50 famous firsts from science history

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February 24, 2020
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50 famous firsts from science history

In 17th-century London, studying science had little to do with lab experiments. Instead, it meant using the methods of the ancient Greeks, like Plato and Aristotle and coming to scientific truth through discussions and arguments. Francis Bacon, an English politician and philosopher, didn’t buy this. Instead, he believed that to learn about the real world, scientific thinkers needed evidence.

In 1620, he published “Novum Organum,” detailing what’s now called the scientific method. The scientific method—which involves forming predictions and hypotheses, testing them, watching what happens, and drawing conclusions—has led to modern scientific discoveries.

But Bacon wasn’t the first to realize that science requires evidence, and like all supposed firsts in science, work from earlier thinkers helped Bacon reach his conclusions. Even if the ancients did not always adhere to a strict scientific method, throughout history, people have made observations, tested predictions, and drawn conclusions about their surroundings. Historians have found evidence from as early as 1600 B.C. showing that the Egyptians practiced some elements of science, refining surgical techniques and learning about the mechanics of the human body.

These discoveries and scientific milestones, like Bacon’s, were not discrete or purely original “firsts.” Typically, years, if not decades or centuries, of work leads to a discovery or specific “first,” like the 30 years of experiments and more years of theorizing that led to the discovery of a fundamental particle in physics, the Higgs boson.

With this in mind, Stacker compiled a list of 50 famous science firsts from throughout recorded history using scientific reports, historical records, and news articles. These discoveries and breakthroughs, listed in order of their occurrence, shaped the work of future scientists and the lives of generations to come.

While these 50 firsts all represent influential milestones, it should be noted that science history has paid much more attention to Western achievements, leaving others—especially the accomplishments of non-Western science figures, women, and minorities—unrecognized.

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Jeff Dahl // Wikimedia Commons

1600 B.C.: First description of surgical techniques

The Edwin Smith Papyrus, named for the antiquities dealer who bought it, is a medical text from ancient Egypt written around 1600 B.C. It contains the oldest description of surgical techniques and scientific writings. Translations show that the writers had a detailed understanding of anatomy and physiology.

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1500 B.C.: First mention of a heliocentric model of the solar system

The first recorded mention of the idea that Earth orbits the sun comes from ancient India. Written around 1500 B.C., Vedic hymns reference a heliocentric model of the solar system. About a thousand years later, Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos introduced this idea to the West, though it failed to take hold. And about a thousand years after that, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory concerning the heliocentric model in the 16th century, and he is often credited with this discovery.

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610 B.C. to 546 B.C.: First person to propose the idea of evolution

Anaximander, a Greek scholar who lived between 610 B.C. 546 B.C., was the first to propose the idea of evolution. He reasoned that human infants need too much nursing and support from mothers, and would never have survived on their own on early Earth. Instead, he proposed that other, self-supporting animals came to be first, and humans must have come from those ancestors.

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129 A.D. to 200 A.D.: First person to acknowledge the brain’s role in thinking

The Greek physician, Galen, was one of the first to suggest that the brain is the seat of human thought. Before that, people believed the heart controlled thought.

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1021: First correct model of vision

Ibn al-Haytham lived in what is now southern Iraq, and was one of the earliest scientists, learning about the world through observations and experiments. He published the "Book of Optics," in which he outlined laws of refraction and the correct model of vision, showing that the eyes see because objects reflect light rays. Previously, in the second century, the Egyptian astronomer and mathematician, Ptolemy, suggested that the eyes radiate light rays.

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1088: Discovery of true north

In 1088, Shen Kuo, Chinese astronomer and government official, published a series of essays documenting his discovery of true north. The magnetized needle of a compass doesn't point directly north. Instead, because of the magnetic field generated by the Earth's swirling, metal core, it points either slightly east or west of north, depending on the field’s position at the time. Kuo was the first to determine this declination, or the difference between magnetic north and true north, which laid the foundation for the study of geomagnetism.

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1268: First recorded mention of optical lenses

The first recorded mention of optical lenses came from English philosopher Roger Bacon. While this is the first recorded mention, historians know that people in both Europe and China were already using reading glasses by then. These first lenses eventually led to the development of the telescope and further advances in optics.

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1609: First person to see the moon’s surface

In 1609, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei became the first to see the moon for what it is: an imperfect, unevenly pitted rock. Most people believed that the moon was a perfect sphere, and Galileo's observation challenged the idea that God created the heavens to be perfect. This was just one of Galileo’s astronomical discoveries that angered the Catholic Church.

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1628: First person to describe the circulatory system

Before the discovery of circulation, people believed a 1,400-year-old theory proposed by Galen: the liver constantly produced blood, which then traveled to the bodily tissues before the body consumed it all. English physician William Harvey was skeptical, and after conducting experiments—including collecting data from blood draws and animal and human dissections—he showed that Galen's theories were impossible. Harvey observed beating hearts in animals and calculated the volume of blood that moves through the body every hour, showing that the body could not replenish this much blood regularly, as Galen proposed.

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1661: First person to define chemical elements

Robert Boyle, an Oxford University chemist, was the first to define chemical elements and their properties. He observed that while most substances can break down into simpler components, a chemical element, like hydrogen, can't be broken down further. This definition is still taught in chemistry classrooms today.

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1666: First person to describe universal gravitation

After studying centuries of astronomical data, in 1666, the English physicist Sir Isaac Newton devised the law of universal gravitation, the force of attraction between objects that have mass. Gravity is the reason that the Earth attracts people to its surface, and it is the force that keeps Earth in orbit around the sun. Newton's law has since allowed engineers to design spacecraft that overcome Earth's gravitational pull and explore the solar system.

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1783: First human flight

The Montgolfier brothers, not the Wright brothers, are responsible for the first human flight. The brothers invented the first hot air balloon, and from Annonay, France, they sent up a manned flight in 1783.

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1796: First vaccine created

In the centuries before vaccines, to prevent the spread of smallpox, in a process called variolation, people would scratch material from smallpox sores of affected individuals into the arms of those who had never had the disease; sometimes, they would inhale the diseased matter. Afterward, those people would typically develop symptoms of smallpox, but this resulted in fewer deaths than when people contracted the disease by other means. In 1796, English doctor Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids who had had cowpox didn't show any smallpox symptoms after variolation. Later, he tested this idea by inoculating a boy with cowpox and exposing him to smallpox, and the boy never showed symptoms.

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1809: First electric telegraph

The first electric telegraph was invented in 1809 by German scientist Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring and could transmit a message just 2,000 feet away. It was technically an electrochemical telegraph. Electrodes in the water on the sender's end produced a signal at the receiving end via electrolysis, a process using an electric current to separate a substance like water into its component parts. The amount of gas produced at the receiving end encoded the message. Von Sömmerring's invention predated more sophisticated telegraphs like Samuel Morse's 1843 system that sent a message from Washington D.C. to Baltimore via a telegraph line.

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1811 and 1823: First ichthyosaur and plesiosaur fossil discoveries

In 1811, 12-year-old Mary Anning made one of her most famous discoveries while exploring the coast of her hometown, Lyme Regis, in southwest England: the first ichthyosaur fossil. In 1823, she logged another major find, the first complete skeleton of another extinct marine reptile, the plesiosaur. These fossil discoveries provided support for the idea of extinction during a time when people believed that life on Earth had existed as is since the planet's creation.

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1831: First electrical generator

Michael Faraday developed the first electrical generator in 1831. An English chemist, Faraday showed that by moving a magnet back and forth through a coil of wire, he could excite electrons on the wire with the changing magnetic field and generate an electric current.

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1849: First female to earn a medical degree in the U.S.

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College in New York, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree. Instead of breaking down barriers for women in medicine, the immediate aftermath of her success introduced more obstacles. Geneva Medical College refused to admit other women, and Blackwell's sister faced opposition to entering the field because of Blackwell's success.

Throughout her career, Blackwell promoted preventative medicine and physical hygiene, and in 1874, she established the London School of Medicine for Women.

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1856: Discovery of the greenhouse effect

At the 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (a meeting that still occurs today) in Albany, New York, Eunice Foote presented her paper, "Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun's rays." Foote conducted several experiments in which she filled evacuated glass jars with water vapor, carbon dioxide, or air and then observed how they heated up in the sun. She saw that the jar containing carbon dioxide heated most and further predicted that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might influence the world's temperatures. The male scientist and inventor, John Tyndall, often gets credit for this discovery, but he did not describe the greenhouse effect until a few years later.

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1858: First publication of the theory of evolution by natural selection

British naturalists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin codiscovered the theory of evolution. While Darwin was observing and collecting species in the Galapagos islands, Wallace was in modern-day Indonesia, doing the same thing. Wallace realized that animals must adapt to their environment to survive—and so did Darwin—and the two coauthored an 1858 paper arguing that animals evolve by natural selection.

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1865: First presentation of scientific plant breeding

1865 marks Austrian monk Gregor Mendel's first presentation of scientific plant breeding. Humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. But Mendel was the first to methodically test inheritance patterns of traits and use mathematical models to predict inheritance. Mendel’s work also provided the foundation for the study of genetics.

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1869: Discovery of DNA

In 1869, Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher was studying human white blood cells when he identified "nuclein," which would come to be known as DNA, within the cells. The importance of this new substance, however, was not fully realized until 1952, when scientists conducted experiments with viruses and bacteria to confirm that DNA is an organism's genetic material.

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1885: First radio wave transmission and reception

A feat made possible by the development of the electric telegraph, German scientist Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of electromagnetic waves and transmitted and received the first messages via electromagnetic or radio waves in 1885. This work eventually led to the development of radio, television, and WiFi.

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1903: First woman to win a Nobel Prize

In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She received two Nobel Prizes in total: one in physics (1903) and one in chemistry (1911). Throughout her career at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris, Curie studied radiation, discovered new chemical elements, and worked to develop medical applications for radioactive substances.

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1909: Development of synthetic nitrogen fixation

Plants require nitrogen to conduct photosynthesis, and farmers often treat crops with nitrogen-containing fertilizers. By the beginning of the 20th century, farmers around the world were using natural sources of nitrogen to fertilize their crops, like livestock manure. But without synthetic nitrogen, food production could never have scaled to what supports humanity today. In 1909, German scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch contrived the Haber-Bosch process that allowed large-scale synthetic fertilizer production.

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1912: Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery of a way to estimate the distance of stars

In the Harvard observatory, Henrietta Leavitt spent her days analyzing the brightness of stars on photographic plates, but because of her sex, she was not allowed to engage in the thoughtful, theoretical astronomy she wanted to do. However, her careful observations led her to change the course of astronomy. She noticed a relationship between the time it took a cepheid variable star to go from bright to dim in appearance and its actual brightness. Her discovery allowed astronomers to estimate the distance of stars from Earth more precisely and enabled Edwin Hubble (for whom NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is named) to determine that other galaxies existed.

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1909: First antibiotics

Paul Ehrlich was working as a physician in Germany in 1904 when he learned that certain dyes could stain specific bacteria, and decided to search for a drug that operated similarly, selectively killing bacteria. Ehrlich focused on the bacterium that causes syphilis and developed and tested hundreds of drugs on syphilis-infected rabbits. By 1909, he had discovered the first antibiotic. His experiments showed that the chemical arsphenamine could treat syphilis.

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1915: First theory of continental drift

German researcher Alfred Wegener was one of the first people to propose that Earth's surface wasn't fixed in place. In 1915, he published his theory of continental drift. Most rejected this idea, and some components of Wegener's theory were incorrect, but over the next few decades, geological discoveries convinced scientists that Earth's crust is made of large, slow-moving plates, a theory called plate tectonics.

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1932: First scientists to split the atom

British scientists John D. Cockcroft and Ernest T.S. Walton were the first to split the atom. They used a particle accelerator to bombard a lithium atom with protons, splitting it in two. In doing so, they confirmed Einstein's famous equation, E=mc², which states that the energy of a particle equals the mass of a still object multiplied by the speed of light, squared. This experiment also had more destructive consequences and contributed to the development of nuclear weapons.

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1936: First person to propose the Earth has a solid inner core

A great deal of science happens near or above the Earth's surface, but scientists also want to know what happens underneath. Before the end of the 19th century, most scientists thought below ground, Earth was solid all the way through. But after the seismograph was introduced in 1880, scientists could observe the movements on Earth's surface generated by disturbances beneath the ground. In 1936, female Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann proposed the Earth had a solid inner core and a molten outer core.

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1938: First nuclear fission

In 1938, nuclear fission, the process of splitting an atom into lighter atoms, was first achieved by the German physicists Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, and Fritz Strassmann. They bombarded uranium with neutrons, the neutral particles at the center of atoms, and showed that the uranium had decayed into different elements. Though their discovery would be used to develop nuclear weapons, that team did not encourage this. Instead, they advocated for peaceful applications of their science.

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1945: First computer

At the University of Pennsylvania, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert began building the first digital computer in 1942 for the U.S. Military. Three years later, they finished ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer. Though it was a massive machine with 6,000 manual switches and could only run one program at a time, ENIAC signaled the beginning of the modern digital age.

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1947: First animal in space

The first in a line of animals that would pave the way for human space travel, fruit flies aboard a U.S. rocket were the first animals in space in 1947. Researchers wanted to see how the radiation at high altitudes would affect the flies. The fruit flies survived their flight to an altitude of 68 miles.

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1952: First fiber optic cable

U.K. physicist Narinder Singh Kapany invented the first fiber optic cable in 1952. Kapany based his invention on Irish inventor John Tyndall's 1870 experiments transmitting light through mirrored pipes. Today, hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber optic cables are responsible for fast internet speeds and long-distance calls.

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1953: First lab-created amino acids

Graduate student Stanley Miller and University of Chicago professor Harold Urey wanted to know how life came to be on Earth billions of years ago. In 1953, they simulated the early atmosphere in a glass flask—pumping it full of methane, ammonium, and hydrogen—and connected it to another flask filled with water as a stand-in for the ocean. Electrodes then sparked the "atmosphere" flask as lightning might have. After a week, Miller and Urey detected amino acids in their apparatus, showing that in these conditions on a much younger Earth, ingredients necessary for life may have emerged.

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1953: Discovery of DNA structure

That same year, scientists revealed the structure of DNA using X-ray crystallography. Though Francis Crick and James Watson, who worked together at Cambridge University, are traditionally given credit for this discovery, they only determined the structure because they used Rosalind Franklin's unpublished work, without consulting her. Franklin, who was at King's College, had been taking X-ray diffraction photos and resolving the structure of DNA herself, but her colleague showed these crucial photos—which Franklin had submitted for publication—to Watson and Crick.

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1958: The start of the longest-running daily measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide

In 1958, scientist Charles David Keeling began the longest-running daily measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii. While observing seasonal fluctuations of carbon dioxide concentrations, after a few years, it was clear that these concentrations were trending upward. The graph produced by these measurements is now known as the Keeling Curve, and it provides evidence that carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere.

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1963: First woman in space

In the heat of the space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. She was chosen to pilot her spacecraft, Vostok 6, and throughout her career spent over 70 hours in space, flying around the Earth 48 times.

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1969: First version of the internet

The first version of the internet is over 40 years old. In 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) created a computer network called ARPANET, the first internet prototype, albeit a more limited one. ARPANET only connected mainframes at universities, government buildings, and defense contractor facilities, motivating the development of a faster, more comprehensive mobile network, like the modern internet.

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1971: Discovery of antimalarial compound

Tu Youyou led Project 523, a Chinese government-funded effort to cure malaria caused by parasites resistant to the standard treatment. Tu turned to ancient Chinese medical texts and found that around 400 A.D., people used sweet wormwood to treat intermittent fevers, a symptom of malaria; these texts also guided her in isolating the active compound in wormwood without damaging it. In 1971, Tu Youyou and her team discovered the new antimalarial compound, which became a drug that has saved millions of lives. In 2015, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her research. She did not have a research or medical doctoral degree.

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1974: First australopithecus fossil

In 1974, a team led by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson was searching for fossils in Hadar, Ethiopia, when they discovered the first Australopithecus fossils comprising a partially complete skeleton. It was the oldest hominin species at the time—roughly 3.18 million years old—and showed that over 3 million years ago, human ancestors walked upright on two legs.

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Mid-1970s: First precise model of the Earth

Gladys West was a mathematician at the Naval Support Facility in Dahlgren, Virginia, from 1956 to 1958. There, starting in the mid-1970s through the 1980s, she used satellite data to create a precise model of Earth and develop GPS technology.

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1987: Discovery of CRISPR

Now, the phrase clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats—CRISPR for short—is associated with the gene-editing technique, but it refers to a piece of the bacterial immune system that scientists have now harnessed to change DNA. In 1987, scientists at Osaka University in Japan noticed that the E. coli genome had these strange sequences, CRISPR arrays (although the name CRISPR didn't come on the scene until 2002). The scientists did not know the sequences' purpose at the time, but future researchers learned that the arrays helped bacteria recognize and fend off invading viruses.

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1988: First brain-machine interface

Neurological conditions and amputations can deprive people of functions they once relied on, like movement control or hearing. Brain-machine interfaces (or brain-computer interfaces) aim to restore some of those functions by linking brains and computational devices. Jonathan Wolpaw and his colleagues experimented with the first brain-machine interface in 1988. They developed a program that interpreted the brain signals from a participant wearing an electroencephalogram cap (a cap with electrodes that pick up local brain signals). Participants sat in front of a screen and used their thoughts to move the cursor on the screen either up or down toward different targets. Though a simple design, this research spurred the development of more advanced brain-machine interfaces.

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1992: First exoplanets discovered

Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail discovered the first exoplanets, planets outside the solar system, in 1992. Using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, they located two rocky planets orbiting a star in the Virgo constellation. Since this initial discovery, astronomers have found thousands of exoplanets.

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2003: First near-complete sequencing of the human genome completed

The Human Genome Project, an effort funded by the U.S. government involving scientists around the world, did not end up sequencing the entire human genome, but it sequenced as much as it could with the available technology. The "first draft" of the human genome was published in 2000, and the final results, amounting to 99% of the genome, were published in 2003.

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2010: First full-body color rendering of a dinosaur

In 2010, scientists published the first full-body color rendering of a dinosaur. The dinosaur in question, Anchiornis, was around the size of a chicken and looked like a woodpecker covered in black and gray feathers, with black and white striped wings and a rust-colored crown. The scientists produced this image by using a powerful microscope to analyze pigments from fossilized Anchiornis feathers.

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2012: First observation of the Higgs boson

The idea of the Higgs boson came from Peter Higgs in the 1960s, to help explain where mass comes from: Higgs proposed that matter exists immersed in what's now called the Higgs field, which is associated with particles called Higgs bosons, and as other particles pass through this field, they can gain mass. The 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson came out of a collaboration of thousands of physicists and confirmed the Standard Model of physics. Sau Lan Wu was one of those scientists most involved in the discovery, which marked the third time she helped confirm the existence of a fundamental particle.

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2013: First-time atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations top 400 parts per million

May 9, 2013, marked the first time global carbon dioxide concentrations reached 400 parts per million (ppm) in human history and the first time on Earth since over 3 million years ago. The last time averages were consistently above 400 ppm was about 16 million years ago. When Keeling first began the measurements atop Mauna Loa, concentrations hovered around 317 ppm. While reaching 400 ppm is a symbolic threshold and does not represent an explicit tipping point in climate change, it does represent uncharted territory for humanity and the climate.

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2015: First detection of gravitational waves

Over a billion years ago, two black holes collided in an incredible explosion, traces of which didn't reach Earth until 2015. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, one in Louisiana and one in Washington state, recorded the traces of that collision in the form of gravitational waves on Sept. 14, 2015. As part of his theory of general relativity, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, claiming that these waves are ripples in space-time; the 2015 LIGO detection provided evidence for this.

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Event Horizon Telescope // Wikimedia Commons

2019: First image of a black hole

On April 10, 2019, the world saw the first-ever image of a black hole. An international network of hundreds of researchers working on the Event Horizon Telescope team collected the data necessary to see the black hole in the galaxy Messier 87, 55 million light-years distant. Computer scientist Katie Bouman and her team processed the data to produce the image, which shows a halo of dust and gas swirling at the speed of light around the black hole.

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