It’s been hard recently to think about anything other than the wars and humanitarian crises raging around the world. Climate change has left its mark in what was almost certainly the hottest year in human history—there were unprecedented heat waves, intensified forest fires, torrential rain, and floods like those in Libya that caused devastation after two dams burst.
But this has not stopped scientists, innovators, and decisionmakers from working on solutions to our biggest societal challenges—with success. Here is a collection of uplifting news to come out of 2023.
A powerful laser veered lightning strikes off their path
In an instant, millions of volts can damage buildings, spark fires, and harm people—unless the lightning can be redirected. An experiment with a laser beam suggests this is possible. The scientists behind it must now demonstrate that their multimillion-dollar laser would actually work better at critical sites such as airports and rocket launchpads than widely used, cheap lightning rods. Read more at Science.
Asteroid rocks and dust were brought to Earth
The first US mission to collect an asteroid sample, OSIRIS-REx, successfully returned a capsule containing granules and dust from the asteroid Bennu. Early analyses back at NASA’s lab suggest the sample is rich in carbon and water-laden minerals, the building blocks of life on Earth. Read more at WIRED.
Scientists grew mouse embryos for the first time ever in space
What would make humans a truly spacefaring species? If we could reproduce and grow outside of Earth’s atmosphere. It may be that this is possible, an experiment with mice suggests. Scientists managed to grow mouse embryos aboard the International Space Station and return them safely to Earth. Their initial growth appeared to be unaffected by the low gravity and high radiation. Read more at New Scientist.
A rare egg-laying mammal was rediscovered after decades
A species with the spines of a hedgehog, the snout of an anteater, and the feet of a mole seems hard to miss. But the long-beaked echidna Zaglossus attenboroughi—named after British naturalist David Attenborough—had remained hidden until caught on camera for the first time since it was scientifically recorded in 1961. This egg-laying mammal is known to only live in the Cyclops Mountains in the Indonesian province of Papua. Read more at Mongabay.
Countries signed a landmark treaty to protect the high seas
After almost 20 years of negotiations, members of the United Nations agreed to protect marine life in international waters—the two-thirds of the world’s oceans that lie outside of national boundaries. This legal framework enables, for example, the creation of vast marine protected areas (MPAs). It also states that “genetic resources,” such as materials from animals and plants discovered for use in pharmaceuticals or foods, should benefit society as a whole. Read more at The Guardian.
California national park bounces back after wildfire
Two years after California’s largest single wildfire burned almost 70 percent of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the ecosystem remains viable. Shrubs and grasses are growing in burned areas while fungi and insects are decomposing dead tree trunks, leading to a slow recovery. Read more at The Guardian.
Brazil’s top court rules for Indigenous rights in landmark case
A powerful agribusiness lobby tried to place time limits on Indigenous peoples’ right to land. They would have to prove they lived on the land in 1988, when Brazil’s current constitution was ratified. But many Indigenous peoples were expelled from their ancestral lands during the country’s military dictatorship, which lasted from from the 1960s to the 1980s. The Supreme Court in Brazil squashed the proposed time limit for land claims. Read more at AP News.
There could be a large reserve of hydrogen deep beneath the French ground
Hydrogen could power factories, trucks, ships, and airplanes in the future—but producing it requires a lot of energy and is expensive. But the gas also occurs naturally deep in the Earth’s crust, and researchers in France have accidentally stumbled on a potentially large deposit. Next year they plan to begin drilling to collect gas samples from depths of up to 1.8 miles. Read more at the Conversation.
The world may have crossed a solar power tipping point
A new study suggests that solar is on track to become the main source of the world’s energy by 2050—even without more ambitious climate policies being introduced. Renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuels. But in the case of solar energy, obstacles such as integration into electricity grids and financing in developing countries still need to be overcome in order for it to continue to grow as it has in recent years. Read more at the Conversation.
A new type of geothermal power plant is making the internet a little greener
A pilot plant is now helping to power Google data centers in Nevada by harnessing the Earth’s heat deep beneath it. Engineers drilled two boreholes down 7,000 feet, and then connected them by fracking, a technique that’s conventionally used in the oil and gas industry. Water sent down one borehole moves through the fracked rocks below and returns to the surface heated up via the other drilled hole. Read more at WIRED.
World’s first container ship powered by methanol completed its maiden voyage
Laura Maersk, the world’s first methanol-fueled ship, arrived in England in September—a milestone for the shipping industry, which is responsible for about 3 percent of worldwide emissions and struggling to decarbonize. Methanol can be made from food waste at landfills. Read more at the BBC.
A cheap and effective vaccine against malaria got approval
There’s now a second malaria jab that could be produced even quicker than the first and rolled out to more children. It got the thumbs up from the World Health Organization in October, two years after the first one. Malaria is the leading cause of death among children in sub-Saharan Africa. Read more at Stat News.
The largest study of migraine sufferers promises new treatment pathways
In the largest genetic study of migraines to date, researchers have identified more than three times the number of genetic risk factors previously known. This will help to better understand the biological basis of migraines and their subtypes and could speed up the search for new treatments. Read more at Science Daily.
Scientists made breakthrough in cervical cancer treatment
In a UK trial of 500 women, half received existing, cheap drugs before standard radiotherapy. The results showed that with the combined therapy, women’s risk of death or relapse fell by 35 percent. According to the researchers, this is the biggest improvement in treating this disease in over 20 years. Read more in the Independent.
Gene therapy showed early promise for children
Scientists in China reported that some children who were born deaf could hear after a gene therapy trial. Meanwhile, experiments are underway in the USA and France aimed at children with a rare form of genetic deafness. Read more at WIRED.
An implant restored walking ability for Parkinson’s patient
A man with advanced Parkinson’s disease can walk several miles again thanks to a special implant. Positioned in the lumbar region of the spinal cord, the implant sends electrical signals to his leg muscles. The scientists behind the innovation plan to carry out further trials with other patients in the coming year. Read more at SWI swissinfo.ch.
DeepMind’s new AI can predict whether a genetic mutation is likely to cause disease
Researchers at DeepMind, Google’s AI company, have trained an AI model to detect DNA mutations, which could speed up the diagnosis of rare diseases. Similar to language models like ChatGPT, this model knows the sequences of amino acids in proteins and can detect anomalies. Read more at WIRED.
AI-powered prediction helped Chileans evacuate from floods
A forecasting tool from Google can predict floods in South America and other regions using a little data on the water flow of rivers, with impressive accuracy. This August, many people in Chile were able to evacuate safely and with their belongings thanks to a warning sent out two days before the flooding. Read more at Fast Company.
The Hollywood actors’ and writers’ battle against AI ended—for now
Generative AI has made it to Hollywood, and after months of strikes, both the writers and actors unions managed to negotiate guardrails on how the technology can be used in film and TV projects. AI cannot, for example, be used to write or rewrite scripts, and studios are not allowed to use scripts to train AI models without the writers’ permission. Read more at WIRED.
Lego bricks are teaching kids Braille
The iconic studs on the Lego bricks allow them to be stacked on top of each other. And now you can learn a new language while you’re at it. The company has started selling bricks with modified amounts of studs that teach the Braille alphabet. The corresponding letter or number represented by a brick’s studs are printed on each brick so that children can learn the code. Read more at TechCrunch.