Science & Reality Today: November 24, 2016

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Three random facts we didn’t know 100 years ago …

Around 100 years ago, humans didn’t know much about things like genetics, quantum mechanics or why certain foods can actually prolong our lives. So, in no particular order of importance, here we go:

Starting with no. 3. We did not know that DNA is in the shape of a double helix.

As early as the 1950s, researchers working on DNA were almost sure it had lots of genetic information that was passed down from parent to offspring. They could not figure out how this process worked, however, without first knowing its structure.

Scientists Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins started experimenting with a process called X-ray diffraction where they shined X-rays onto DNA. This experiment revealed a helical structure.

In the early 1950s, this research, along with other experiments dealing with the chemistry of DNA, ended up with James Watson and Francis Crick who were able to piece it all together and come up with the double-helix model.

This model has since pushed modern biology research and a better understanding of how DNA’s chemical code can make something as complex as organisms such as ours.

Moving on to no. 2. We didn’t know that the universe was bigger than the Milky Way Galaxy.

At the start of the last century, astronomers knew that the universe was filled with things like planets, stars, gases and dust. They did not yet have an idea of how big the universe was, or how certain clouds of gas and dust were spiral-shaped and appeared to be so far away.

This began the debate among astronomers who believed that everything in the universe was contained in our galaxy, including these spiral-shaped nebula, versus those who understood that the universe was much, much bigger.

It was not until the early 1920s when Edwin Hubble used the Hooker telescope located on Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena and took pictures of the spiral-shaped Andromeda Galaxy that this debate was settled.

Finally, the no. 1 random fact. We didn’t know that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

Before 1925, scientists assumed that the rest of the universe was made of the same kinds of elements and in the same proportions as planet Earth.

It would not be until astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin analyzed the Sun and made a series of observations. She realized that the Sun was mostly made of hydrogen and helium.

The different forms of these elements cause the variations in light we observe. Her 1925 doctoral thesis concluded that hydrogen is about a million times more abundant in stars than previously thought, thus making it the most abundant element in the universe.

I know I’m missing several other important facts or observations but that is why the word “random” is in the title of this column.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go place myself in a self-induced coma for the next four years. Feel free to wake me up early if either the Electoral College has been eliminated or scientists figure out how someone who wins by 2 million votes comes in second place.

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