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.
The Most Popular Wikipedia Pages, 2007-2019
Millions flock to Wikipedia every day to satisfy their curiosity on every imaginable topic. What have been the most popular Wikipedia pages over time?
The Most Popular Wikipedia Pages, From 2007-2019
Where do you go to satisfy your curiosity about the world? Chances are, most people would turn to Google, where the first search result for virtually any topic is likely to be Wikipedia.
Wikipedia often acts as a quick-and-dirty first source of information—and today’s intriguing animation from Data Geek shows what people are reading about the most. The video highlights more than a decade of the most popular pages on Wikipedia, sorted by total monthly views.
Which topics of interest race to the top?
Note to readers: Page view statistics are only for the English version of Wikipedia, which has nearly 6 million total articles to date.
A One-Stop Shop of Information
Since its 2001 inception, Wikipedia has thrived as an open collaboration project, catapulting it into the ranks of the world’s top websites today. Over the years, the upper limit of views for the most popular pages has dramatically increased.
In 2008, the most popular Wikipedia page belonged to Barack Obama, during his U.S. Presidential campaign, garnering about 3 million views per month. By 2019, the page for the United States took its place at the top, this time soaring to nearly 200 million monthly views.
The 12 most popular Wikipedia pages fluctuate in category, with some expected winners. Throughout the years, World War II shows up consistently in the rankings, likely propelled by research for school assignments.
The U.S. is another undisputed, most-viewed page for nine years in a row (2011-2019). Following the November 2016 U.S. election, pageviews for Donald Trump also leapt into the top three.
Here’s how the most popular pages shake out over a decade:
|Rank||Jan 2008||Jan 2012||Jan 2016||Jan 2019|
|#2||U.S.||Lady Gaga||Barack Obama||Donald Trump|
|#3||Harry Potter||The Beatles||India||Barack Obama|
|#4||World War II||Barack Obama||Lady Gaga||India|
|#5||Kim Kardashian||Michael Jackson||Michael Jackson||World War II|
|#6||Britney Spears||India||World War II||Michael Jackson|
|#7||Miley Cyrus||Eminem||Game of Thrones||UK|
|#9||Lil Wayne||Lil Wayne||UK||Eminem|
|#10||India||World War II||The Beatles||Game of Thrones|
|#11||Will Smith||Glee (TV)||Justin Bieber||Elizabeth II|
|#12||UK||Justin Bieber||Adolf Hitler||Adolf Hitler|
Musicians also regularly top the charts, thanks to their illustrious careers and the public’s curiosity about their private lives. Michael Jackson holds a record for longest best-selling artist, but also for one of the most viewed Wikipedia pages, especially after his death in mid-2009.
A Crowdsourced Snapshot of the World
These popular Wikipedia pages provide an interesting angle on current events of the time, although it should be taken with a grain of salt.
For example, the 2008 financial crisis is arguably one of the biggest events of this decade—yet it doesn’t make an appearance in these most viewed pages. One possible reason is that more reputable sources of information exist about the event, as it was widely covered in the media.
Nevertheless, Wikipedia’s mission is to freely share knowledge, relying on over 250,000 monthly volunteers to keep its information accessible by anyone.
Breaking Down Barriers
Boasting over 50 million articles, it’s not hard to see why Wikipedia has reigned supreme as a crowdsourced catalog of information. However, a lesser known fact is that just one man is responsible for a significant chunk of the website’s English-language articles.
In 2017, Steven Pruitt was named one of Time Magazine’s “most influential people on the Internet” for making over 3 million edits and authoring 35,000 original pages on Wikipedia—all for free.
Pruitt is even helping to solve Wikipedia’s gender bias, and has expanded the share of biographical articles about women from 15% to 17.6% in a few short years.
I’m very conscious of what it can mean to make knowledge free, to make information free.
Visualizing the Speed of Light (Fast, but Slow)
In our every day lives, light is instantaneous – but in the context of our solar system and beyond, light is surprisingly slow.
Visualizing the Speed of Light
With the flip of a switch, your room can be instantenously flooded with brightness.
In fact, there is no noticeable lag effect at all.
That’s because emitted photons travel at 186,000 miles (300,000 km) per second, meaning it takes only 1/500,000th of a second for light to reach even the furthest part of an ordinary room. And, if it could go through the wall, it would orbit the entire planet 7.5 times in just one second.
Light Speed is Fast…
In our every day experiences, we never see light as having to “take time” to do anything. It’s inconceivably fast, brightening up everything in its path in an instant — and with a few odd caveats, scientists believe light speed to be the fastest-known achievable pace in the universe.
But what if we get out of our bubble, and look at light from outside the confines of life on Earth?
Today’s animation, which comes from planetary scientist Dr. James O’Donoghue, helps visualize the speed of light in a broader context. It helps remind us of the mechanics of this incredible phenomenon, while also highlighting the vast distances between celestial bodies — even in our small and insignificant corner of the solar system.
Light Speed is Slow…
Once a photon is sent into the vast abyss, suddenly the fastest possible speed seems somewhat pedestrian.
- Moon: It takes about 1.255 seconds for light to get from Earth to the moon.
- Mars: Mars is about 150x further than the moon — about 40 million miles (54.6 million km) in the closest approach — so it takes 3 minutes to get there from Earth.
- Sun: The sun is 93 million miles (150 million km) away, meaning it takes 8 minutes to see its light.
Let that sink in for a moment: the sun could explode right now, and we wouldn’t even know about it for eight long minutes.
Going Further, Taking Longer
If it takes light a few minutes to get to the closest planets, how long does it take for light to travel further away from Earth?
- Jupiter: The largest planet is 629 million km away when it’s closest, taking light about 35 minutes.
- Saturn: The ringed planet is about as twice as far as Jupiter, taking light 71 minutes.
- Pluto: It takes about 5.5 hours for light to go from Earth to the dwarf planet.
- Alpha Centauri: The nearest star system is 4.3 light years away, or 25 trillion miles (40 trillion km).
- Visible stars: The average distance to the 300 brightest stars in the sky is about 347 light years.
If you really want to get the feeling of how “slow” light really is, watch the below video and journey from the sun to Jupiter. It’s done in real-time, so it takes about 43 minutes:
So while light obviously travels at a ludicrous speed, it really depends on your vantage point.
On Earth, light is instantaneous – but anywhere else in the universe, it’s pretty inadequate for getting anywhere far (especially in contrast to the average human lifespan).
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