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Richard Trinder
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1:00 AM 30th December 2023
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Stunning Breakthroughs In Science In 2023

 
2023 turned out to be a remarkable year for science breakthroughs, and many new discoveries point the way to beneficial technologies in 2024. Whilst the popular news may be dominated by the very early stages of Artificial Intelligence, the real science discoveries are the ones that will shape the news agendas for years to come. Here are a few of the most extraordinary...

James Webb Telescope

The red dot is a never-before-seen galaxy discovered by the JWST, thought to have existed 350 million years after the big bang. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA)
The red dot is a never-before-seen galaxy discovered by the JWST, thought to have existed 350 million years after the big bang. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA)
It would be impossible to round-up 2023 without a mention of the James Webb Telescope (JWST). This year has been dominated by the collective sighs of astrophysicists and the 'oops' moments of cosmologists as they realise how wrong they had been about so many things. And it has been a joy to see their reactions; to paraphrase: "We were completely wrong, how exciting".

Amongst the JWST's revelations for 2023 are:

An entire solar systems, called PDS90, in the process of forming planets, in which the inner regions of the accretion disk have large quantities of water vapour - an essential ingredient for life (as we know it).


Another key ingredient for life is Carbon. The JWST has detected abundant Carbon in the very early universe, not long after the big bang, meaning that this essential element is probably scattered everywhere throughout the universe.


Black Holes really are amazing things. The JWST found a huge one - some 9 million times the mass of our Sun - and dated it to 570 million years after the Big Bang. That's way too soon in the development of the universe to fit our conventional understanding of how stars form, then explode and form black holes. There simply wasn't enough time. That's a classic 'oops' moment for cosmologists, right there.


The JWST has added fuel to the fire of a decade old conundrum; how fast is our universe expanding? There's two different ways to measure the rate of expansion and these two very slightly disagree with each other. So what? Well there's obviously something unknown happening and the JWST's ultra precise measurements have simply prodded this uncertainty with a very big stick. The unknown is what makes scientist fizz with excitement, and this one is a belter!


Neutrino cartography

The IceCube Project
The IceCube Project
The IceCube project uses a cubic kilometre of transparent natural Antarctic ice to 'see' the elusive particles called neutrinos that stream across the universe from our sun and all the distant stars.

Neutrinos are sneaky little particles. Vast numbers of them hit the earth - approximately one hundred trillion neutrinos are passing through you every second - but you don't feel a thing. They pass through entire planets effortlessly because they just don't interact a lot with normal matter. They truly deserve their nickname of 'ghost particles'. However, just occasionally they do interact, and when they do they emit a flash of light called Cherenkov radiation.

The IceCube project is brilliantly configured to detect Cherenkov radiation and to 'see' neutrinos hitting the ice and even to tell which direction they came from. Using a count of the particles and the direction of travel, scientists can work backwards and create a map of neutrino sources. It's a stunningly different way of seeing the universe and helps spot previously unseen astronomical phenomena. Prepare for some major revelations soon.

Einstein's Hat

An einstein tile pattern
An einstein tile pattern
After more than 50 years of searching, mathematicians have found an 'einstein tile'. That's a shape, known colloquially as a 'hat', that fits with its mirror image to create an infinite pattern that never repeats.

Although the name “einstein” sounds like the famous physicist, it actually comes from the German ein stein, meaning “one stone”.

There another shape, called a 'Vampire Tile' that doesn’t require its mirror image to create an infinite non repeating pattern, and one of those has been discovered as well.

Like may discoveries in Science it's easy to ask 'so what?'. That very question was asked when JJ Thomson's demonstrated the existence of the electron in 1897. Now look what we can do with them. Now einstein tiles look set to spur the discovery of whole new class of materials.

Cosmic Web

This deep galaxy field from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) shows an arrangement of 10 distant galaxies marked by eight white circles in a diagonal, thread-like line. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Feige Wang (University of Arizona), and Joseph DePasquale (STScI)
This deep galaxy field from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) shows an arrangement of 10 distant galaxies marked by eight white circles in a diagonal, thread-like line. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Feige Wang (University of Arizona), and Joseph DePasquale (STScI)
It's easy to assume that the myriad stars and galaxies we can see on a clear night are spread out in a more or less random fashion. However this is not the case; the universe has a structure composed of galaxies and gas, known simply as the 'cosmic web'.

Composed of massive filaments of gas, stars and galaxies separated by giant voids, these glowing threads of gas have provided the first tangible evidence that shock waves from the very early universe, starting moments after the Big Bang, have dictated the structure of the observable universe.

The largest of the Cosmic Web filaments found to date is the Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall, which is a staggering 10 billion light years long and contains several billion galaxies.

This year, astronomers using the JWST have discovered a thread-like arrangement of 10 galaxies that existed just 830 million years after the big bang.

Massive reserves of Hydrogen

A test drilling rig for natural hydrogen. Photo: Natural Hydrogen Energy LLC
A test drilling rig for natural hydrogen. Photo: Natural Hydrogen Energy LLC
During 2023, the search for naturally occurring Hydrogen has gathered pace, and it is becoming clear that this remarkable element is widely available. Found in a range of geological settings – oceanic and continental crust, volcanic gases and hydrothermal systems - naturally occurring Hydrogen has the potential to completely upend the global energy system by replacing dirty hydrocarbons with a clean alternative.

Critically, natural Hydrogen may be not only clean, but also renewable. Unlike our current coal, oil and gas reserves, which take millions of years of compression of organic deposits to create. By contrast, natural hydrogen seems to be continually replenished when underground water reacts with iron minerals at elevated temperatures and pressures. One of the early natural Hydrogen boreholes in Mali has been running for a decade, and flows have not diminished, indicating that this simplest of elements is being continuously created.

In September 2023, the US Department of Energy announced it will offer $20m in funding towards technologies to measure and produce naturally occurring hydrogen. Across USA, companies such as Hyterra and Natural Hydrogen Energy are already drilling for natural Hydrogen in Nebraska and Kansas, while in July, Denver-based start-up, Koloma, raised $91m in funds, including some from Bill Gates-founded Breakthrough Energy, to tap into these resources. Other significant drilling operation have already started in Spain and Australia, with many other countries set to follow. There's a reason why this resource is often referred to as 'gold'.

The relevance of natural Hydrogen in the fight against climate change cannot be overstated.