A range of cool discoveries, technological milestones and downright bizarre scientific feats — cows can be potty trained? — gave us a chance to gab about something other than the pandemic.

Fusion of the future

Hopes for making nuclear fusion the clean energy source of the future got a boost in August when a fusion experiment released 1.3 million joules of energy (SN: 9/11/21, p. 11). A big hurdle for fusion energy has been achieving ignition — the point when a fusion reaction produces more energy than required to trigger it. The test released about 70 percent of the energy used to set off the reaction, the closest yet to the break-even milestone.

illustration of blue lasers blasting a fuel capsule

In a first, a pig kidney was attached to a human, and the organ functioned normally during 54 hours of monitoring (SN: 11/20/21, p. 6). This successful surgical experiment marks a milestone toward true animal-to-human transplants, which would broaden the supply of lifesaving organs for people in need.

photo of a group of surgeons examining the pig kidney for signs of rejection

Watch “xenobots” in action.

Brain teaser

Scientists got an entirely new view of the brain when they took a tiny piece of a woman’s brain and mapped the varied shapes of 50,000 cells and their 100 million or so connections (SN: 7/3/21 & 7/17/21, p. 6). The vast dataset may help unravel the complexities of the brain.

3-D image of nerve cells

Researchers successfully trained 11 calves, such as this one, to urinate in a bathroom stall. Once the cow relieved itself, a window in the stall opened, dispensing a molasses mixture as a treat. Toilet training cows on a large scale and collecting their urine to make fertilizer could cut down on agricultural pollution, the team says.

Crystal clear

The intense heat and pressure of the first atomic bomb test, in 1945, left behind a glassy substance known as trinitite — and something even stranger. Within the trinitite, scientists discovered, is a rare form of matter called a quasicrystal (SN: 6/19/21, p. 12). Quasicrystals have an orderly structure like a normal crystal, but that structure doesn’t repeat. Previously, these crystals had been found only in meteorites or made in the lab.

image of red trinitite