Scientific Anniversaries of 2018

By Ewan Jones

2017 was a bumper year for science anniversaries, marking a quarter of a century since the discovery of exoplanets, nuclear fission’s 75th anniversary and Marie Curie’s 150th birthday to name a few. 2018 is set to be no different.

4th January: Sputnik

First up is the 60th anniversary of Sputnik 1’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere after becoming the world’s first artificial satellite. The size of a beach ball, this Soviet sphere completed 1440 orbits of Earth, inciting the Cold War and Space Race that determined the course of Soviet Union and US relations for the next 20 years.

As this anniversary looms, it is fascinating to look back on how far we have come in so short a time (60 years!) Technology has progressed from the ball-sized, spined satellite that was Sputnik 1 to Space X’s incredible multi-use rockets, currently revolutionising our use of space and hopefully inciting the first instance of ‘space tourism’ this year, sending two tourists to the moon and back.

9th May: Climate change

On a more sombre note, May 9th marks 5 years since the Hawaiian atmospheric monitoring station Mauna Loa recorded for the first time a carbon dioxide reading of 400ppm (parts per million). At the time of observation, carbon dioxide levels had not reached that high for millions of years. The unfortunate implication of this rise in carbon dioxide levels, global warming, has dominated headlines for the last few years.

At the time of observation, carbon dioxide levels had not reached that high for millions of years

No matter your opinion on whether climate change has occurred due to the actions of humans or not, these groundbreaking recordings at Mauna Loa show indisputably that carbon dioxide levels are rising. As carbon dioxide levels increase, more heat is trapped by the atmosphere, leading to global warming. April 21st, 2017 marked the first recording of 410ppm, and that number will only rise in the future.

18th August: Helium

August the 18th celebrates the 150th anniversary of the discovery of helium, arguably the most interesting discovery of an element in history. As the second-most abundant element in the universe, behind only hydrogen, you’d expect humans to have observed helium early in their element-discovering escapades. However, helium is in fact relatively rare on Earth, originating underground through the decay of radioactive elements such as uranium.

In addition to its underground origin, helium was especially difficult to discover due to its annoying habit of escaping into space once it is released from the ground. In 1868, French astronomer Jules Janssen was observing a solar eclipse through a prism and noticed an intense yellow line escaping the sun, only visible due to the moon’s blocking of the harsh star. In the same year, another astronomer, Norman Lockyer, observed a line of the identical colour in the solar light spectrum which he determined to be caused by an undiscovered element. He named this element “helios”, after the Greek sun god. Thought to only exist in the sun, it took until 1895 before another scientist managed to isolate helium, to the joy of balloon-enthusiasts everywhere.

It took until 1895 before another scientist managed to isolate helium, to the joy of balloon-enthusiasts everywhere

10th September: Large Hadron Collider

September 10th marks a decade since the first use of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is the largest machine in the world, located under the France-Switzerland border and used to test theories and questions of physics. The colossal machine accelerates beams of protons towards each other, with the eventual collision of fundamental particles allowing for the investigation of even smaller particles that make up the proton itself. The sheer scale at which the LHC operates at is astonishing, and the revelations it has granted humankind over its 10 years have more than justified its creation.

The most famous discovery of the LHC was on 8th October 2013 (another 5-year anniversary!), with the finding of the Higgs boson particle, also known as the ‘God Particle’. The discovery of the Higgs boson confirms a long-held theory in physics of a particle that grants mass to matter through the interactions of a so-called ‘Higgs field’. What discoveries will occur in the future of the LHC?

24th December: First manned orbit of the moon

Finally, December 24th is especially significant this year due to it being the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8’s groundbreaking first manned orbit of the moon. The 6 day-long mission was a message of hope to the world that humans could – and would – orbit other celestial bodies, and set the stage for the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, where humans took their first tentative step into space exploration. The Apollo 8 mission was also the mission on which the iconic “Earthrise” image was taken, which forever changed the perspective of humankind on their home planet.

2018 is set to be an exciting year for new science, but it is always good to remember anniversaries such as these to remind us where we came from, and to inform our future decisions.

Photograph: NASA

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