Mankind has always pushed itself forward into realms of discovery. Our curious nature is what first separated us from beasts. Over the last two decades, there have been a number of scientific discoveries that have propelled our scientific understanding and technological advancement further than ever before. Let’s take a look at some of the greatest scientific discoveries that have happened over the last 20 years.
The Detection Of Gravitational Waves
Gravitational waves were predicted over 100 years ago by Albert Einstein, when he predicted that mass had the ability to curve space-time. It wasn’t until 2016 that scientists at LIGO, (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), managed to detect and record them. Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time, that travel at the speed of light. All major cosmic events and collisions send out gravitational waves. For example, around 3 billion years ago, a black hole 32 times the mass of our sun, collided with a black hole approximately 19 times the mass of our sun. This resulted in a cataclysmic event that created a brand new monster black hole. All time and space were warped because of this event. This is something that we can now measure and quantify thanks to LIGO. The scientists at LIGO managed to detect the ripple in space time that this caused on January 4th 2017. This was the third time that scientists at LIGO detected the collision of two black holes. This is hugely important, as not only does it prove that the 100 year old theory of Einstein’s was right, but, it allows us to detect large-scale cosmic events in a manner we never have been able to before. This lends itself to the further understanding of the nature of the universe, and the very fabric of existence. This breakthrough has enabled us to not only theorize about it, but actually visualise gravity.
The Higgs Boson, Or, The God Particle
The Higgs Boson is an elementary particle that had been theorized since the 60’s, but was only detected in 2012, when scientists at CERN, in Switzerland, discovered it using a Large Hadron Collider. This was a hugely important discovery, as it essentially filled in the gaps of the modern ‘Standard Model’ in physics. This model, prior to the discovery of the Higgs Boson, had no explanation as to why some particles are massless, (ie. the photon), while others have varying degrees of mass. In theory, without the existence of the Higgs Boson, all particles should be without mass. The Higgs mechanism creates a field that interacts with particles, and basically, gives them mass. The Higgs Boson is the particle that is associated with that field, in the same way that protons are the particles associated with the electromagnetic field. Scientists had always assumed the existence of the Higgs field, but had found no experimental evidence for it, until 2012. In order to detect the Higgs Boson, they required a super-powerful particle smasher such as the Large Hadron Collider, to produce energies high enough to knock a Higgs Boson into existence, under controlled conditions. Here’s how it worked: protons are present in the nuclei of atoms, the most basic units of matter. Protons are composed of even smaller particles, three quarks held together by gluons. In the Large Hadron Collider, protons were accelerated at 99.9999991% of the speed of light. Quarks and gluons inside the protons collided and exploded with enough energy to create the Higgs particle. The Higgs particle has 100 to 200 times the mass of a proton and will last less than a millionth of a billionth of a second before decaying into a spray of other particles. Evidence for the Higgs particle was found in the telltale spirals and streaks left in the Large Hadron Colliders detectors by the particles it created as it disintegrated. This discovery was hugely important to the scientific community, as it solved a long standing problem in the basic understanding of the quantum mechanics of atoms, and helps us better understand the nature of particle physics.
The Discovery Of Water On Mars
In 2015, NASA released images showing long, dark streaks on the surface of the red planet that appear and disappear throughout the seasons. This was taken to mean that liquid water exists on Mars today. It had long been hypothesized that water had existed on the planets surface in the past, however, there had never been any evidence to suggest that any remained to this day. What we see in the pictures as dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks are known as, ‘recurring slope lineae’, and they appear to be flowing downhill. Scientists have suggested that these may have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, which would go towards corroborating this hypothesis. The blueish color observed upslope of the dark streaks are thought to indicate the presence of the mineral pyroxene. Obviously, this is of great significance, as the presence of water could potentially mean the sustainability of life. Observations suggest that this water appears seasonally on the slopes of the martian surface. However, scientists have been unable to figure out where the source of the water could be, or if the chemistry of it would be right for supporting life, or at least, life as we understand it.
In 2005, T-Rex bones were discovered in a sandstone formation in Montana. Preserved within the thigh bone was actual soft tissue. It was the source of much controversy at the time, however, recent analysis of the tissue has gone a way to explaining how soft tissue could have been preserved for almost 70 million years. Initially, it was thought that the proteins that make up soft tissue should degrade in less than 1 million years in the best of conditions. It was assumed that the tissue had to be something else, perhaps the product of a later bacterial invasion, critics argued. But then, in 2007, scientists analyzed the chemistry of the T-Rex proteins. They found the proteins really did come from dinosaur soft tissue. The tissue that they found was collagen, and it shared similarities with bird collagen, which makes sense, as modern birds evolved from ‘theropod’ dinosaurs such as the T-Rex. The researchers then decided to analyse other fossils for the presence of similar soft tissue, and found that it was in fact present in about half of their samples. Some of which dated all the way back to the Jurassic Period, which lasted from 145.5 million to 199.6 million years ago.The reasoning put forward for the preservation of this soft tissue was the high levels of iron present in all of the samples. Iron forms iron nanoparticles after death, and generates free radicals. These free radicals cause proteins and cell membranes to tie in knot and basically act like formaldehyde. Formaldehyde, as many know, preserves soft tissues. This was an outstanding discovery, not just in the understandings of how bio-organics behave after a certain amount of time has passed, but also in the understanding of how Dinosaurs lived and how their bodies worked.
The Existence Of Dark Matter
Dark matter is an elusive and fascinating form of matter that goes toward explaining a lot of strange astronomical scenarios. It is basically the strange scaffolding that dictates how matter acts. It is thought to account for approximately 85% of all matter in the universe, and about a quarter of its total energy density. The majority of dark matter is thought to be non-baryonic in nature, possibly being composed of some as-yet undiscovered subatomic particles. Scientists began to wonder why certain things didn’t behave the way they should when adhering to the laws of physics as we understand them. For example, if you take a galaxy that contains about 1,000 planets, and you add up the mass of all of those planets, these planets should all move in a very particular way. However, this is not the case, and the way in which the planets move individually, and the galaxy moves as a whole system are different, and it doesn’t add up. The planets are moving in a manner that suggests that there is more matter contained within the galaxy that we cannot see and cannot observe. This matter, scientists hypothesized, must be both abundant and non light reflective, hence our inability to observe it. It was called Dark Matter, and has been the basis of much scientific research for many years. To date, all attempts to successfully or definitively record the existence of dark matter have failed, however this does not disprove it’s existence. If anything it further proves the nature of it, that it does not behave in the same way as any matter that we are familiar with. It passes through normal matter on a constant basis without ever colliding with it and it doesn’t collide or interact with itself either. It is all a part of that extremely complicated branch of science known as theoretical physics, which has been the starting point of some of the greatest scientific discoveries of mankind to date.
A face transplant is a medical procedure to replace all or part of a person’s face using donor tissue from a cadaver. The world’s first partial face transplant happened in 2005, in France. The first full facial transplant was completed in Spain in 2010. To date, a total of 40 facial transplants have been carried our globally. The process of a Facial transplantation is a complex and burgeoning surgical field. Up until 2005, we simply did not have the technology available to us to carry out such a procedure, despite having the scientific medical know how, the practicality and equipment simply did not exist. It is categorized as a subset within vascularized composite allotransplantation (VCA), which is defined as the transplantation of multiple tissue types often including bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and skin. To date, facial transplantation has been reserved for patients that have suffered devastating facial deformity, which is unable to be adequately reconstructed using traditional techniques. There have been no elective transplants carried out. The emergence of face transplantation in the last 10 years is largely attributable to advances in reconstructive microsurgery, pharmacological advances in solid organ transplantation, and pioneering surgeons dedicated to improving their patients’ quality of life, autonomy, and ability to socially integrate back into society.
Water As Fuel
German cleantech company Sunfire GmbH has unveiled a machine that converts water and carbon dioxide into synthetic petroleum-based fuels. They do this by utilising Power-to-Liquid Technology. They convert water and carbon dioxide into liquid hydrocarbons which then take the form of synthetic diesel, petrol, and kerosene. This technology was based on Fischer-Tropsch process, and solid oxide electrolyser cells (SOECs) which convert electricity to steam. While still in its early research stages, this has massive implication for the future of the planet. Scientists all around the globe are desperately trying to come up with sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. The ability to successfully turn water into a fuel would mean a viable source of power that we would never run out of. After all, 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water.
In February 2016, NASA announced the discovery of a previously unknown solar system with the potential to harbour life. The name of this system is TRAPPIST-1, and it is located approximately 39 light-years away from our solar system. It was named after its main star, which is 12 times less massive than our sun, and witch has at least seven planets orbiting around it. Three of those planets lie within what is known has the ‘habitable zone’, and it is on these planets that the potential for life exists. The star TRAPPIST-1 is about the size of Jupiter, and its closest planet, TRAPPIST-1b, completes one solar orbit (what we would refer to as a year) in just 1.51 Earth days. What is particularly curious about this is that out of all the stars known to us, Trappist-1 is considered to be a small star. This means that finding not one or two, but seven planets orbiting around it, was highly unusual. Trappist-1 is only 8% the size of our Sun, so, it is not understood at this time, how a small star like that managed to form so many planets. The Trappist-1 system is a groundbreaking discovery. Never before have scientists found as many earth-like planets orbiting around a single star, in what could be referred to as a mini version of our own solar system. In terms of intergalactic travel, 39 light-years is relatively close, and the existence of three Earth-sized planets within the habitable zone is the best chance we’ve ever had for discovering life beyond Earth. It seems that each of the seven planets discovered so far have liquid-water, so potentially, all seven could contain the building blocks for life. With new advancements in exploratory science, it is conceivably possible, and even likely, for us to be able to detect life and confirm its existence, from right here on Earth! Now that would be cool!