It would be rather far-fetched to say that everything has been already invented or discovered. There is a lot that this amazing world of ours can offer us; we just need to be observant and curious, and keep looking for answers and solutions to questions we think don't have answers. Science is now more than ever capable of taking unpredictable leaps and coming up with discoveries that can blow our minds, well… without causing a brain aneurysm rupture, or anything. Sometimes we seriously question the purpose and applicability of some modern discoveries, which stand as an indication of the absurdities the human mind can accomplish. Let’s take, for example, the creation of a genetically new breed of marijuana that doesn't cause a buzz; who’s really going to buy weed without the high, we wonder? Or the invention of a remote control wand, or pizza that is served in an ice-cream cone. And yet, some discoveries are so amazing indeed that we cannot stop wondering the miracles this same human mind can come up with. 2016 may have not been the best year for humankind altogether, but it offered some incredible discoveries, 15 of which we are about to present below.
As of January 2016, the largest known prime number known so far is 274,207,281 – 1 – this is a number with 22, 338, 618 decimal digits and it smashes the last record-hold by 5 million digits. If you wonder why this is such a big deal, well… it’s not, really. There is little practical use for the discovery of large prime numbers (these are numbers divisible only by themselves and one), but still, discovering one provides occasion for opening up a bottle of champagne because it turns out that the prime, though there are an infinite number of them, become rarer as you go into larger and larger numbers. Actually, modern cryptography uses large primes, but all in all, searching for new primes is just a good way to put computing hardware through its paces. For example, the GIMPS software, through which the new record-holding number was found, recently helped discover a bug in Intel’s processors, which were constantly crashing under heavy amounts of work.
The hunt for a ninth planet in our solar system began decades ago, but it wasn’t until this year that its existence was proven. Previously, theoretical cosmology only speculated about a giant world existing beyond Neptune. But now, this hypothetical world looks more real than ever. It is, in fact, so real, that it is to blame for the little tilt the whole solar system is undergoing. It’s a curious fact to mention that one year on this planet is equal to 17, 000 years on Earth, and the sunlight would take a week to reach the surface. The scientists are quite preoccupied about the further effect this ninth planet would have on the solar system. Because of its unusual orbit (30 degrees off the other planets’ plate) and because of its mass, Planet Nine might cause the solar system to slowly twist out of alignment. It may sound scary, but in fact it is not. So, no need to panic– no matter how tilted our solar system is, we are not going to fall off.
If you didn’t skip too many physics classes at school, then you should probably know that with time any type of matter decays or disintegrates. In other words, nothing lasts forever. In February 2016, however, scientists from Southampton made a spectacular presentation of their discovery— a digital data storage capable of surviving for billions of years. The memory discs are made of nanostructured glass and besides storing 360 terabytes on a single 5D disc, these are thermally stable at temperatures up to 1000 degrees Celsius, and the imprinted spots won’t degrade over time. Major documents of human history, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Magna Carta, King James Bible, and many others, have already been saved as digital copies that could survive the human race. Although it gives you goosebumps to realize that this is the first man-made device that will outlive us, it also feels kind of comforting to know that, thanks to technology, the evidence of our civilization’s existence has been secured, and all that we have learnt will never be forgotten or lost.
If somebody told you they just saw a fish that can walk, and climb trees, and choke birds before swallowing them, you’d probably think they’ve seen a new Jurassic Park movie. However, it’s very possible that they are not lying or inventing things. Especially if they have just returned from Papua New Guinea! Such a fish does exist and it could be spotted on a still limited area in this region. Despite its seemingly innocent appearance, the fish, which is named the climbing perch, is actually very aggressive and is considered a real threat to the wild life on the islands of Boigu and Saibai. It’s been reported that the fish has an air-breathing organ, and is able to move across land on its pectoral fins. Its next destination is believed to be Australia, and authorities warn fishermen and travellers to throw the fish away as soon as they identify it. But since the climbing perch found a clever way to get that much ahead of its fellow species in the evolution process, we don’t doubt it’ll find its way to also easily hitch a lift to Australia.
The cybernetic human may soon be not only an essential attribute of many sci-fi movies. In the foreseeable future, the wearable tech will become an anachronism and the technological devices will be instead implanted into our bodies. Actually, the future is already here. Last spring, an electrical device was implanted in a paralyzed man’s brain. Connected to a sleeve of electrodes on his forearm, it helped him move his hand, wrist and fingers for the first time since he his spinal cord injury five years earlier. The credit for this scientific breakthrough goes to the team of Chad Bouton from the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York. The device using brain-computer-interface technology was implanted into the young man’s motor cortex– the part of the brain that controls movements. Thanks to this device, the patient is able to even play the guitar. Wow! And some of us cannot do that even with our limbs being perfectly fit.
And again, some might exclaim, “Why is it such a big deal?! In the movies, they do it all the time— spaceships land on other planets all the time!” In reality, however, the process of landing a rocket is extremely complicated. And, until April 8th of this year, impossible in practice. Traditionally, rocket boosters fall into the ocean after launch. But not this time! For the first time ever, the Falcon 9 descended for a non-explosive land on a drone ship. This landing is remarkable in regards to the development of reusable, relatively low-cost spaceflight. This achievement can be compared to not needing to throwing away airplanes after every flight just because we didn’t have the right technology allowing us to reuse them! Reusing the booster could save millions of dollars in launch costs. The first step to that has already been done (i.e. getting the boosters back to Earth safely). In that direction, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has already changed spaceflight by decreasing the cost of each launch from roughly $60 million to about $600, 000!
Seriously, you cannot expect a country of 331, 000 inhabitants living on an isolated island to have a carbon dioxide problem. Yet, it’s entirely possible. Iceland relies heavily on geothermal heat and hydropower (both renewable sources) to generate electricity. A very small amount of carbon dioxide originates in volcanic rocks. Back in 2007, Reykjavik Energy started a project called CarbFix, which aimed at dissolving the carbon dioxide in large volumes of water and pumping it afterwards into porous, basaltic rock. The process involves a chemical reaction that turns the carbon dioxide into carbonate. If you still wonder what good this process is doing, here is the explanation by one of the project leaders: “By using this method, you can permanently remove the CO2, store it in the rock, and the rock isn’t going anywhere.” Possibly, other types of industries would be interested in this method, as carbon storage is a critical part of the global initiative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The only difficulty so far is not the capturing of the CO2, but its transportation to places with high amounts of basalt rock. The Icelanders, however, don’t have that problem– 90 percent of the island is, in fact, basalt rock.
Have you ever had that tingling sensation in the back of your head or neck at the sound of whispering or the crinkling of plastic? If yes, then you should probably be interested in knowing that what you feel to be close to an orgasm has a scientific name, which is Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. The scientists wouldn’t have paid attention to the phenomenon if it wasn’t for a group of enthusiasts who formed a subculture around some videos on YouTube, the content of which was supposed to give the viewers ‘head orgasms.’ A research psychology student at Swansea University and her professor got intrigued by those videos and launched a serious study on ASMR. This year, they published the results of their survey of 500 volunteers, who were asked to describe their bodily sensations from various sensory stimuli. The data showed that 69% of the people they interviewed reported to have used the ASMR videos to help ease their symptoms of insomnia, anxiety and depression, and, surprisingly, only 5% of them used them as sexual stimulation. The lack of evidence so far that ASMR was experienced by so many people is the reason why it was overlooked or mistaken for ‘goosebumps’ for so many years by scientists. The two researchers hope that their study will provide a foundation for more high-level work in the future, when it will be possible to determine the psychological basis of this rather unusual, but very common auditory, let’s call it, fetish.
Yes, it is a fact– we have two moons now. The newly discovered one is really small (only 120 feet across and 300 feet wide), but in no way young– it has likely orbited the Earth for 100 years, and it seems it is here to stay for some more centuries. The mini-moon, which is actually an asteroid, was discovered on April 27th by a telescope located in Hawaii, and was named 2016 HO3. The asteroid is tilted at the highly elliptical eight degrees, and makes a full lap around the sun for 365.93 days, which is slightly longer than the Earth’s 365.24 days. What is important to note is that this “almost”-satellite poses no threat to our planet because it never gets closer than 9 million miles. And since this mini-moon is planning on sticking around for a while, the people in NASA should probably consider giving it a better name than 2016 HO3.
Superheroes are not necessarily dressed in funny tight costumes and capable of stopping a moving train with only a finger. Superheroes can be, in fact, a millimeter long and still possess some superpower. Like the tiny, eyeless roundworm going by the name of Caenorhabditis elegans, which has a new type of light-detecting cell that is 50 times more efficient at capturing light than its counterpart in the human eye. This finding, made by an international team of researchers, is a remarkable one, as it is the third type of photoreceptor to be identified in animals. How exactly does it work, you ask? Well, the photoreceptors convert light into a signal, which the body uses for various purposes. When the scientists find an answer to why the worm has developed these amazing properties, they might also be able to use similar techniques to genetically engineer new photoreceptors.
For years, neuroscientists and computer experts have been curious about how the brain is able to not only store information, but also to categorize and generalize it into abstract concepts. They have been speculating on the premise that there must be some basic design principle of the origin of our intelligence— the way DNA's double helix is universal for every organism. The lucky guy who came up with the most plausible hypothesis about the design behind our complex brain computations is a neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia. He came up with an algorithm, n=2i-1, which defines how many cliques (or groups of similar neurons) will come together into bigger clusters to handle every possibility in a situation. In other words, the more cliques, the more complex the thought. In the formula, N is the number of neural cliques connected in different possible ways, 2 stands for whether those cliques receive the input or not, i is the information they receive, and -1 is just a mathematical number which enables you to account for all possibilities. So, if the very complex human intelligence can be summed up by a certain algorithm, imagine what it will mean for artificial intelligence!
Some fish do fart! Scientists from UK and Canada almost simultaneously came to that farting… we mean exciting discovery! Biologists have finally linked the underwater high-pitched noise to the bubbles coming out of the herring’s anus. And in case you were wondering, no, herring don’t release gas because they’ve had too much red bean stew for lunch. Until this year, the biologists were not sure why herring make the sound, but now they know for sure– this is their way of keeping together after dark. Unlike the human fart, the one coming from the fish’s anus is not caused by digestive gases. It is produced for the purpose of communication, the evidence for which is, firstly, the fact that herring fart only after dark, which can mean that the sound allows them to locate each other. Secondly, only the herring and no other fish are able to hear sounds of this frequency, which makes their communication completely safe from the predators lurking around for some quick lunch.
Some people, especially if they’ve been in a coma, claim they’ve experienced astral trips; that is, floating outside their bodies and watching themselves from the outside. So far, there has been no scientific evidence that there is a consciousness, or soul, which is separate from the physical body. No matter how skeptical the scientists are in general, there is a group of people at the University of Ottawa who got so curious about the matter that they started looking for a plausible scientific explanation of the out-of-body travels phenomenon. While performing tests on volunteers, MRI scans showed strong deactivation of the part of the brain that makes you feel where your body is in relation to the world. The scientists came to the conclusion that the experience IS real, but only in the sense that people actually experience it. This doesn’t mean that their soul travels outside their bodies. What is going on is that people go through a kind of hallucination triggered by a neurological mechanism, and one can actually train oneself to activate it. We still don’t know if we’d rather cry of disappointment, or feel relieved…
Spinal cord injuries often lead to full immobilization for life, which is always a devastating fact. Till now, the patients have had little or no hope at all of regaining lost movement and feeling in their limbs. But now there is light at the end of the tunnel. A team of scientists, led by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, succeeded in using a specialized type of stem cell to regrow nerve tissue in damaged spinal cords. They used immature neural stem cells which are designed to develop into nerve cells, establishing connections with other cells as they grow. For the first time, it was possible to regenerate nerve cells at the junction between the brain and the spine. The bad news, however, is that the treatment has been successfully tested only on lab mice so far, and it will probably be a couple of more years until the scientists can test on humans.
Meet ACE2— the possible proto-parent of all who live on planet Earth.
For billions of years, single-celled creatures were floating carefree through the oceans, enjoying their simple life on a planet they had all to themselves. But then one day something happened, a tweak of some sort, which led to the appearance of new, three-dimensional structures. This was also the beginning of labor division, as some tissues were now in charge of moving, and others of eating and digesting. These multicellular organisms were, in fact, the first animals.
Until this year, scientists had been sweating over the fundamental question of how life made this remarkable leap. A team of evolutionary biologists from Atlanta, Georgia finally found the culprit for this leap— a lone gene capable of turning single-celled organisms into multicellular organisms. They have a hypothesis that a twist like this in the DNA of ancient organisms allowed complex life to evolve. The tiny change in the DNA sequence caused a protein (very much similar to the one used in beer brewing) to switch from its generic role as an enzyme to a new one that became essential for the arrangement of the multicellular structures.