Sadly, 2018 may likely be a year best remembered for things unrelated to scientific advancement. In an ever-changing world, it’s easy to miss the achievements of the engineers, scientists, and other technical professionals working tirelessly to help create a better world. As a way to close out 2018, the marketing team at Black Diamond Networks selected five of the most interesting, important, or just downright cool scientific discoveries of 2018.
In July 2018, a multi-national team of astrophysicists released a study detailing the methodology they used to possibly determine where and how neutrinos are born. What is a neutrino, you ask? For those of us who aren’t astrophysicists, a neutrino is a subatomic particle (also called a “ghost particle”), that is almost massless. Unlike protons or electrons, neutrinos carry no charge. Before 2018, it was believed that neutrinos were emitted by supernovae or by massive stars, like our sun. These neutrinos speed through the galaxy passing right through anything they come in contact with. It’s estimated that your body is bombarded by as many as 100 trillion neutrinos every second.
So, how did the researchers locate another potential source of neutrinos? They were able to accomplish this based on the fact that neutrinos race across the universe on a perfectly straight course, giving the team a way to work backward to find the neutrino’s origin. Luckily, that path led the physicists to an already known blazar, that happened to be observed in a flare state. Without getting overly technical, a flare state is what causes a blazar, which is thought to be one potential source of these high-energy particles. As scientists learn more about these fundamental particles and their origins, they should also learn more about the birth of our solar system and the Big Bang that created it.
Okay, so that heading may have been a touch sensational, but Curiosity did find traces of complex organic material found in sediments that may be nearly three billion years old. So, what exactly did Curiosity find and why are scientists so excited? Curiosity has spent the last five years traversing the Martian terrain collecting sediment samples and other instrument readings along the way.
After the sediment samples are collected, they are exposed to heat, which releases an array of organic molecules. Astrobiologists have been studying these molecular discharges in hopes of finding the complex carbon chains commonly thought to be the building blocks of life here on planet Earth. While exploring Gail Crater on Mars, Curiosity found some of these building blocks in the form of at least 50 nanomoles of organic carbon.
While researchers point out that this is no firm evidence that Mars was once able to support life, they are quick to note that the possibility cannot be eliminated entirely.
"These results do not give us any evidence of life," stated study lead author Jennifer Eigenbrode, a scientist at the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"But there is a possibility that [the organics] are from an ancient life source; we just don't know," Eigenbrode told Space.com. "And even if life was never around, they [the molecules] tell us there was at least something around for organisms to eat."
The next entry on our list marks not only a great scientific discovery but also a historic achievement, as Donna Strickland became the third woman in history to win the vaunted Nobel Prize in the discipline of physics, after Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer.
While Dr. Strickland’s Nobel Prize is an undoubtedly impressive feat, it’s her scientific work that shines even brighter. Dr. Strickland, together with another physicist, improved upon existing research that led to the creation of some of the shortest, yet most powerful, laser pulses ever observed. The technique they used, called chirped-pulse amplification, has been around for a while (the technology is currently employed in your smartphone), however, Dr. Strickland and her colleagues used novel techniques to create a more intense and compact laser pulse. Dr. Strickland’s work on chirped-pulse amplification may have major future implications in the fields of oncology, optometry, ophthalmology, astrophysics, and ultra-high-speed photography.
Scientists have long known that the distinct groups of early homo sapiens (Neanderthals and Denisovans) likely reproduced with one another creating hybrid species with distinct genetic differences. This notion was previously supported by DNA evidence found in fossilized remains of a homo sapiens who had a Neanderthal ancestor from the previous 4 – 6 generations.
What scientists discovered in 2018 was first generation DNA evidence where half of the mitochondrial DNA taken from the sample was distinctly from a homo sapiens and the other half was clearly Denisovan. This discovery raises more questions than it provides answers, but is important nonetheless. Did Neandertals and Denisovans interbreed often? What facilitated these couplings? Why did the two hominin populations remain genetically distinct for so long? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, this discovery has the potential to significantly change our understanding of our earliest ancestors and our understanding of how they evolved.
Rounding out our list is an important milestone that signals that the future is coming, and it may be here sooner than we think. In September of 2018, Alphabet (formerly known as Google) announced that it’s Waymo autonomous driving division had completed over nine million miles of fully autonomous driving and another 9 billion miles of simulated driving. This news comes as Waymo continues the rollout of its driverless taxi services to early-access customers in Arizona. As we enter 2019, look for Waymo, Uber, and other autonomous automakers to further the progress made in 2017.
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