Every year, shortly before Christmas, the specialist magazine “Science” selects the ten most important discoveries, inventions and insights of the year. For 2022, they’ve chosen the James Webb Space Telescope for Breakthrough of the Year. Astronomy’s new “super eye” is the largest and most complex scientific instrument ever launched – and its first images set new standards. Also in the top ten for the year are the world’s largest bacterium, the oldest DNA, new AI systems, NASA’s DART mission, RS virus vaccine candidates and perennial rice.
What were the outstanding scientific findings and discoveries this year? Which development has particular future potential? Every year, just before Christmas, the editors and publishers of the specialist magazine “Science” choose their top ten: the research results and discoveries that they consider to be the most important. They choose one of the ten for the breakthrough of the year. In 2021, the highlight of the year was the decoding of the protein code by artificial intelligence, in 2020 it was the vaccines against the coronavirus.
“Super Eye” of Astronomy
This year, the breakthrough of the year is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). With its 21-foot primary mirror, tennis court-sized solar array, and sharp infrared optics, the JWST is the largest, most complicated, and most expensive instrument mankind has ever launched into space. This “super eye” took 20 years and cost $10 billion to plan and construct, while also being one of the riskiest space missions NASA has ever undertaken. Because after the launch of the telescope on December 25, 2021, the sails, mirrors and support structures had to be unfolded and unfolded in a complex sequence of more than 300 steps – if just one of them had gone wrong, the telescope could have become unusable.
But it succeeded: after arriving at its place of work, Lagrange point 2, 1.5 million kilometers away from us, and several months of calibration, the James Webb telescope began its scientific operation on June 21, 2022. The first images taken with the new telescope were already a sensation: With its first “Deep Field”, the JWST provided the deepest and sharpest view ever seen of the distant, early universe, as well as new views of distant star cradles, galaxy clusters and spectral analyzes of the gas shells of extrasolar planets. Over the following months, the telescope enabled the discovery and spectral characterization of the oldest galaxies in our cosmos to date, detected carbon dioxide and other elements and molecules in the atmosphere of exoplanets for the first time, and also showed planets in our solar system such as Neptune in a new light.
DART mission, AI and ancient DNA
Another highlight of 2022: On September 26, 2022, NASA tested the deflection of an asteroid for the first time with the DART mission. A refrigerator-sized space probe flew to the asteroid Didymos and its moon Dimorphos and rammed the 160-meter-wide asteroid moon to steer it slightly out of its orbit – with success. Should an asteroid be discovered on course in the future, such a kinetic deflector would probably be the best chance of protecting the earth from an impact. High-tech on Earth, on the other hand, are several advances in artificial intelligence that “Science” editors also rank among the top ten for 2022. Because the new AI systems demonstrate that such machine brains are now also capable of cognitive and creative achievements that were previously not thought capable of. This includes AI systems that can generate suitable graphics from text descriptions or develop mathematical problem solutions. Also among them is AlphaCode, an AI that for the first time can even compete with human programmers.
There have also been several important achievements in the life sciences. In northern Greenland, two-million-year-old environmental DNA from the permafrost revealed for the first time the rich biodiversity of a “lost world” of the far north. At the same time, these analyzes revealed the oldest genome ever recovered and sequenced. In October 2022, researchers demonstrated that the selective pressure of the medieval plague is still having an impact on our genome today. In microbiology, the discovery of Thiomargarita magnifica, by far the largest microbe in the world, caused a surprise. This bacterium, discovered in the mangrove mud of Guadeloupe, forms thread-like cells up to two centimeters long. It is the only bacterium that is visible to the naked eye. The enormous number of genes and genome copies is also record-breaking: there can be more than 730,000 DNA copies in a cell filament.
RSV vaccine, MS and the defeats of the year
In medicine, the “Science” editors have also chosen some highlights. These include the first promising clinical tests of vaccines against the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) – the respiratory virus that currently affects many small children and children. Another breakthrough is evidence that the Epstein-Barr virus is likely critically involved in multiple sclerosis. This opens up new opportunities to cure or prevent the disease associated with progressive paralysis. The top ten of the year also include the development of a perennial rice variety that no longer needs to be replanted every year. This saves hard work on the rice fields and increases yields. Something has changed in climate protection in the USA: The new climate package of the Biden government wants to invest 39 billion US dollars in renewable energies and electromobility.
On the one hand, “Science” sees China’s zero-Covid policy as the “breakdowns” of 2022: the strict lockdowns and isolations at the beginning of the corona pandemic worked well and helped China to recover quickly. In the wake of the more contagious omicron variant and the effective vaccines, however, this policy is now proving to be a dangerous dead end. Because the anti-corona measures are hindering the Chinese economy and the low rate of infection and the still too low rate of booster vaccinations are now making opening more difficult. The most momentous event of 2022, however, is Russia’s attack on Ukraine: The Ukraine war not only caused the extensive destruction of the Ukrainian infrastructure and the deaths of thousands of people, the consequences are also being felt worldwide. The effects range from the energy crisis and inflation to shortages in the supply of grain and other foods in many poorer countries to setbacks in science and space travel.