December 29, 2023
5 min read
As 2023 comes to a close, we look back at a year of poignant commentary on space, politics, climate, artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons, and health—and the ways we explore the human experience
In 2023 Scientific American’s opinion section offered decisive commentary on science and the most important issues of the moment. We started with water as a climate change issue, delved into light pollution and nuclear waste, investigated controversial Supreme Court decisions, explained social justice issues and ended with a hard look at artificial intelligence, all while exploring the vastness of space and the confines of quanta. As editors, we shared our expertise on conservation, the modernization of building codes, school start times’ effects on children and the ways that politicians continue to eschew evidence in pushing dangerous, dehumanizing agendas. We strived to challenge dogma, delight readers with observations and share in the wonder of our world. Here are some of our favorite pieces of 2023.
The World Solved Acid Rain. We Can Also Solve Climate Change
People tend to notice what’s wrong rather than what’s right; we focus on problems—rightly so!—but often take solutions for granted. It’s important to remember and learn from what worked, especially when it’s relevant for the climate crisis, which can feel overwhelming and unfixable. Hannah Ritchie makes this case in her piece on how we can solve the climate crisis using lessons from acid rain. When I shared the story on social media, I was surprised at how many people didn’t realize that the problem of acid rain was fixed. It was the most challenging international environmental crisis of the late 20th century, and we heard plenty about it at the time—acid rain dissolved monuments, stripped trees of their leaves, polluted waterways and leached soils. Governments around the world agreed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, and it worked—same with the ozone hole. The climate emergency is similarly a challenging but solvable problem, and the solutions are well understood. We can fix this crisis, too.
—Laura Helmuth, Editor in Chief
The Brain Isn’t as Adaptable as Some Neuroscientists Claim
The word “neuroplasticity” remains one of the ultimate buzzwords in the brain sciences. Unfortunately, it fosters exaggerated ideas about the degree to which the brain can rewire itself. The University of Cambridge’s Tamar Makin and Johns Hopkins University’s John Krakauer provide a refreshing counterpoint to this argument, questioning the legitimacy of dramatic accounts of “plasticity” that are widely invoked in popular texts on neuroscience. In analyzing 10 renowned cases, they take apart the idea of the brain undergoing a wholesale repurposing and find, instead, that what is really going on is just a tapping into an existing capacity that has been there since birth. The writers also put to rest—one hopes for good—the notion that we only use 10 percent of our brain. Their contentions, which may put a damper on the sales of brain games and some popular science books, achieve the objective of most opinion writing: the overturning of a long-held shibboleth.
—Gary Stix, Senior Editor, mind and brain
The Supreme Court Needs the Judicial Reforms We Champion for Everyone Else
Matthieu Chemin, a judicial scholar who studies legal reforms all over the world, turns his eye on the Supreme Court. He finds that the high court’s ethics are lagging behind the standards the U.S. has called for overseas, with questionable dealings by justices that are more suspect than the documented corruption seen in other nations. The op-ed offers an informed reality check on the Court’s claim that it is self-policing its conflicts just fine.
—Dan Vergano, Senior Opinion Editor
How My Mother’s Dementia Showed Me Another Side of Neurodiversity
In this piece about his relationship with his mother through her dementia, Steve Silberman took me on an exploration of what it means to show compassion and respect for an array of neurodiversities, including in the minds of those with neurodegenerative diseases. I was particularly interested in his experience because my mom also has dementia, and I am torn between validating her implausible reality and trying to explain the “truth,” even if she doesn’t want to hear it. Silberman explains with such grace how he and his sister realized that his mother, Leslie, was telling the truth—at least, “her emotional truth”—about unacceptable treatment she received at an elderly facility. It was then that he realized that honoring neurodiversity meant encouraging Leslie to talk about her experiences, real or fantasy. When Silberman moved his mother to a new, more compassionate facility where caretakers honored and respected her reality, Leslie gave him the greatest gift: though words eluded her, one day at the new facility, Leslie whispered to her son, “Thank you for hearing me.”
—Jeanna Bryner, Managing Editor
We Need to Better Regulate Nutraceuticals
The more commerce and advertising moves onto social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, the more vital this editorial feels. Without oversight of nonmedication nutraceuticals and supplements, consumers risk their health and billions of dollars on untested products. I was surprised to discover that 23,000 emergency room visits can be attributed to unregulated dietary supplements per year!
—Andrea Gawrylewski, Chief Newsletter Editor
How Wealthy UFO Fans Helped Fuel Fringe Beliefs
I particularly enjoyed this peek into the financials of UFO fandom and other fringe topics because even though UFO headlines can seem fun or low-stakes, people are pouring huge amounts of money into the topic. Why is it valuable to them? Knowing this can help people make better choices about where they put their trust and attention.
—Meghan Bartels, News Reporter
The U.S.’s Plans to Modernize Nuclear Weapons Are Dangerous and Unnecessary
This piece exposes the dangerous folly of the U.S. plan to overhaul its nuclear weapons at a price tag of $1.5 trillion. Persuasive, clear language enumerates the many reasons not to waste that money and endanger lives by building new atomic bombs, submarines, missiles and planes. It forcefully makes the point that a new nuclear arms race misses the main lesson learned from the last cold war: “The only real way to use nuclear weapons is never.”
—Clara Moskowitz, Senior Editor, space and physics
I Worked in Antarctica for Three Years. My Sexual Harasser Was Never Caught
This deeply moving, profoundly distressing essay is the work of nearly one year by Elizabeth Endicott, a former janitor at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. In this piece, she shares the terrible and intimate details of being stalked and harassed, giving us incredible insight into the sexual violence problems plaguing the Antarctic science venture. She calls out the almost Keystone Kops–like approach her supervisors and contractors took to finding her harasser and urges the nation’s premier science agency, the National Science Foundation, to not just deal with this issue but to end it. Sexual harassment is an entrenched problem in scientific research, not to mention society at large. Endicott takes us on a journey through her memory and her own personnel file to show us, in excruciating detail, how far we have to go to end the misogyny and patriarchy that plagues our institutional quest for knowledge.
—Megha Satyanarayana, Chief Opinion Editor