1. Gravity waves detected for the first time
What Happened? Researchers in Louisiana and Washington state observed gravity waves for the first time. Using the 4 of the world’s most precise lasers, scientists were able to detect ripples in the space-time continuum, confirming Albert Einstein’s prediction made more than 100 years ago. Aside from being an incredible prediction by Einstein, who was correct despite no data or technology to prove his theory, this was by far the biggest story of last month, and will be perhaps be the greatest physics discovery of 2016.
Why should I care? While we’ve always been able to detect light waves – UV, microwave, visible, gamma, etc.- we can now observe the universe in an entirely new medium. Though no practical application can be implemented right now, remember that when J.J. Thompson discovered the electron, he thought that it was completely useless. We now have light bulbs, TV’s, PC’s, iPhones, and other electronics
If you don’t have a firm grasp of Einstein’s theory of General Relatively, check out this brilliant explanation of time, space, and gravity. It’s about 10 minutes, but well worth it.
2. Zika virus hits the U.S.
What happened? 16 people in Florida were confirmed to have the Zika virus, all of which were infected during international travel. While most people who contract Zika show only minor symptoms: rash, fever, headache, and nausea, which all seem to go away after a week, a small minority of patients have developed Guiann-Barre syndrome, a rare and deadly condition in which your immune system attacks your nerves. However, what’s really scaring people is how pregnant women infected with the virus have been giving birth to babies with smaller than normal heads with incomplete brain development, a defect called microcephaly.
Why should I care? The virus is spread through a specific type of mosquito called Aedes aegypti, which has evolved to live alongside humans, even being able breed in the water pooled in trash. This makes Zika a larger threat in areas of extreme poverty, like many third world countries in the tropics. Public health officials in the US are worried that due to budget cuts, many states and have not done adequate mosquito control, which could make it harder to stop the virus from spreading.
3. In 2016, January and February were the hottest on record
What happened? For the fifth month in a row, the world temperature for both January and February were over 1 C° (about 2° F) above each of their historical averages. Some parts of the world, like the Arctic, saw even greater changes – over 5 C° (about 9° F) above average. This is immediately after we saw 2015 as the hottest year on record. In fact these were the highest recorded average temperatures for either month in the 135 year history of observed data.
Why Should I care? The possibility of keeping global temperatures to only rising by 2 Cº is becoming more and more unattainable. It may not sound like much, but most plants and animals are not able to adapt to climate changes that are happening as quickly as we are observing, and will likely go extinct. Even if you aren’t a nature lover, there’s plenty of negative side effects for humans, from lower food production to destroying the world economy.
4. Sea level rise is accelerating
What happened? Scientists found that global sea levels have risen faster in the last century than it has in at least 2,700 years. The study showed that the 14 cm (5.5 in) rise observed during the 20th century is greater than in any century since at least 800 B.C.
Why should I care? In addition to habitat loss and the possible extinction of millions of species, there are human consequences as well. If sea level rise continues to accelerate, it’s going to threaten coastal cities and island nations with flooding and eventually submersion, exacerbating an already bad refugee crisis.
5. Scott Kelly returns to Earth after a year on ISS
What happened? On March 1, astronaut Scott Kelly returned from his nearly year long mission on the International Space Station. NASA scientists will be studying Captain Kelly to look at the effects that extended time in space has on the human body. Living in a microgravity environment for that long causes muscles to atrophy and bones to degrade. There’s also a huge amount of radiation that the body is exposed to during a year in space. Captain Kelly’s identical twin brother, who is also an astronaut, provides a control for scientists to compare the differences between a body in space and a body on the Earth.
Why should I care? Any manned mission to Mars is going to take least two to three years and scientists need to account for the effects of that much time in space on the body. Any spacecraft that will take humans to the Red Planet must be designed to mitigate the negative effects of microgravity and radiation in order for astronauts to travel safely, and Captain Kelly’s year in space will provide invaluable information to engineers. Until then, be sure to check out Captain Kelly’s Instagram account. He has taken a year’s worth of pictures from space and they are stunningly beautiful.
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