10 Discoveries and Inventions That Are More Recent Than You Think

iStock.com/Eloi_Omella
iStock.com/Eloi_Omella

Some science discoveries and inventions feel like they’ve been part of our lives forever. Sometimes, these "old" discoveries are actually so recent they can be measured by the age of celebrities. Here are a few.

1. Sliced Bread // 1928

For perspective, Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, Mel Brooks, and Sidney Poitier are all older than sliced bread (Mr. Rogers is the same age). Invented in 1928 by Otto F. Rohwedder, sliced bread was advertised as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” (The invention would have hit shelves sooner, but a prototype bread-slicing machine that Rohwedder built in 1917 was destroyed by a fire.)

2. Our Understanding of the Earth’s Age // 1956

By the late 1940s, new radiometric dating methods suggested that Earth’s age was 3.3 billion years—but scientists were not confident in the number. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s, when Clair Patterson perfected a new method of calculating the age of extremely old rocks, that the Earth’s true age of 4.5 billion years was revealed [PDF]. (Patterson’s methods, which involved building an “ultra-clean” laboratory to remove all traces of foreign contaminants, also led to a second important discovery: It revealed just how badly leaded gasoline was polluting the environment.) Incredibly, both of these concepts are only as old as Tom Hanks.

3. The Discovery of Pluto // 1930

Everybody’s favorite dwarf planet, Pluto, was first spotted in 1930 by a telescope enthusiast who hadn't been to college. Working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Clyde Tombaugh found “Planet X” using an astrograph—essentially a grainy space camera—and making a discovery that's as old as Clint Eastwood. (Meanwhile, the first exoplanet wouldn’t be confirmed until 1992, or about one Selena Gomez ago.)

4. The Scientific Acceptance of Plate Tectonics // 1961

In 1926, German scientist Alfred Wegener attended a conference where he discussed his theory that all of Earth’s continents had once been connected. The director of the Geological Survey of France called Wegener's idea “the dream of a great poet.” For the next three decades, continental drift was the sort of wacky theory that could get a scientist ostracized from the Establishment. But when geologist Marie Tharp discovered the 10,000-mile Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the Atlantic Ocean—part of the longest mountain range on the planet, and evidence that Earth’s plates were indeed moving—scientists started taking the idea seriously. The theory didn’t reach widespread acceptance until 1961, the year of Barack Obama's birth.

5. The Modern Can Opener // 1870

The modern can opener (with the spinning wheel) was invented in 1870, the same year Vladimir Lenin was born, which seems remarkably late when you consider that metal food cans had already been around for decades. (Before then, people had to pry open food tins by literally "taking a stab at it." In fact, one container advised consumers to “cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.”) Earlier can-opening prototypes existed but weren't very popular: Ezra Warner’s can opener, invented in 1858, resembled a bayonet and was so dangerous that it was usually only used by grocery store owners.

6. Acceptance of the Big Bang Theory // 1965

In 1929, Edwin Hubble confirmed a theory posited by Georges Lemaître—a Belgian Catholic priest and scientist—that the universe was expanding. Two years later, Lemaître attempted to describe the phenomenon with his “hypothesis of the primeval atom,” what would later be called the “Big Bang.” For the next three decades, many scientists debated whether to accept the “Big Bang” model (where the universe has a beginning) or the “Steady State” model (where the universe has no beginning). The former wasn’t widely accepted until 1965, the same year JK Rowling was born.

7. Hib Vaccines // 1985

Hib disease is caused by a bacterium (Haemophilus influenzae type b) and can lead to meningitis, pneumonia, and a slew of nasty infections. It once infected 20,000 young children every year in the United States, killing up to 5 percent of them and leaving up to a third with permanent neurological damage. In 1975, a trial of the drug failed to convince pharmaceutical companies to produce the vaccine, prompting its developer, David H. Smith, to start his own company to make it. First appearing in 1985, the same year as Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot, the vaccine has since reduced Hib disease rates by 99 percent.

8. Double Helix Structure of DNA // 1953

DNA was first identified by a Swiss chemist in 1869. The nucleobases—adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine, and uracil—were first isolated soon after. But scientists would remain clueless as to DNA’s physical structure until Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, and graduate student Raymond Gosling took photographs of it and found two, twisting strands. Using Franklin’s images (without her express permission), James Watson and Francis Crick first described the DNA double helix in 1953, the same year as Pierce Brosnan's birth.

9. Classification of Lucy // 1978

In November 1974, scientists digging in Ethiopia spotted a hunk of a human-like elbow bone in the dirt. With it came a remarkably complete skeleton that was 3.2 million years old. Named Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis skeleton was an early human ancestor. Lucy was classified as a new species—which upturned ideas about the timeline of human evolution—in 1978, the same year Rachel McAdams was welcomed into the world.

10. Discovery of the Supermassive Black Hole at the Center of the Galaxy // 2002

A black hole is a region of space where gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it. The colorful term wasn’t coined until the 1960s, and hard evidence of black holes wasn’t found until 1971. The discovery of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is even more recent: In 2002, the birth year of Stranger Things actor Gaten Matarazzo, astronomers analyzed stars orbiting a region of the galaxy called Sagittarius A*—and discovered a black hole with a mass 4 million times that of our Sun.

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
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It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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