10 Discoveries and Inventions That Are More Recent Than You Think

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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.

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

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iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

What Happens to Your Body If You Die in Space?

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iStock.com/1971yes

The coming decades should bring about a number of developments when it comes to blasting people into orbit and beyond. Private space travel continues to progress, with Elon Musk and Richard Branson championing civilian exploration. Professional astronauts continue to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) for scientific research. By the 2040s, human colonists could be making the grueling journey to Mars.

With increased opportunities comes the increased potential for misadventure. Though only 18 people have died since the emergence of intragalactic travel in the 20th century, taking more frequent risks may mean that coroners will have to list "space" as the site of death in the future. But since it's rare to find a working astronaut in compromised health or of an advanced age, how will most potential casualties in space meet their maker?

Popular Science posed this question to Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the ISS. According to Hadfield, spacewalks—a slight misnomer for the gravity-free floating that astronauts engage in outside of spacecraft—might be one potential danger. Tiny meteorites could slice through their protective suits, which provide oxygen and shelter from extreme temperatures. Within 10 seconds, water in their skin and blood would vaporize and their body would fill with air: Dissolved nitrogen near the skin would form bubbles, blowing them up like a dollar-store balloon to twice their normal size. Within 15 seconds, they would lose consciousness. Within 30 seconds, their lungs would collapse and they'd be paralyzed. The good news? Death by asphyxiation or decompression would happen before their body freezes, since heat leaves the body slowly in a vacuum.

This morbid scene would then have to be dealt with by the accompanying crew. According to Popular Science, NASA has no official policy for handling a corpse, but Hadfield said ISS training does touch on the possibility. As he explained it, astronauts would have to handle the the body as a biohazard and figure out their storage options, since there's really no prepared area for that. To cope with both problems, a commander would likely recommend the body be kept inside a pressurized suit and taken someplace cold—like where garbage is stored to minimize the smell.

If that sounds less than regal, NASA agrees. The company has explored the business of space body disposal before, and one proposition involves freeze-drying the stiff with liquid nitrogen (or simply the cold vacuum of space) so it can be broken up into tiny pieces of frozen tissue, which would occupy only a fraction of the real estate that a full-sized body would.

Why not eject a body, like Captain Kirk and his crew were forced to do with the allegedly dead Spock in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Bodies jettisoned into space without a rocket to change their trajectory would likely fall into the wake of the spacecraft. If enough people died on a long trip, it would create a kind of inverted funeral procession.

Even if safely landed on another planet, an astronaut's options don't necessarily improve. On Mars, cremation would likely be necessary to destroy any Earth-borne bacteria that would flourish on a buried body.

Like most everything we take for granted on Earth—eating, moving, and even pooping—it may be a long time before dying in space becomes dignified.

[h/t Popular Science]

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