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 meters 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 around the solar system, if not for space’s deafening silence. Scientists are still analyzing data on the aftermath.
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 Reduce 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.
Although 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 percent 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 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 received two psychedelic sessions. A full year later, seventy-five percent maintained at least a fifty-percent 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 UK 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 a 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 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.