100 years in … Astronomy and Physics
This year marks 100 years of IHS Chemical Week. To commemorate the anniversary, we would like to dedicate this series of blog posts to Chemical Week and their contribution to the field, by taking a look back at the last century in science.
This week we are taking a look back at the last 100 years in Astronomy and Physics.
Astronomy and physics have both been studied for millennia, however in just the last century there have been some achievements that have changed our understanding of the subject completely.
The achievements and discoveries that we thought deserved special mention in this post are the work of Albert Einstein, the Hubble Space Telescope, the first moon landing and the construction of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.
Albert Einstein is probably one of the most well known physicists both in and outside the field. In 1916 he published his theory of general relativity that changed our understanding of gravitation to being a geometric property of space-time. Even though the theory of general relativity is almost 100 years old, ever since its publication, it has remained the basis for all models of an expanding universe.
Einstein’s theory also describes several phenomena in space that are otherwise difficult to explain. One of these phenomena is black holes; a possible end state of massive stars where space and time are so distorted that nothing can escape the gravitational pull. Also predicted by Einstein’s theory, and detected for the first time earlier this year, are gravitational waves that exist as remnants of the Big Bang throughout the universe.
Einstein’s works fundamentally changed the way that physicists understand fundamental forces of the universe. As well as his theory of general relativity Einstein changed our conception of space and time with his theory of special relativity in 1905 and discovered “the law of the photoelectric effect”, for which he won his Nobel Prize in 1921.
Arguably, even outside of science, one of the most important moments for mankind in the last 100 years is the first moon landing.
On 20th July 1969 Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed in Apollo 11 and took mankind’s first steps on the moon. Over 500 million people, a fifth of the world’s population, tuned in and listened to the now famous words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.
Since 1969 only another 10 people have set foot on the moon, however several manned and shuttle missions have been sent into space. Most of the manned missions to space have been to the International Space Station that was first manned in 2000 and is currently habiting the crew of Expedition 42.
Future unmanned exploration missions from NASA include the Solar Probe Plus in 2018, that will be the first mission into the Sun’s corona and BARREL, that will study the Van Allen radiation belts around the sun.
Whilst it was indeed a small step for a man, the Apollo 11 mission undoubtedly set the way for the future of space exploration.
A more recent achievement in the field of astronomy was the completion and launch of the Hubble Space Telescope on 24th April 1990. The Hubble Telescope is a vital research tool that takes high-resolution images from 559km above the Earth avoiding the interference of the atmosphere.
The Hubble Space Telescope, as a research tool, has spent most of its time gathering the data for two NASA projects: CANDELS, that studies galactic evolution and Frontier Fields that looks at early galaxy formation. Several important discoveries have been attributed to Hubble including identifying the prevalence of black holes at the centre of galaxies, observing the expansion of the universe and discovering proto-planetary disks in the Orion Nebula.
Overall the impact of the Hubble Space Telescope has been huge and has enabled the collection of images that have never been seen before. The image above is one of the most famous ever taken by the telescope; it is a view of the Eagle Nebula commonly titled the “Pillars of Creation”.
The most recent achievement in our list, in just the last few years, is the construction of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is the largest particle collider in the world at over 27 kilometres in diameter and is linked to the LHC Computing Grid with over 170 facilities in 36 countries.
The most famous breakthrough at the LHC happened on 4 July 2012 when, after 800 trillion collision experiments amassing over 200 petabytes of information, the Higgs boson or ‘God particle’ was detected for the first time. The Higgs boson was theoretical for over 40 years and was first predicted in three different papers published in 1964 authored by Rober Brout and Francois Englert; Peter Higgs; and Gerald Guralnik, C. Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble.
The prediction and discovery of the Higgs boson confirmed the existence of the Higgs field and could therefore validate the Standard Model of particle physics. The significance of the discovery led to the Nobel Prize for physics being awarded to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert in 2013.
From discovery of the smallest elementary particles to gathering images of some of the largest structures in our universe, so many breakthroughs have been made in the last 100 years that it is difficult to name just a few. In short, the last 100 years in astronomy and physics have seen some amazing breakthroughs and achievements that have contributed immeasurably to science as a whole.
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