Here are some astounding scientific firsts of 2023

A simulation of the cosmic web

In this simulation of the cosmic web, shock waves along filaments emit radio light (pink) as they ripple through magnetic fields (cyan). Scientists have now spotted the radio glow, confirming the shock waves exist.

F. Vazza, D. Wittor and J. West

Science experienced many first-of-a-kind feats this year. These are the groundbreaking achievements that grabbed our attention.

Cosmic web shake-up

Glowing threads of gas, galaxies and dark matter provided the first tangible evidence that shock waves permeate the cosmic web, the large-scale structure of the universe (SN: 3/25/23, p. 14). Simulations had predicted that colliding threads generate shock waves, which catapult charged particles into the web’s magnetic fields and create a faint glow. That aura appeared in data from radio telescopes, confirming the shock waves exist. The glow also provides the first (if indirect) peek at the cosmic web’s magnetic fields.

Hats off

After more than 50 years of searching, mathematicians finally found an einstein tile (ein Stein is German for “one stone”). The shape, dubbed “the hat,” fits with its mirror image to create an infinite pattern that never repeats (SN: 4/22/23, p. 7). Soon after, researchers discovered a “vampire” einstein, a shape that doesn’t require its mirror image to create an infinite nonrepeating pattern (SN: 7/1/23, p. 9). Einstein tiles and their unique balance between order and disorder could spur new discoveries in materials science.

Samples of infinite patterns made by "the hat" and "the vampire" einstein tiles
In March, a group of mathematicians reported the first true “einstein,” a shape that can cover an infinite surface in a pattern that never repeats. The 13-sided shape was nicknamed “the hat” (left). Another milestone came in May: the first “vampire einstein,” a shape that makes a never-repeating pattern without using its mirror image (right).BOTH: D. SMITH, J.S. MYERS, C.S. KAPLAN AND C. GOODMAN-STRAUSS (CC BY 4.0)

Fleeting debut

The first appearance of oxygen-28, a superheavy form of the element that physicists created in a particle accelerator, was much briefer than researchers had expected (SN: 10/7/23 & 10/21/23, p. 4). The isotope decayed almost immediately after forming, despite its atomic nucleus having full outer shells of protons and neutrons — a property that is typically linked with extra stability. Oxygen-28’s instability hints that something may be wrong with our understanding of the strong nuclear force, which binds protons and neutrons.

An illustrated image of oxygen-28 on a green background just after 4 blue neutrons have fallen away.
Scientists had predicted that oxygen-28 would hang around for a while before decaying. But when they finally managed to create the elusive isotope in a particle accelerator, it fell apart almost immediately — shedding four neutrons (illustrated blue) and turning into oxygen-24.Andy Sproles/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

RNA retrieval

Scientists isolated and decoded RNA from an extinct creature for the first time. The fragile molecules, which help ensure that cells follow their DNA instruction manuals, were extracted from a preserved Tasmanian tiger held in a museum (SN: 11/4/23, p. 10). Researchers hope that the feat will aid efforts to bring back the wolflike marsupial, which is named after its homeland and died out in 1936.

A photo from 1930 of a Tasmanian tiger.
The Tasmanian tiger (one shown in captivity in 1930) went extinct after the last one died in a zoo in 1936. Researchers have now extracted RNA from one museum specimen.Topical Press Agency/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Surviving a deep freeze

Adult corals can be safely flash-frozen and revived, researchers demonstrated, raising hopes that cryopreservation could be useful in coral conservation (SN: 9/23/23, p. 11). The key to preventing ice crystals from forming and damaging tissues is to bathe corals in a rigid metal container filled with a dehydrating solution before plunging them in liquid nitrogen. Whatever water remains in the tissues solidifies so quickly that it cannot crystallize and expand.

Two yellowish branches of a finger coral from the species Porites compressa are pictured.
Porites compressa, a finger coral, gets its name for its blunt branches. Mature chunks of it collected off the coast of Hawaii have successfully been frozen and revived, offering hope that the world’s corals could be preserved as the oceans warm and acidify.Claire Lager, Smithsonian

Neutrino cartography

A new map of the Milky Way is the first made without using light. Instead, cosmic cartographers used data from a detector in Antarctica and AI to chart nearly massless particles called neutrinos onto the galaxy’s plane. The resulting image (third image below; optical and gamma-ray versions shown for comparison) offered a rough idea of where the first known high-energy neutrinos to originate in the Milky Way were born (SN: 8/12/23, p. 13). With some refinement, the approach could pinpoint their birthplace and those of other amped-up ghostly particles.

Three views of the Milky Way are stacked on top of each other. The top shows an optical view of the Milky Way, the middle view is it seen in gamma rays in purples and oranges, and the bottom view is a series of red areas and lines on a white background.
IceCube Collaboration/Science 2023IceCube Collaboration/Science 2023

Every letter counts

This year marked the completion of the pangenome, an effort to catalog every single letter, or building block, in humankind’s genetic instruction manual (SN: 6/3/23, p. 6). The undertaking involved compiling and comparing nearly all the DNA of 47 people to get the most comprehensive snapshot yet of human genetic diversity. A few months later, researchers added the final piece: the Y chromosome (SN: 10/7/23 & 10/21/23, p. 7). The pangenome could shed light on the molecular foundations of fertility, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and more.

A digital rendering of the X and Y chromosomes
New efforts to sequence the human Y chromosome (illustrated right; X chromosome shown left) may shed light on its role in fertility and the risk of developing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.NATHAN DEVERY/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES PLUS

Star eats planet

Astronomers have long suspected that stars swallow up planets, but no one had ever caught a star in the act until this year (SN: 6/3/23, p. 8). About 10,000 light-years from Earth, the sunlike star engulfed an orbiting planet that was about 10 times as massive as Jupiter. Over several days, the star grew noticeably brighter and burped a bunch of gas, suggesting it engulfed a companion star. But the relatively small amount of energy released tipped off researchers that the star had actually eaten a planet.

An illustration of a giant orange star eating a much smaller red planet and a giant burst of bright white dust expanding outward from the tiny planet.
Dust blasts into space as a star (illustrated) swallows a planet about 10 times the mass of Jupiter.K. Miller and R. Hurt/IPAC/Caltech

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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