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The scientific superlatives of 2020 include the oldest, tallest, and crudest discoveries


From the largest fusion of black holes to the world’s oldest rope – modeled by Neandertals, no less – the discoveries in 2020 set new records that stunned and inspired.

Higher temperature superconductor

After more than a century of waiting, scientists have found the first superconductor to operate near room temperature. Superconducting up to about 15 ° Celsius (59 ° Fahrenheit), it is made by squeezing carbon, hydrogen and sulfur between two diamonds and zapping the compound with a laser (SN: 14/10/20). The new material allows current to flow without any loss of energy, but only at high pressures, which means that practical applications are still a distant sight.

To make the first superconductor to operate near room temperature, physicists squeezed a material at high pressure between the tips of two diamonds. Adam Fenster

The oldest and largest Mayan monument

Beneath an unexplored site in Mexico called Aguada Fénix, archaeologists discovered a huge ceremonial structure erected (SN: 03/06/20). Built about 3,000 years ago and with a 1,400-meter-long rectangular plateau with a platform longer than four football fields, the discovery shows that the Mayan civilization has built a lot since its inception.

a three-dimensional remnant of an ancient Mayan siteThe ancient Mayan site of Aguada Fénix, shown in this 3D representation, had a ceremonial plateau with a platform and a hill in its center. Takeshi Inomata

Best test for anyone

Theoretical physicists have long predicted the existence of allions, a type of strange quasiparticle resulting from the movements of electrons that behave like a particle. In a mind-twisting discovery, physicists have braided any ions, which only exist in two dimensions, by winding them together within complex layers of materials (SN: 7/9/20). The resulting perturbations observed in the 2-D sheets of material suggest that the quasiparticles are real.

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Older modern bird

The nearly 67 million-year-old fossilized "Wonderchicken" (also known as Asteriornis maastrichtensis) is the oldest modern bird ever found, meaning its offspring survived the impact of the asteroid that wiped out non-avian dinosaurs and led to the birds we see today (SN: 18/03/20). Wonderchicken really looked like a hen, if crossed with a duck and reduced to the size of a quail.

Coarser discovery

For the first time, the researchers observed how a snake gnawed a hole in the belly of a toad, slipping inside and digging in its bowels, all the while the toad was alive (SN: 02/10/20). The snake could have avoided the poison the frog released from its neck and back or found a way to eat a food too large to swallow whole.

a snake chewing a hole in a frog's stomachAfter chewing a hole in the belly of a toxic frog, a small-banded kukri snake stuck its head inside to eat. Winai Suthanthangjai, H. Bringsøe et al / Herpetozoa 2020

Oldest chain

Not only was this piece of cord made by hand over 40,000 years ago, but the hands that made it belonged to Neanderthals, close human relatives who don’t usually get accessories for creativity. The rope, made from cork fibers, was found clinging to an old tool discovered in France (SN: 4/9/20).

The largest fusion of black holes

A gravitational wave detection of two colliding black holes led to a lot of records (SN: 2/9/20). It is the first definitive evidence that there are medium-sized black holes, those that have a mass between 100 and 100,000 times that of the sun. The resulting fusion is the most massive spotted so far by gravitational waves, as well as the farthest (17 billion light-years from Earth) and the most energetic: it radiated the energy equivalent of about eight times the mass of the sun.

Illustration of black hole collidingTwo black holes orbited each other, sending gravitational wave ripples (illustrated in blue and pink in this computer simulation) before merging to form the first definitive example of a medium-sized black hole.Deborah Ferguson, Karan Jani, Deirdre Shoemaker, Pablo Laguna / Georgia Tech, MAYA Collaboration

Record animals

This year has seen several record animal achievements, from the highest-life mammal: a yellow-leaved leaf-eared mouse found at 6,739 meters above sea level in South America (SN: 29/07/20) – to the most diving long marine mammal, a nearly four-hour dive by a Cuvier beaked whale (SN: 23/09/20). There was also the coldest bird, the black-tailed metal hummingbird, which chills up to about 3 ° Celsius (37 ° Fahrenheit) at night to save energy (SN: 8/9/20).

The researchers captured a yellow-eared leaf mouse (Phyllotis xanthopygus rupestris) at a record altitude of 6,739 meters, or 22,100 feet, above sea level. Jay Storz, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and mountaineer Mario Pérez Mamani discovered the animal on the summit of Llullaillaco Volcano, a latent volcano on the border of Chile and Argentina.



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