At 1:23 am, April 28, 1986, the nuclear plant in Chernobyl (then part of the USSR) suffered a catastrophic meltdown, spewing radioactive material across the western Soviet Union and Europe. The result of a systems test gone wrong, the disaster is widely considered the worst nuclear mishap in history, matched on the International Nuclear Event Scale by only the Fukushima meltdown in 2011. Though the Soviet government initially tried to hide the accident, the surrounding areas had to be evacuated due to lethal levels of radiation. Twenty-eight years later, the region has become a ghost town, a barren expanse of silent cities. There is much to discuss when it comes to Chernobyl, but for today I want to share photos of what the city looks like now. These frames show a real nuclear wasteland and a world without people.
In 1900, mathematician and physicist Lord William Thomson Kelvin proclaimed, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Kelvin was wrong, of course. In fact, he could not have been more incorrect—the next few decades alone saw the discovery of general relativity, other galaxies, radioactivity, and quantum mechanics, to name a few fields.
When NASA scientists began to analyze samples from the moon landing in 1960, they discovered something fascinating. The moon rocks the team had brought back resembled the rocks and dust on Earth. In fact, aside from lower water and iron content, the moon’s chemical composition was almost identical to the Earth’s. This was huge.
In case this does not seem significant, let’s get some perspective on the matter. The moon is without a doubt the most studied astronomical body in history, but by the end of the nineteenth century, scientists still had no idea how it got there. Theories had ranged from the plausible (the Earth and the moon formed together) to the farfetched (the Earth used to have a really big atmosphere and was able to capture a rogue, pre-formed moon), but further scrutiny uncovered holes in them all. By 1900, the predominant though mathematically questionable explanation involved centrifugal force from a fast-spinning Earth throwing off material that coalesced into the satellite.
In the early nineteenth century, phrenology was the talk of every town. The up and coming discipline examined the shape and contours of the skull to deduce a person’s psychological traits. By simply running his fingers across a skull, an expert could uncover amazing details about the person’s life, including spirituality and submissiveness. Except phrenology was nonsense, a pseudoscience used by many to justify American slavery.
Of course, many were critical of phrenology’s claims. Skeptics pointed to the questionable methodologies and lack of scientific guidelines. Others simply did not believe its outlandish claims. History would prove these skeptics correct, dismissing the faux discipline and shoving its findings off the table.
In the first half of the twentieth century, physicists discovered something alarming about the sky. When they looked up, they saw the sun—and it was shining. You see, according to their calculations this was impossible. Their models stated that the sun was not enough energy to shine. Despite their efforts to explain the problem, the numbers were loud, clear, and anything but bright.
First, some background on the sun. Like all stars, the sun converts its mass into energy via nuclear fusion. In short, the gravity of its outer shells heats the core until it can convert hydrogen into helium, producing enough energy to support itself. This process gives off immense radiation, which we perceive as heat and light. I explained how stars work a few weeks ago—click here to learn more.