MIT Freezes Water At Boiling Point

Forget everything you thought you knew about boiling and freezing, thanks to these MIT scientists.

 


Quick, what temperature does water boil or freeze at? You probably know this like the back of your hand, 100 and 0 degrees Celsius or 212 and 32 Fahrenheit. Well, now we can freeze water above the boiling point. If you feel like your head's about to explode with that image, don’t worry. We’ll explain.

It is known to anybody who is familiar with the laws of pressure, or who has tried to cook in the mountains, that the boiling and freezing points of water change when the water is exposed to differing pressures. Normally this effect is small, and only has causes differences of a few degrees. Researchers at MIT found that if water is placed inside a tiny enough space, a space only slightly larger than the water molecules themselves, then the freezing point can be raised to above its boiling point. This is done by means of carbon nanotubes, small straw-shaped structures that are the workhorse of nanotech.

The team of researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, and include Michael Strano, Kumar Agrawal, Steven Shimizu, Lee Drahushuk, and Daniel Kilcoyne among other partners and assistants. Dr. Strano is especially excited by the results, and remarks on how unexpected they are:

The effect is much greater than anyone had anticipated,” he says. The effects were also in an unexpected direction; the researchers had anticipated that the freezing point would go down.


Image courtesy of MIT.

But, what use could this possibly have, other than just being a curiosity? More than you might suppose. Because of the high freezing point, the technology could be used to make ice wires, taking advantage of the extremely high conductivity of water and the stability of the ice at room temperature. Dr. Strano mentioned that application specifically, “This gives us very stable water wires, at room temperature.”  Nanotechnology is a new field, with many possible applications, ranging from computers, to medicine of all kinds, and even to facial care.

There is still a great deal about this process that remains unknown. Chief among them is how the water even gets into the tubes; the researches set the water in place for this experiment, but carbon nanotubes are considered to be water repellent, and the entry of the water in the tubes is difficult to explain logistically. Dr. Strano also notes that the word “ice” is too precise to use to describe the water in the tubes. While it is solid, it may not have the crystalline structure of ice at the molecular level.

What brave new world do we live in, where water can freeze above 100 degrees? One where nanotech is king? Or is nanotech past its prime already? This discovery is new, and further research is needed, but what is certain is that exciting developments await.


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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.