Got Science? From a Black Hole Snapshot to Alaska's Heat Wave — What You Missed in April

Cincinnatian Chris Anderson, the founder of educational blog Science Over Everything, rounds up the top five science moments in April

click to enlarge Scientists obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. - EVENT HORIZON TELESCOPE COLLABORATION
Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration
Scientists obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87.


1. First Image of a Black Hole Taken

In early April, researchers at the Event Horizon Telescope released an image of a black hole at the center of a galaxy known as Messier 87, which resides roughly 55 million light-years away from Earth. The black hole has an estimated mass of 6.5 billion that of our sun. The EHT turned the entire planet into one giant radio telescope, linking a network of eight pre-existing telescopes stationed at various sites — from the volcanoes in Hawaii and Mexico to the mountains in Arizona and the Spanish Sierra Nevada, the Chilean Atacama Desert and Antarctica. Why does it matter? THEY TOOK A PICTURE OF A BLACK HOLE! The feat is the equivalent of taking a picture of a grapefruit on the moon with a radio telescope — it's also probably worth a Nobel Prize. When working on his Theory of General Relativity, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of black holes: objects so massive that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull. For a long time, astrophysicists weren’t sure such objects could be observed, even if their existence was likely. Thanks to years of international collaboration — and the brilliant Katherine Bouman, who created the algorithm that organized the data into an image — the world can view one of the strangest objects in the universe.

2. Brain Cells from Pigs Were Revived 

According to Nature, an international scientific journal, scientists at Yale were able to partially restore cellular activity in brains removed from dead pigs. The team used 32 pigs from a meatpacking plant, removed their brains and hooked them up to a system known as BrainEx, which pumped a blood-like chemical solution into the organ. As a result, some molecules, cells and synapses were restored, with functions lasting up to 10 hours. (The team noted that none of the pig brains reached the level of electrical activity associated with consciousness or awareness.) Why does it matter? While the breakthrough gives us the fun pun of Frankenswine, it also gives the scientific community a huge ethical conundrum. The brain declines quickly when its oxygen supply is cut off. But if techniques are developed that could resuscitate people who have been declared brain dead, especially when due to a lack of oxygen, then the line between life and death could become blurrier. While the current state of research is extremely preliminary, perhaps Luke Skywalker may one day be right when he said no one is ever really gone.

3. New Species of Human Discovered

In 2007, archaeologist Armand Salvador Mijares found the fossilized remains of a hominid in a cave on the Philippine island of Luzon — to be exact, seven teeth and six small bones from the hands and feet. As related in the scientific journal Nature, after years of study, Mijares and his team have confirmed that the remains belong to a previously unknown species of human, which would have lived on the island between 50,000 and 67,000 years ago. Named Homo luzonensis, adults would have stood about 4 feet tall. Why does it matter? The discovery further adds to the number and diversity of human species that coexisted with our own, Homo sapiens. But that isn’t the only thing that has scientists excited: The strong ocean currents and lack of a land bridge to mainland Asia would have made the Philippine islands impossible to reach without boats. As reported by National GeographicHomo luzonensis would have needed to be clever enough to build a raft and navigate the open sea. This further pushes back the timeline for when hominids first crafted complex tools and provides more evidence that human evolution did not progress in a neat line from primitive to more advanced species.

4. Alaska Had a Heat Wave

Nearly all of Alaska experienced the highest temperatures ever recorded for the month of March, caused by a high-pressure system that kept a pocket of relatively warm air above the state. From Fairbanks to Utqiaġvik, most areas finished out the month 20 degrees Fahrenheit or more above the historical average, with some places seeing highs 30 to 40 degrees above normal, according to The Washington Post. Deadhorse, a town near the Arctic Ocean, normally averages highs around -7 degrees for the month of March. But this year the average was 18 degrees, the biggest temperature anomaly ever recorded during the month of March in the United States. Why does it matter? Though no single weather event is proof of long-term climate patterns, the Arctic hasn’t been this hot in a thousand years. With sea ice at historic lows, more of the sun’s energy is being absorbed by the ocean, causing the Arctic Ocean to warm twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to NASA. The ramifications of an Arctic without ice range from bitter polar vortices hitting the Midwest to economically disastrous declines in fish populations and polar bears tragically dying from starvation.

5. Wildlife Areas Cleared Border Wall

In yet another effort to make good on a campaign promise, the Trump administration has begun work on expanding the physical barrier between the United States and Mexico, this time in Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. A 140-foot-wide access road and an 18-foot-high wall will soon be under construction in what was once protected habitat. Why does it matter? The refuge, set aside by Congress in the 1970s after development took over 97 percent of the native habitat, is home to an impressive amount of biodiversity. A wide array of bird species, wild cats, the Texas tortoise, and a wild species of pig known as peccary all call the refuge home. Not only would construction destroy precious habitat, but it would also impede the movement of species already under threat, many of whom need large areas to roam in order to be successful. Sadly, conservationists have little recourse; the refuge is federal land and the president can authorize its use for whatever reason. 

What To Do This Month:

A recent study revealed that Cincinnati tops the list of U.S. metro areas with the highest percentage increase in positive heartworm test results. These nasty parasites are carried by mosquitos and can really hurt your pet’s health — learn how you can protect your furry loved ones here.

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