Happy new year everyone! Welcome to 2024, the year we’ve been waiting for, two thousand and twenty four years in the making… Or, I guess there were years before that – the year 13.8 billion years in the making. Give or take.
And in the spirit of looking forward and not backward, let’s… take a look backward. This video really should have come out last week.
But oh well, today we’re going to look back at the year that was. 2023: The year in science.
All right, listen… we all had our fun last night. Today might not be the day for a big thinkie-brain style video. I think, let’s just take it easy-peasy. Nothing weird. Sound good? Just cozy.
Actually… Hell if we’re getting cozy…
Space and Non-Space
2023 was a huge year for science. In fact it might take a while for us to know just how huge.
JWST has been all over the news, due in part to its annoying habit of challenging our existing theories and pushing back the boundaries of known science.
In non-space science, we’ve seen significant progress on two fronts that have a direct impact on human life. One story I’ll be covering today is about medicine. The other is about—
Hold on. I left something out of my script. Let me check Chat GPT. Big…science story…2023. No, that’s not it. Oh well, it’ll come to me.
Let’s start with our headliner. The James Webb Space Telescope launched on December 25, 2021. The six-month journey it took to reach orbit and unfold its mirrors was a major story last year.
If you don’t know what a methyl cation is, well that makes two of us before I looked into this, but it goes by CH3+ and it’s a key component to organic molecules. Like you’re full of them.
The problem is they get broken down by UV radiation, so Scientists have struggled to understand how those compounds could exist in a star system filled with ultraviolet radiation. But scientists looking at JWST data found it can actually help create CH3+.
This puts us a step closer to understanding how some key components of life can form in young star systems. And speaking of young, let’s talk about old. Because JWST also discovered several hundred discoveries of ancient galaxies.
717 galaxies were discovered in a single month of observation data, and that’s not the full list. Some of the newbies appear to have formed a mere 600 million years after the Big Bang. Many were hidden by dust that other space telescopes, like Hubble, couldn’t see through.
At the center of a surprising number of these ancient galaxies are black holes. Everybody’s favorite invisible object was thought to be relatively rare in the early universe. But JWST has changed that.
Maybe. This is a new discovery, and the data is still being analyzed. Point is, there IS data to be analyzed, and there wasn’t, before JWST.
OK. Galaxies are cool and all, but it’s not like we’ll be visiting any of these hot spots any time soon. One spot we have visited, in space robot form, is the asteroid Bennu.
In September 2016, the OSIRIS-REx space probe began a trip to the asteroid. It traveled over 17,000 kilometers for a 2018 rendezvous. In 2020, it tapped the asteroid with a robot arm.
A Sample-Return Capsule was launched, and in September 2023, it arrived safe-and-sound on Earth. Well, nearly safe and sound. There was a problem with the parachute system, but the parts that worked were enough to make a soft landing.
Oh, and if you want to hear more about parachute failures, I’ve got a video that features a lot of them. Don’t read the title.
Anyway, NASA studied the sample and found…carbon and water. That may not sound exciting to those of us made of the stuff, but considering where it was found, yeah! Pretty exciting.
Dante Lauretta, a principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission, has compared the Bennu sample to a time capsule. It offers, quote “profound insights into the origins of our solar system” unquote. And if that’s not enough, you can actually see some of the sample at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.
3. Alzheimer’s Treatments
I’d like to pivot away from space for a moment to talk about something down to Earth. Alzheimer’s Disease directly affects more than 55 million people worldwide. In America, nearly twice the number of victims act as caregivers, so you do the math.
In 2023, more than a 140 drugs were in clinical trials to treat Alzheimer’s. Three are considered especially promising. And one of those was approved by the FDA this July.
It’s called Lecanemab. Analysis of a 3rd stage clinical trial showed Lecanemab slowed the decline in thinking and memory that are typical in Alzheimer’s by 27%. It did this by removing amyloid plaque from the brain.
This is a huge deal to doctors because it confirms a major theory about how Alzheimer’s does its thing. The theory that amyloid plaque does damage to brain cells goes back 30 years. The fact that a drug targeting the plaque helped patients validates the approach.
If you’re interested, Lecanemab is being marketed in the US as Leqembi. A different drug that targets amyloid plaque, called donanemab, has completed its final clinical trial. And a third similar drug, remternetug, is expected to finish its final trial in 2025.
According to Lancet Public Health, 153 million people worldwide could be suffering from Alzheimer’s by 2050. With the help of these drugs and others, we can hope to add it to the list of cured diseases well before then.
4. Gravitational Wave Background
OK, back to space for a minute. There was another huge, not-JWST space story that should make any list of big discoveries from this year. Maybe this century.
I’m talking about the detection of the Gravitational Wave Background of the Universe. GWB is all caps in my script. It’s just that big.
We’ve known about the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, since 1965, when a couple of astronomers detected a radio signal without a precise source. The source turned out to be everywhere. The CMB is an artifact of the Big Bang, some of the earliest light in the universe, stretched by cosmic inflation.
The GWB is similar, but totally different. You can think of it as the presence in the universe of random fluctuations in gravitational waves. This sort of wave was itself first detected only eight years ago.
In 2015, the detectors LIGO and Virgo registered the gravitational waves caused by the collision of two black holes. They have since made more discoveries, but it wasn’t an earthbound detector that registered the GWB. Instead, scientists used data from pulsars, radio-emitting neutron stars, to show the existence of random gravitational background noise.
Multiple sources of data were analyzed, including one pulsar survey that covered 15 years of observation. This was an international effort, involving scientists from the US, Europe, Australia, and China. And the end result is a new beginning for astronomers.
Instead of wavelengths of light, astronomers can now explore the universe with gravitational ripples. I mean, they could do that before, but detection of the background means they can examine gravitational waves from the early universe. There’s a lot of potential for breakthroughs.
We could discover new physics, gather evidence for string theory, and get fresh insight into the Big Bang. Investigations into galaxy formation and dark matter are the tip of the iceberg. When I said we may not know how big this year was, the Gravitational Wave Background was most of what I had in mind.
Most, but not all. I don’t think I’m alone in having mixed feeling about this, but it can’t be denied. 2023 was the year of AI.
A browse through Time’s list of best inventions is enough to hit the highlights. Chat GPT, DALL-E, and Meta’s Master Translator are all big news. I’m personally interested in what the future holds for Humane’s AI Pin, which I covered in my End of the Smartphone video.
If you don’t know what ChatGPT is, the best way to find out is to open bing.com and ask. There should be a column on the right where the natural language AI will describe itself. The conversation this year has been about how useful ChatGPT, and other high-tech chatbots are, and how dangerous they could be.
It’s kind of funny. I think ten years ago, we would mostly have been talking about bots stealing our jobs. We’ve kind of moved past that, now, and the talk is about bots taking over the world, which is where we were twenty-to-thirty years ago.
Meanwhile, we’re making very pretty pictures with DALL-E, and the other text-to-image generators out there. Some are too pretty, in fact. We’ve gone from a world where you can believe what you see to a world where you have to see it in person, close up, and definitely not on a screen.
This is making life stressful. Not that it wasn’t before. And guess what? 2024 is an election year!
It’s going to be interesting to see what role AI plays in next year’s news. Let me take this opportunity to urge my very smart audience not to take online images or video clips at face value. They can be faked extremely well, with relative ease, by people who, at best, are trying to make a joke and at worst, want to see the world burn.
But let’s not end on that note. I’m actually excited about the advancements in AI. In February 2023, scientists at the University of Washington revealed how they used AI to design 3D proteins that work in living cells.
They’ve already built proteins that can bind to light-emitting enzymes, which could be useful in tissue scans. Plans are going ahead to create proteins that could block the flu when taken in a nasal spray. This is the future I want to live in, the one with AI-designed nasal flu shots.
And it’s almost here. 2023 was a year science took a step foward to the future. Sure, some discoveries are still unfolding, and some could to turn out like genies we’d rather have kept in the bottle.
But I, for one, welcome our AI overlords. Also the doctors and scientists working to make the future a better place to live. There’s a lot to look forward to in 2024.