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The Extreme Temperatures of the Universe

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Extreme Temperatures in the Universe

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

These Powerful Maps Show the Extremes of U.S. Population Density

The U.S. population is spread across a huge amount of land, but its distribution is far from equal. These maps are a unique look at population density

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us cities population density equivalent map

America’s 328 million people are spread across a huge amount of territory, but the population density of various regions is far from equal.

It’s no secret that cities like New York have a vastly different population density than, say, a rural county in North Dakota. Even so, this interactive map by Ben Blatt of Slate helps visualize the stark contrast between urban and rural densities in a way that might intrigue you.

How many counties does it take to equal the population of these large urban areas? Let’s find out.

New York City’s Rural Equivalent

New York City (proper) Population: 8.42 million
New York City Population density: 27,547 persons / mi²

New York City became the largest city in the U.S. back in 1781 and has long been the country’s most densely packed urban center. Today, 1 in every 38 people living in the United States resides in The Big Apple.

new york city population density equivalent map

For the northwestern counties above to match the population of New York City, it takes a land area around the size of Mongolia. The region shown above is 645,934 mi², and runs through portions of 12 different states.

In order to match the population of the entire New York metropolitan area, which holds 18 million people and includes adjacent cities and towns in New York state, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the above equivalent area would have to be even more massive.

Los Angeles County’s Rural Equivalent

LA County Population: 10.04 million
LA County Population density: 2,100 persons / mi²

Los Angeles County is home to the 88 incorporated cities that make up the urban area of Los Angeles.

Even excluding nearby population centers such as Anaheim, San Bernadino, and Riverside (which are located in adjacent counties) it is still the most populous county in the United States, with over 10 million inhabitants.

los angeles county population density equivalent map

To match this enormous scale in Middle America, it would take 298 counties covering an area of 471,941 mi².

Chicago’s Rural Equivalent

Chicago Metropolitan Area Population: 9.53 million
Chicago Metropolitan Area Population density: 1,318 persons / mi²

Next up is America’s third largest city, Chicago. For this visualization, we’re using the Chicago metropolitan area, which covers the full extent of the city’s population.

chicago population density equivalent map

To match the scale of the population of the Windy City, we would need to add up every county in New Mexico, along with large portions of Colorado, Arizona, and Texas.

Turning the Tables?

Conversely, what if we transported the people in the country’s least densely populated counties into the middle of an urban center?

RankCountyPopulation
1Kalawao County, Hawaii86
2Loving County, Texas169
3King County, Texas272
4Kenedy County, Texas404
5Arthur County, Nebraska463

As it turns out, the total population of the five least populated counties is just 1,394—roughly the same amount of people that live on the average Manhattan block.

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Visualized: Comparing the Titanic to a Modern Cruise Ship

The sheer size of the Titanic was a sight to behold in 1912, but over 100 years later, how does this vessel compare to a modern cruise ship?

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Remembering the Tragedy of the Titanic

When the Titanic was completed on April 2, 1912, it was the largest and perhaps most luxurious ship in the world. The vessel could hold over 3,300 people including crew members, and boasted various amenities including a swimming pool and squash court.

The Titanic’s impressive size attracted many of the world’s wealthiest individuals, and on April 10, 1912, it set out on its maiden voyage. Just five days later, the ship sank after hitting an iceberg, resulting in more than 1,500 deaths.

It’s been over 100 years since the Titanic’s demise, so how have passenger ships evolved?

To find out, we’ve visualized it beside Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, currently the world’s largest cruise ship.

The Size of the Titanic, in Perspective

The following table lists the dimensions of both ships to provide a better understanding of the Titanic’s relative size.

 RMS TitanicSymphony of the Seas
Year Built19122018
Length882ft (269m) 1,184ft (361m)
Width92ft (28m)215ft (66m)
Height175ft (53m)238ft (73m)
Internal volume46,328 gross register tonnage (grt)228,081 gross tonnage (gt)
Passengers2,4356,680
Crew8922,200

Source: Owlcation, Insider
Note: Gross register tonnage (grt) is a historic measure of a ship’s internal volume. This metric was replaced by gross tonnage (gt) on July 18, 1982.

One of the biggest differences between these two ships is width, with the latter being more than twice as wide. This is likely due to the vast amenities housed within the Symphony of the Seas, which includes 24 pools, 22 restaurants, 2 rock climbing walls, an ice-skating rink, and more. With accommodations for 6,680 passengers, the Symphony of the Seas also supports a crew that is 147% larger.

The Symphony of the Seas clearly surpasses the Titanic in terms of size, but there’s also a substantial difference in cost. When converted to today’s dollars, the bill for the Titanic equates to roughly $400 million, less than half of the Symphony of the Seas’ cost of $1.35 billion.

Lessons Learned from the Disaster

Inadequate safety preparations were a contributor to the Titanic’s high death toll. During its journey, the vessel carried enough lifeboats to accommodate just 33% of its total passengers and crew. This was legal at the time, as regulations based a ship’s number of required lifeboats on its weight, rather than its passenger capacity.

To make matters worse, investigations determined that the Titanic’s lifeboats had not been used to their full capacity, and that a scheduled lifeboat drill had been cancelled by the ship’s captain. These shortfalls, among others, paved the way for numerous improvements in maritime safety regulation.

These include the creation of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea Treaty (SOLAS) in 1914, which is still in force today. Regarded as the most important international treaty on ship safety, SOLAS has been updated numerous times and is followed by 164 states, which together flag 99% of merchant ships (by gross tonnage) on the high seas today.

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