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The 7 Most Important Scientific Breakthroughs of 2017

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The pace of technological change is accelerating – and every new year seems to bring a more incredible list of scientific breakthroughs than the last.

This time 2017 is no exception, and the year was filled with game-changing innovations that are on the cutting edge of science. These breakthroughs will surely alter how we think of the world, and they will likely also translate into future unknown technologies that will affect how our society operates.

Scientific Breakthroughs in 2017

Today’s infographic comes to us from Futurism, and it highlights the big scientific advancements that happened over the course of the year.

The 7 Most Important Scientific Breakthroughs of 2017

Key discoveries happened in the fields of gene editing, space travel, quantum communications, astronomy, and quantum physics.

Let’s take a deeper dive into these incredible scientific breakthroughs.

The Subatomic Level

At the subatomic particle level, there were a couple of noteworthy advances that will help us better understand the complex inner-workings of quantum mechanics.

New particles: Using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a team of scientists discovered five new particles – all from a single analysis. These particles may give us a better understanding of the correlation between quarks and multi-quark states, as well as some clues about the earliest moments of the universe.

Quantum communications: The first unhackable video call happened between China and Vienna in September. Rather than using traditional cryptography, it relied on quantum key distribution (QKD) to protect the call. Using single photons in quantum superposition states is a way to raise the level of security so high, that it’s not even hackable by quantum computers.

The Final Frontier

Important progress was also made in space travel and astronomy:

Reusable rockets: Elon Musk and his SpaceX team launched a previously used Falcon 7 rocket booster. For humans to be able to do anything significant off the planet, cutting down the cost of commercial space travel is a crucial step in the right direction.

New Earth-like planets: In a remote star system called TRAPPIST-1, scientists discovered seven Earth-like exoplanets in the “goldilocks zone” – where life (as we know it) can exist.

Life Sciences

Lastly, the other three major discoveries fall under the category of life sciences:

Embryo gene editing: Researchers successfully edited a one-cell human embryo in Portland, Oregon. This could make it easier to cure heritable diseases or defective genes in the future.

Gene editing in body: A 44-year-old patient suffering from a rare disease, Hunter syndrome, had his genome successfully edited using CRISPR.

Artificial womb: An artificial womb successfully imitated the environment inside a uterus, housing a 23-week old lamb. Premature births are a leading cause of death for newborns.

With the speed of science and technological change continuing to accelerate, it should not be surprising to see an even more exciting list of breakthroughs in 2018.

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Misc

The Extreme Temperatures of the Universe

From the Big Bang to the Boomerang Nebula, this stunning data visualization puts the extreme temperatures of our universe into perspective.

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The Extreme Temperatures of the Universe

For most of us, temperature is a very easy variable to overlook.

Our vehicles and indoor spaces are climate controlled, fridges keep our food consistently chilled, and with a small twist of the tap, we get water that’s the optimal temperature. Of course, our concept of what’s hot or cold is actually very narrow in the grand scheme of things.

Even the stark contrast between the wind-swept glaciers of Antarctica and the blistering sands of our deserts is a mere blip on the universe’s full temperature range. Today’s graphic, produced by the IIB Studio, looks at the hottest and coldest temperatures in our universe.

But First: What is Temperature Anyway?

Before looking at this top-to-bottom view of extreme temperatures, it helps to remember what temperature is actually measuring – kinetic energy, or the movement of atoms.

Hypothetically, atoms would simply stop moving as they reach absolute zero. As matter heats up, it begins to “vibrate” more vigorously, changing states from solid to gas. Eventually, plasma forms as electrons wander away from the nuclei.

With that quick primer, let’s dig into some of the hottest insights in this cool data visualization.

Highs and Lows on Planet Earth

Earth’s lowest air temperature, -135ºF (-93ºC), was recorded in Antarctica in 2010. Since then, scientists have discovered that surface ice temperatures can dip as low as -144ºF (-98ºC).

The conditions need to be just right: clear skies and dry air must persist for several days during the polar winter. In surroundings this cold, human lungs would actually hemorrhage within just a few breaths.

On the other end of the spectrum of extreme temperatures, the hottest surface reading on Earth of 160ºF (71ºC) occurred in Iran’s Lut Desert in 2005. In fact, the Lut Desert clocked the highest surface temperature in 5 out of 7 years during a 2003-2009 study, making it the world’s hottest location. The desert’s dark pebbles, dry soil, and lack of vegetation create the perfect conditions for blistering heat.

There are very few organisms that can withstand such temperatures, but one fascinating phylum makes the cut.

The Amazing Tardigrade

Commonly known as a “moss pig” or “water bear”, the one-millimeter long tardigrade is extremely resilient. While most organisms need water to survive, the tardigrade gets around this by entering a “tun” state, in which metabolism slows to just 0.01% of its normal rate.

When water is scarce, the creature curls up and synthesizes molecules that lock sensitive cell components in place until re-hydration occurs. Beyond dry conditions, the tardigrade can also survive both freezing and boiling temperatures, high radiation environments, and even the vacuum of space.

This video courtesy of TEDEd explains more about the hardy critter:

Testing the Limits

For better or worse, humans have pushed the limits of temperature here on Earth.

At MIT, scientists cooled a sodium gas to half-a-billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In the words of the Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Ketterle, who co-led the team: “To go below one nanokelvin (one-billionth of a degree) is a little like running a mile under four minutes for the first time.”

Not all experiments are conducted out of simple curiosity. Conventional bombs already explode at around 9,000ºF (5,000ºC), but nuclear explosions take things much further. For a split second, temperatures inside a nuclear fireball can reach a mind-bending 18,000,000ºF (10,000,000ºC).

The highest man-made temperature ever recorded is 9,900,000,000,000ºF (5,500,000,000,000ºC), created in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. It was achieved by accelerating heavy lead ions to 99% the speed of light and smashing them together.

Highs and Lows of the Universe

While humans have been able to manufacture extremely hot and cold temperatures, the universe has created these extremes naturally.

Undoubtedly, the creation of the universe is made of the hottest stuff of all. The temperature of the universe at 10⁻³⁵ seconds old was a whopping 1 octillion ºC. Moments later, it “cooled down” to 1,800,000,000ºF (1 billion ºC) when the universe was less than two minutes old.

On the other end of the spectrum, the coolest natural place currently known in the universe is the Boomerang Nebula at -457.6ºF (-272ºC). It’s found 5,000 light years away from us in the constellation Centaurus, and it is currently in a transitional phase as a dying star.

As space exploration goes further than ever, these extreme temperatures may one day reach even hotter or colder heights than we can imagine.

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Misc

Visualizing the Origin of Elements

You’re likely familiar with the periodic table, but do you know the origin of elements? This graphic shows where our solar system’s elements come from.

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origin of elements

Visualizing the Origin of Elements

Most of us are familiar with the periodic table of elements from high school chemistry. We learned about atoms, and how elements combine to form chemical compounds. But perhaps a lesser-known aspect is where these elements actually come from.

Today’s periodic table showing the origin of elements comes to us from Reddit user u/only_home, inspired by an earlier version created by astronomer Jennifer Johnson. It should be noted that elements with multiple sources are shaded proportionally to reflect the amount of said element produced from each source.

Let’s dive into the eight origin stories in more detail.

The Big Bang
The universe began as a hot, dense region of radiant energy about 14 billion years ago. It cooled and expanded immediately after formation, creating the lightest and most plentiful elements: hydrogen and helium. This process also created trace amounts of lithium.

Low Mass Stars

Low Mass Star
At the beginning of their lives, all stars create energy by fusing hydrogen atoms to form helium. Once the hydrogen is depleted, stars fuse helium into carbon and expand to become red giants.

From this point on, the journey of a low and a high mass star differs. Low mass stars reach a temperature of roughly one million kelvin and continue to heat up. Outer layers of helium and hydrogen expand around the carbon core until they can no longer be contained by gravity. These gas layers, known as a planetary nebula, are ejected into space. It is thought that a low mass star’s death creates many heavy elements such as lead.

Exploding White Dwarfs
In the wake of this planetary nebula expulsion, a carbon core known as a “white dwarf” remains with a temperature of about 100,000 kelvin. In many cases, a white dwarf will simply fade away.

Sometimes, however, white dwarfs gain enough mass from a nearby companion star to become unstable and explode in a Type 1a supernova. This explosion likely creates heavier elements such as iron, nickel, and manganese.

Exploding Massive Stars

High Mass Star
Massive stars evolve faster and generate much more heat. In addition to forming carbon, they also create layers of oxygen, nitrogen, and iron. When the core contains only iron, which is stable and compact, fusion ceases and gravitational collapse occurs. The star reaches a temperature of over several billion kelvin—resulting in a supernova explosion. Astronomers speculate that a variety of elements, including arsenic and rubidium, are formed during such explosions.

Exploding Neutron Stars
When a supernova occurs, the star’s core collapses, crushing protons and neutrons together into neutrons. If the mass of a collapsing star is low enough—about four to eight times that of the sun—a neutron star is formed. In 2017, it was discovered that when these dense neutron stars collide, they create heavier elements such as gold and platinum.

Cosmic Ray Spallation
The shockwaves from supernova explosions send cosmic rays, or high energy atoms/subatomic particles, flying through space. When these cosmic rays hit another atom at nearly the speed of light, they break apart and form a new element. The elements of lithium, beryllium, and boron are products of this process.

Nuclear Decay
Supernova explosions also create very heavy elements with unstable nuclei. Over time, these nuclei eject a neutron or proton, or a neutron decays into a proton and electron. This process is known as radioactive decay and often creates lighter, more stable elements such as radium and francium.

Not Naturally Occurring
There are currently 26 elements on the periodic table that are not naturally occurring; instead, these are all created synthetically in a laboratory using nuclear reactors and particle accelerators. For example, plutonium can be created when fast-moving neutrons collide with a common uranium isotope in a nuclear reactor.

Discoveries Yet to be Made

There is still some uncertainty as to where elements with a middle-range atomic number—neither heavy nor light—come from. As scientific breakthroughs emerge, we will continue to learn more about the elements that make up the mass of our solar system.

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