Science

The 20 Most Pivotal Science and Tech Breakthroughs of 2022

In just the past year, we’ve made incredible leaps and bounds in our understanding of the universe, thanks to an engineering marvel that can probe the farthest reaches of space. We also figured out how to deflect Earth-damaging asteroids, designed a next-gen tank, and manipulated light itself to convey information faster. We are experimenting with AI and realizing its enormous promise—while also recognizing its potential problems.

But that’s not all.

We’ve been stunned by the intensity of our planet’s geological processes, and we’re making headway in exploring our neighboring planet’s potential history of life. Climate change evidence keeps raising disturbing visions of an uncertain future. Yet, our scientific curiosity and technological potential are the twin engines of innovation that will keep transforming our world into a better place to live.

Let’s hail the 20 most important scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs of the past year, and look ahead at what’s to come in 2023.


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January: The Tonga Volcano Eruption Enlarged Our View of Geothermal Activity

satellite images show beforeafter hunga tonga hunga ha'apai volcano eruption

Maxar//Getty Images

The volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai in the South Pacific shot ash tens of thousands of miles into Earth’s atmosphere when it exploded on January 15. As the most powerful eruption in the past 30 years, the event’s shockwave circled the globe twice, and generated a devastating tsunami that killed five people. The island of Tonga is all but gone, leaving two small land masses in the wake of the 12-mile-wide underwater volcano. Plumes of ash shot so powerfully out of the volcano, they reached over 24 miles above Earth’s surface, the highest point at which volcanic ash has been detected.

—Manasee Wagh


March and April: We Found Microplastics in Human Lungs … and Blood

abstract plexus lung

Yuichiro Chino//Getty Images

Microplastics, pieces of plastic debris that are about the size of a sesame seed or smaller, are now found in places you wouldn’t expect, including our waterways, near the summit of Mount Everest, and even in our own digestive systems. In March and April, scientists identified this plastic dust in human bodies—both in live human lungs among patients awaiting surgeries, and in human blood. What are the consequences? We don’t yet know, but this study is a first step.

—M.W.


July: We Saw Deeper Than Ever Into the Universe

webb deep field view

Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) allows us to see farther (and farther back in time) than ever before. Its unmatched infrared capabilities have already given us unprecedented views of star formation. Scientists have seen into the early universe as it was a mere 100 million years after the Big Bang, which happened about 13.8 billion years ago. The telescope is also capturing the wonders of our own solar system, like this vision of Neptune’s faint dusty rings in wavelengths in the near-infrared range. And it could be our best bet for finding extraterrestrial life.

M.W.


August: Study Reported That Scientists Partially Resurrected Dying Organs in Pigs

3d abstract tunnel

dowell//Getty Images

Death may be just a brief wrong turn in the future for people whose organ failures can be reversed. Scientists proved that OrganEx technology can partially restore organs in pigs that were dead a few hours to functionality. The system revived dead cells in the heart, liver, and kidneys more slowly, which turned out to be key. While the souped-up life support system’s results are still a far cry from bringing humans back to life, it’s a thrilling glimpse of how people who are considered dead may yet have some hope of retaining their lives.

—M.W.


August: Melting Zombie Ice Will Raise Sea Levels, New Study Showed

iceberg melting in disko bay in greenland

Paul Souders//Getty Images

The cumulative effects of climate change are chipping away at chunks of frozen ice sheets called “doomed ice” and “zombie ice” in Greenland. These 18-million-year-old ice sheets will melt and raise the global sea level by at least 10.6 inches over the next several decades, according to a study in the journal Nature Climate Change. The released water will raise the global sea level by more than double the previous estimates—hypothetically enough melt to cover the entire continental U.S. with 37 feet of water.

—M.W.


August: Evidence Showed That Two Asteroid Strikes—Not Just One—Killed the Dinosaurs

end of cretaceous kt event, illustration

ROGER HARRIS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY//Getty Images

Scientists discovered a crater 250 miles off the coast of West Africa that indicates a previously unknown large asteroid strike. It appears to have hit Earth around the same time as the dinosaur-killing Chicxulub asteroid, making it a partner in this extinction crime. The crater is more than five miles in diameter and lies on the floor of the North Atlantic Ocean. It could be the result of a piece of the Chicxulub asteroid hitting Earth separately, or it may be from an entirely separate asteroid. This opens the question: are there other asteroids we don’t know about that contributed to this mass extinction?

—M.W.


September: We Crashed an Asteroid Deflection System Directly Into an Asteroid for the First Time

dart asteroid mission art rendering before impact

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

NASA ran a trial of its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) on September 26—and it was a smashing success. DART hurled itself at a small asteroid at over 14,000 miles per hour. The impact successfully altered the asteroid’s orbit around its parent asteroid by a whopping 32 minutes, which was 25 times greater than the scientists’ goal. NASA’s long-term aim is to learn from this experiment and further develop asteroid deflection technology as a form of planetary defense against potentially catastrophic impacts in the future.

—Jessica Coulon


September: Paper Published on a New Mathematical Model That Can Help Solve Cold Cases

identity, conceptual image

TEK IMAGE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY//Getty Images

Cold cases are increasingly being solved using forensic genetic genealogy—constructing genetic-based family trees to solve crimes. Current methods for following genetic leads are slow and require a lot of manual work, but that may soon change thanks to a groundbreaking algorithm created by researchers from Stanford University, Identifinders, and the DNA Doe Project. Using this new mathematical approach, researchers were able to solve DNA targets ten times faster and with a 94-percent rate of success, versus the current 4-percent chance of success.

—J.C.


October: An Optical Chip Set a New Internet Speed Record

network and data flowing

Yuichiro Chino//Getty Images

can send nearly twice the amount of traffic as the entire internet in a single second. Setting the speed record for data transmission at 1.84 petabits, this new technology is described internetsplits a laser into the full spectrum of light

This chipin Nature Photonics. That’s mind-boggling when compared to the 1- to 10-gigabit home connections we currently consider cutting edge, since 1 petabit is a million gigabits. It’s possible because the chip , producing “hundreds” of distinct frequencies, or colors. Researchers encoded data onto each separate wavelength of color to achieve fantastic speed. In the future, one chip could replace a thousand lasers used in current fiber optics.

—M.W.


October: Unveiling of the Most Badass Battle Tank Ever

tank

General Dynamics

The AbramsX, introduced this fall, is a dramatic remake of the 1980s-era M1 Abrams main battle tank. The next-gen tank incorporates an automatic loader for the new XM 360 main gun, removing the need for a human loader, and moves the commander and gunner into the hull for a fully unmanned turret. The tank features an XM914 30-millimeter chain gun similar to the one on the AH-64 Apache for engaging lightly armored targets, aircraft, and drones. The tank also features the Trophy active protection system, allowing it to shoot down incoming rockets and missiles. Other features include ammunition datalinks, a new diesel engine, and the ability to control robotic armored vehicles.

—Kyle Mizokami


October: Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded for Work on Quantum Entanglement

quantum entanglement

MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY//Getty Images

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences jointly awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger for their work on quantum entanglement. Famously described as “spooky action at a distance,” quantum entanglement is a phenomenon in which two particles are intrinsically linked to one another regardless of their physical distance. Their work is expected to advance the study of quantum computing—the next frontier for our digital world.

Courtney Linder


November: We Created New Names For Extremely Large and Very Small Numbers

screen numbers

Appu Shaji / EyeEm//Getty Images

Science uses convenient names for both large and small measurements. For example, 1,000 grams equals 1 x 103 grams of weight. We also simply know it as a kilogram. But what do you do when you face galactically huge or infinitesimally small measurements (like those encountered in quantum physics)? To help describe these extremes, scientists have come up with new prefixes for some numbers. Researchers from the United Kingdom’s National Physical Laboratory added two new prefixes to extend the extreme range of the largest numbers—ronna and quetta—and another two new prefixes—ronto and quecto—to the opposite end to signify the smallest numbers. For example, 1027 grams is now one ronnagram, about equal to the mass of Earth, and 10-27 grams is now one rontogram, about the mass of an electron. This marks the first expansion to the range of prefixes since 1991.

—M.W.


November: A Discovery of a Black Hole at the Center of Our Galaxy Was Published

black hole

MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY//Getty Images

This black hole is peculiar, since it isn’t spewing radiation after sucking down matter. However, astronomers uncovered the otherwise invisible phenomenon by chance. The closest stellar-mass black hole to Earth ever found has a “wobbling” star, which orbits its dark partner at an incredible 223,000 miles per hour. The star is eventually doomed, after it runs out of hydrogen to burn. Once its outer layers begin loosening, the black hole will strip this material away and heat it so much that the glow will give away the black hole’s existence even after its companion star is toast.

—M.W.


December: America Finally Got a New Bomber After Three Long Decades

the b 21 raider was unveiled to the public at a ceremony december 2, 2022 inpalmdale, calif designed to operate in tomorrow's high end threat environment, the b 21 will play a critical role in ensuring america's enduring airpower capability us air force photo

Department of Defense

The B-21 Raider, revealed to the world on December 2, 2022, is the first sixth-generation warplane and America’s first new bomber in more than three decades. The B-21, designed to carry both nuclear and conventional weapons, will replace the B-1 and B-2 bombers, starting in the late 2020s. The Pentagon is counting on the bomber’s combination of the latest in stealth technology and long range to deter, and—if necessary—win a conflict with Russia, China, or even North Korea. The B-21 will also be optionally manned, capable of carrying out missions without a human crew.

K.M.


December: ChatGPT Could Turn the Internet Upside Down

artificial intelligence chatbot concept

Carol Yepes//Getty Images

This experimental chatbot by artificial intelligence (AI) research lab OpenAI is poised to overtake commonly used internet search engines like Google. That’s because it communicates more naturally with people, explaining concepts and answering queries in clear and simple sentences. It even comes up with ideas from scratch, “including business strategies, Christmas gift suggestions, blog topics and vacation plans,” according to this New York Times report. While Google itself has been working on chatbot development, its own burgeoning AI product doesn’t allow for ads, which are a huge source of revenue for the company. And because they’re built on other data scraped from the internet, chatbots as a whole must still overcome the risk of dispensing false information or toxic language.

—M.W.


December: We Can Soon Fire a Precise Hypersonic Weapon from Large Aircraft

arrw test flight

Lockheed Martin

The Air Force’s first hypersonic weapon, the Advanced Rapid Response Weapon (“ARRW”) was tested for the first time in December 2022. ARRW is a hypersonic weapon designed to be fired from large aircraft, including the B-1 and B-52 bombers, at time-critical targets on land. ARRW is a “boost glide” hypersonic weapon: after launch, a rocket boosts it to blistering speeds and a very high altitude. The hypersonic glide vehicle, a flattened dart-shaped vehicle, then glides back to Earth. The Air Force won’t say exactly how fast it goes, but it could attain speeds up to Mach 20.

—K.M.


December: We Achieved Nuclear Fusion Ignition for the First Time

plasma flowing from ball, illustration

EDUARD MUZHEVSKYI / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY//Getty Images

Marking a major milestone for nuclear fusion, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility achieved what’s known as “ignition.” Considered a scientific energy breakeven, this means the fusion reaction produced more energy than the input required to power the machine in the first place. Now, the goal is to make the experiment about 100 times more efficient—only then will we be on the brink of nuclear fusion as a viable, scalable energy source.

C.L.


December: The First Artemis Mission Splashed Down After Traveling Past the Moon

orion spacecraft approaching the moon

Erik Simonsen//Getty Images

The Orion Space Capsule that launched after many technical and weather delays flew more than 40,000 miles past the moon. That’s farther than a spacecraft designed to carry humans has ever flown. But this was just a test flight. The next Artemis mission should land on the lunar surface in 2023. After that, it will hopefully be smooth sailing for the first humans to land on the moon later this decade … and eventually learn lessons that will help us build the infrastructure to pave the way to Mars.

—M.W.


All year: We’re Developing Special Radar to Map the World’s Forests

trees in forest

Artur Gontarczyk / 500px//Getty Images

Biomass is integral to stopping carbon dioxide from permeating our atmosphere, and so denser forests mean less global warming. The European Space Agency’s Biomass mission will send a 39-foot radar reflector into orbit in 2024 to measure the state of our world’s forests. The apparatus will look through the leafy canopy of tropical forests—410 miles below—to weigh out the woody biomass beneath using the low P-band frequency of about 70 centimeters. The mission aims to track changes in biomass over time to learn more about the carbon cycle.

—M.W.


All Year: The Perseverance Rover Has Been Finding Promising Signs of Past Life on Mars

perseverance rover on mars at sunset

MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY//Getty Images

The Perseverance Rover has one ultimate mission: to find life on Mars. The main candidate for signs of ancient life is a dried river delta, estimated to be between about 3.6 to 3.8 million years old, and suspected to have once held water. A scattering of huge boulders across the delta is evidence of great past floods, scientists say, and the rover is investigating this area. Scientists have wondered about life on Mars for a while. A rock from our neighbor that was discovered on Earth in 1996 shows signs of life, in the form of minerals, carbon compounds potentially from microbes, and magnetite, a compound some bacteria produce. Evidence like this fuels scientific speculation that the Red Planet did harbor life once.

—M.W.


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