20 facts of science that have changed the world

One of the most profound moments in life is in childhood, when the question "why" is asked. Neuroscientists say this differentiates humans from other animals. Curiosity knows no bounds and most of its progress has been made in the last 500 years by inventing a systematic way of asking questions: the scientific method.

20 scientific facts. NPS Photo / Dan Duriscoe
20 scientific facts. NPS Photo / Dan Duriscoe

Several humans, restless and willing to keep their eyes open for details, have been in the right place at the right time to record the wonders of the world. Five Colombian scientists agree that these are the 20 most important revelations in science at the beginning of the decade. From the detection and confirmation of gravitational waves, the discovery of Earth-like planets outside the Solar System, water on Mars, the advancement of new materials and the mapping of the human genome.

They are Jorge Zuluaga and Pablo Cuartas, PhDs in physics and co-creators of the undergraduate program in Astronomy at UdeA; Carlos Enrique Mejía, a mathematician from the National University and a member of the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences (ACCEFYN); Carlos Molina, coordinator for Colombia of the Office for the Dissemination of Astronomy (OAO) of the International Astronomical Union; Gabriel Bedoya, research leader of the Genmol group at the University of Antioquia, and Santiago Vargas, doctor in astrophysics at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias and linked to the National Astronomical Observatory of Colombia.

1. There are gravitational waves

These ripples of space-time, also colloquially called "space tremors", are the traces of the beginning of the universe. In 1916, Albert Einstein proposed that when objects with enough mass are accelerated, they can sometimes create waves that move through the fabric of space and time like waves in water. They have already been detected several times by the international LIGO consortium. Jorge Zuluaga says this achievement "represents a turning point in the evolution of the Earth's intelligence. I would dare to say that extraterrestrial civilizations are divided between those that have not detected gravitational waves and those that have". This opens up a new way of "listening" to the cosmos.

2. The mapping of the human genome

In the 20th century, genomes were discovered, but in the 21st century, an infinite amount of data has been obtained from complete sequences, as is the case with the human genome sequenced in 2001, a project that concluded in 2004. It is therefore known that it has three billion fewer nucleotides than expected.

3. Mathematical assumption

The Russian Grigori Perelman solved the conjecture of Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) in 2003, one of the seven problems of the millennium. After that, he withdrew from the world, did not want to receive any economic recognition and even rejected the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Mathematics. This famous mathematical problem can be seen as a geometrical problem related to attempts to establish a proper classification of surfaces such as planes, spheres, ellipsoids and so on.

4. The photo of the black hole

It was not a snapshot but what was first known in April 2019 was an image built up from data and information (four million gigabits). Black holes are the most massive objects in the universe capable of deforming space-time. The one seen, thanks to the work of more than 200 scientists from around the world, is 55 million light-years away, in the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy.

5. Saltwater in the ocean of Europe

Astronomers have become masters of light. By studying it through a spectrometer, they were able to detect that in the depths of Jupiter's largest moon, Europa, there is water with sodium chloride (NaCl). Underneath its ice crust is a salt that you use to season your meals.

6. More planets revealed

In the last 20 years, thousands of planets outside the Solar System have been detected revolving around other stars. Some of these observations have been made directly (very few), others by the transit of the planet in front of its sun. This time marks the beginning of the search for life in other parts of the Universe.

The first Earth-like planet in the habitable zone that is relatively close is Proxima b, about four light-years away from Earth.

7. Into space and beyond

The era when exploration of the cosmos was only funded by governments is now in the past. In the last 20 years, the most daring humans such as businessmen Elon Musk (Space X), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blu Origin) have given a twist to the exploration of space by even developing space tourism. New actors are entering the scene.

8. The most complete map of the cosmic background radiation

Predicted in 1948, the most detailed image of the history of the cosmic background radiation, i.e. the vestiges of the Big Bang, was obtained thanks to the Planck space telescope of the Esa. The new map is a portrait of the first light of the cosmos that remained engraved in the firmament when it was approximately 380,000 years old.

9. New human ancestors

For paleontologists, the first evolutionary steps of the remote human ancestors that separate them from chimpanzees are still confusing. Human evolution is not explained as a simple linear chain of missing links. Science has revealed a more complex web of elements with a greater diversity of species. The line, which can still change, goes something like this: six billion years ago humans were the same chimpanzees; four million years ago Australopithecus (like Lucy) evolved; two million years ago Homo erectus appeared, with a brain twice as big, and Homo sapiens made its way into the history of the planet 100,000 years ago.

10. Managing large amounts of data

It is projected that this year the internet will create 40 times more data bits (the smallest amount of data on a computer) than observable stars in the universe. The possibility of handling and analyzing very large numbers has been crucial for the sciences. Before the year 2000, we read in an analysis by Martin Hilbert in Science magazine (2011), it was common for information to be hosted in analogous formats (VHS, vinyl...). Today, the exponential growth of data, what they have called Big Data, allows us to confront questions of all kinds, allowing us to identify increasingly complex phenomena.

11. The oldest scribble in the world

In 2018 the oldest known abstract drawing made with a piece of ochre used as a pencil was found in South Africa. It was identified on the surface of a small piece of siliceous (silicate) rock while analyzing stone tools collected during an excavation in Blombos Cave in South Africa. According to a report published in the journal Nature, the rock predates the oldest known rock art found in Indonesia and Spain by 30,000 years.

12. New materials

Often called a "wonder material", graphene has the highest known thermal and electrical conductivity, is stronger than steel, lightweight, flexible and transparent. It was discovered in 2004 by scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Noboselov. It is believed that it could replace plastic, aluminum, copper and other elements we use on a daily basis.

13. Water on Mars

This obsession has been embodied in various science fiction stories for decades. In June 2010, research was published that mapped 40,000 river valleys on Mars, roughly quadrupling the number of river valleys previously identified. On September 27, 2012, NASA scientists announced that the Curiosity rover found direct evidence of an ancient riverbed in Gale Crater, suggesting an ancient "vigorous flow" of water on Mars. Knowing the state of water on the red planet is key to future exploration.

14. Genetic editing techniques improve

Some applications from the last century have been sophisticated in gene manipulation techniques for editing such as the CRISPR/Cas9 system. Some bacteria use it as an immune system as it allows them to store viral DNA fragments, recognize any virus that matches in the future and then cut the virus DNA into tapes. The power of genetic editing carries with it a number of ethical dilemmas about genetic editing in humans.

15. Cosmic location

The new direction of the Earth would be useful for an extraterrestrial who wants to find it: get to Laniakea, then to the Milky Way, look for the Solar System and you will see the third planet after the Sun, the rocky one; that blue marble is the Earth. In 2014 scientists found that the supercluster of galaxies in which the Milky Way is located is 100 times larger in mass and volume than thought.

16. The misnamed God particle has been detected

Before 2006, the stem cells used in the laboratory were derived from embryonic material, which created ethical constraints. They are a specific type of cell that, in simplicity, generates other more specialized cells. The discovery of cell reprogramming revolutionized the field of regenerative medicine, which is advancing rapidly, and its progress holds great potential for new medical treatments. However, there are still questions to fully understand its role and functioning.

17. Landing on a comet

For ten years the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta mission circled the Sun five times. Philae, the mission's robot, bounced several times before landing on comet 67P/Churyumov.

Gerasimenko in November 2014, then went into hibernation until 2015. It was the first time that a ship could study a comet for so long and detail the increase in its activity as it approached the Sun. They found that oxygen turned out to be the fourth most common gas around it after water vapor, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.

18. The universe is accelerating

The fact that the Universe is expanding was discovered almost a hundred years ago, but as is often the case, scientists only realized it at the end of the last century, when powerful telescopes (including orbital ones) appeared and the era of exact cosmology began. In the course of observations and analysis of the data obtained, it turned out that the Universe is not only expanding, but is expanding with acceleration, which began between three and four billion years after its birth, in the Big Bang.

19. Cellular Reprogramming

Before 2006, the stem cells used in the laboratory were derived from embryonic material, which created ethical constraints. They are a specific type of cell that, in simplicity, generates other more specialized cells. The discovery of cell reprogramming revolutionized the field of regenerative medicine, which is advancing rapidly, and its progress holds great potential for new medical treatments. However, there are still questions to fully understand its role and functioning.

20. Meat without harming animals or the environment

Using bioengineering techniques, meat created in a laboratory from cultured cells is becoming a reality. Several new companies are developing laboratory-grown beef, pork, poultry, and seafood, including Mosa Meat, Memphis Meats, SuperMeat and Finless Foods.

Source: El Colombiano By Helena Cortés Gómez