic and Antarctica, high temperatures led to historically low levels of sea ice.
It wasn’t just weather we had to cope with. The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on 15 January killed six people, injured two others, and reached high into the stratosphere. It is the largest eruption of the 21st century so far, and its atmospheric effects were felt across the world.
The field of generative AI has raced ahead in recent years, but in 2022 it went mainstream. Text-to-image generators were once simple research toys, but the likes of DALL-E 2, Imagen and Stable Diffusion saw the internet explode with bizarre pictures as the general public were able to play with them. The launch of ChatGPT, a publicly accessible version of OpenAI’s GPT text generator, also sparked people’s imaginations while raising fears about misuse. With businesses already sprouting up to take advantage of these AI systems, the debate around their use will only continue.
If all that has left you reeling, spare a thought for physicists who have spent the year trying to figure out if our working model of reality needs a do-over. A shock announcement in April suggested that the mass of a fundamental particle, the W boson, diverges wildly from that predicted by the standard model of particle physics. The result has held up so far, and will remain a significant puzzle that must be resolved if we are ever to fully understand the building blocks of the universe. Of course, if theorists make a breakthrough in 2023, you can be sure of getting all the details from New Scientist.
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