December 28, 2023
3 min read
Here’s the best, most inspiring and coolest science we encountered this year
Scientific American’s reporting has played a crucial role in helping readers understand the wild ups and downs of 2023—simply look at our health roundup and climate roundup as proof of that. But if you’re looking for good vibes only heading into 2024, don’t worry: Scientific American has you covered. We’ve gathered 10 of the most amazing breakthroughs, examples of awe-inspiring research and just plain cute discoveries to come out of science this year. So look back all you want—with a smile.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first treatment that uses the gene-editing technology CRISPR as part of a duo of interventions for sickle cell disease. In severe sickle cell disease, red blood cells take on a curved shape and clog blood vessels, causing intense pain and fatigue. The treatment, approved in December, edits a patient’s own bone marrow stem cells and reinfuses them to produce normally shaped red blood cells.
Making It Count
A written number system invented almost 30 years ago by Inuit middle school students took steps toward its digital debut, bringing the traditional counting of the Iñupiaq language into the modern era. These Kaktovik numerals, named for the village where they were created, use an innovative tally mark design and make arithmetic visually intuitive.
Researchers kept rat kidneys frozen for an “absurdly long” 100 days before thawing and successfully transplanting them into other rats. A similar process could someday help clinicians make use of the thousands of donated organs that are discarded every year because they can’t reach a recipient in time. This new process thaws the organs with an alternating magnetic field that oscillates nanoparticles inside the cryogenically preserved kidneys, heating them evenly and preventing ruptured cells.
In June astronomers announced evidence of enormous gravitational waves that make up the background beat of our universe. They detected these waves after watching the regular flashes of city-size dead stars called pulsars, which can spin thousands of times per second. The telltale speedups and slowdowns in the spins revealed ripples in spacetime approximately the size of our solar system, likely born of colliding supermassive black holes.
Snoozing an alarm—despite its bad reputation—can actually be good for some sleepers. Doing so gives those who frequently go back to sleep after the initial alarm a chance to shift into a lighter stage of sleep before fully waking up. A new study found that people who often hit the snooze button woke up alert and ready to ace tests of processing speed, episodic memory, executive functioning and arithmetic.
Scientists had wondered for years why thousands of deep-sea octopuses gather at the Davidson Seamount off California’s coast. In August they concluded that the typically solitary creatures lay their eggs at this underwater volcano because it reaches the perfect temperature. Octopus eggs take longer to develop when cooler, and this location lets the babies emerge after an incubation period of less than two years rather than potentially five to 13.
A newly approved vaccine for pregnant people protects their future child from respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a dangerous infection that is the leading cause of hospitalization in U.S. infants—and one that has taken a particularly severe toll in 2023. Another new prophylactic, consisting of monoclonal antibodies, has been approved for use in children up to age two, and RSV vaccines for older adults have also come to the market. The recently approved RSV vaccine is part of a new wave of vaccinations in development for use during pregnancy.
Scientists created a prototype of a laser-based lightning rod: by firing lasers at the sky, they were able to redirect lightning to protect the top of a Swiss mountain. Someday a similar system might deflect strikes from wind farms or rocket launchpads.
A capsule parachuted to Earth this fall bearing samples from the far-off asteroid Bennu, a gift from the uncrewed OSIRIS-REx mission, which spent years exploring the space rock. Analyzing this material will give scientists an unparalleled glimpse into conditions in the solar system’s early planet-building era 4.5 billion years ago, when Bennu formed.
Students Get Sleep
A Scientific American editorial calling for delayed school start times to let teenagers sleep sparked lots of reader commentary—and prompted a high school teacher to ask her students to write to SciAm about their experiences. By the time we presented their thoughts, they were able to express their excitement at getting extra Z’s: their school district listened to their preferences, and all its high school and middle school days will begin at a later time next year.