As this volume of The Strand comes to an end, let’s recap some of the biggest scientific events in the tumultuous year of 2016.
Perhaps the biggest news out of physics in 2016, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory’s (LIGO for short) discovery of gravitational waves put to rest a 100-year old hypothesis from Einstein’s time and confirmed particular theories about the structure of space-time, and supplemented Einstein’s existing theory of general relativity. There were in fact two recorded measurements within close time spans of each other, but the initial LIGO measurement from the merging of two black holes is the most well known.
PROXIMA CENTAURI’S POTENTIALLY HABITABLE PLANET
A startling next-door neighbour, and a welcomed source of jokes to act as a potential respite from the political mess that was late 2016, the discovery of Proxima Centauri B as lying within the habitable zone of the closest star to our Sun marked debates and discussion of what the planet might look like, how habitable it could be, and whether or not we could actually visit—or at least send robotic probes there—within our lifetimes. Above all, it showed that, ultimately, the amount of habitable worlds in our galaxy alone appears to be so numerous as to have one right next door to us.
CARBON DIOXIDE STORED AS STONE
The unique geological and geothermic conditions of Iceland allow it to be a hotbed of experimental energy-based efforts, the latest of which involve converting the carbon dioxide emitted as greenhouse gases from energy production into rock. Owed to the numerous geothermal electric plants dotting the country, the carbon dioxide is essentially pumped back into the earth after undergoing chemical conversions to carbonic acid, where the acidity leaches minerals from underground basalt, producing more rock, like limestone. Iceland is great for this because 90% of its underground formations are basalt. However, there is more work to be done to further its potential and universality as a method to fight greenhouse gas emissions.
LONG-LIVED GLASS DISC STORAGE
More of a slow process towards near-perfection rather than a discovery, scientists at the University of Southampton were successfully able to store up to 360 terabytes of data (much, much more than most commercial high-end laptops right now) on the nanostructures inscribed on small, quartz-glass discs that could resist high heat levels and stay unscathed for billions of years. These discs work by taking how conventional CD’s work, but to the next level, with bumpings that allow for “five dimensions” of light reflectivity instead of the CD’s two dimensions. Light reflectivity is important when lasers read the information encoded on discs, and so this is how these small little glass coins are able to store so much.
THE AMBER-ENCASED DINOSAUR TAIL
Unexpected and revolutionary, scientists from the China University of Geosciences uncovered part of an entire baby dinosaur tail exquisitely preserved in amber—including bones, tissue, and feathers. The discovery came to the delight of many paleontologists who considered this definitive confirmation of many Cretaceous-era creatures bearing such feathers, particularly the sort of dinosaur from which this tail comes from (the coelurosaur, a general name that consists of everything from the Tyrannosaurus rex to modern birds). Hopefully future iterations of Jurassic Park may move away from the chunky lizard depictions of the past.