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It’s been a pretty cool year for science around the globe, and we here at SciShow like to highlight the superlatives: some of the biggest, oldest, fastest, and most amazing discoveries of 2016.

Hosted by: Michael Aranda
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Michael: It’s that time of year again, when everyone looks back at all the good and the bad stuff that happened since the last time Earth was in this spot relative to the Sun. It’s been a pretty cool year for science around the globe, and we here at SciShow like to highlight the superlatives: some of the biggest, oldest, fastest, and most amazing discoveries of 2016.

In early January, the highest prime number ever found was announced. You might remember this from elementary school math, but a prime number is only divisible by itself and 1. I’m not going to say the actual number, because it would take months. It’s more than 22 million digits long. But to keep it brief, it’s equivalent to 2^74,207,281 minus 1.

That specific format -- two to the power of n minus one -- is what’s called a Mersenne prime. The number was found by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, or GIMPS for short, in which a bunch of networked computers try to come up with prime numbers while they’re not being used for something else. It’s a citizen science project like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at home, where you run a program on your personal device as part of a huge computing effort.

GIMPS turned up this new number by testing a bunch of Mersenne numbers for prime-ness, because they’re not all prime. For example, 2^4 - 1 is 15, which is also divisible by 3 and 5.

Why do we care about searching for prime numbers? It’s not just for the joy of math -- they can be super important. We use them to keep our credit cards safe. When you buy something online, your credit card number gets encrypted to protect your information.

Usually, this happens through RSA encryption, which encrypts data using the number you get from multiplying two really big prime numbers. Then, the seller’s computer needs to know those prime numbers to decrypt the data. Because it’s really hard to factor out the two primes by brute force, it’s hard for people to steal your credit card information.

The prime numbers that protect your credit card are typically around 300 digits, so the GIMPS number is actually way too big to be useful for RSA encryption. But it is a neat mathematical achievement, and shows what idle computers can do when you give them some busy work.

Also in January, archaeologists turned up the oldest physical evidence of tea. While the oldest written evidence for tea consumption goes back to the year 59 BCE, we still don’t know where it came from or when people started drinking it. Tea leaves are pretty fragile and usually don’t last well across the centuries, so this surprising discovery pushed back the date for earliest tea-drinkers to about 141 BCE.

In the 1990s, a strange lump of plant matter was discovered in the tomb of the Chinese Emperor Jingdi of the Han Dynasty. Some remains could be identified right away, like rice and millet. Other leaves were shaped like tea buds, but that alone wasn’t enough to be sure. Like many plants, tea leaves contain tiny, hard crystals called phytoliths made of calcium oxalate. These can be seen with a microscope, and used to identify different kinds of leaves.

Using mass spectrometry, the researchers also found other chemicals, like caffeine and theanine. While caffeine is in a variety of plants, you only find theanine in the family that includes tea. And this tea was the good stuff -- the sample from the tomb seems to be high-quality budded leaves from the very tips of branches, which are used in so-called “fine plucked” tea. So now we know that Chinese emperors were enjoying delicious tea even earlier than we thought, more than 2100 years ago.

Finally, move over, birds -- there’s a new fastest horizontal flyer in town, and it’s a mammal: the Brazilian free-tailed bat.

The peregrine falcon is well-known as the world’s fastest animal. It can make gravity-assisted dives topping 300 kilometers per hour. Without the help of gravity, though, the records are a little more modest. The previous champions, a group of birds aptly known as swifts, have been clocked at 110 kilometers per hour.

But the Brazilian free-tailed bat blows that record out of the water, reaching speeds of 160 kilometers per hour in short bursts during their long nighttime hunting expeditions. They might use these speed bursts like a cheetah does: to dash after prey and nab it. Some researchers found this out by sticking tiny radio transmitters to seven bats with a non-permanent glue, and following them in an airplane to collect data.

Birds are really good at flying, obviously, and the have wings that are well-adapted for speed. So it’s a bit surprising that a mammal could wrestle this crown from them. At the very least, the scientists say this gives us a reason to re-evaluate the flight abilities and adaptations of bats in general, to see what else we’re missing.

And that wraps it up for 2016’s science superlatives, but 2017 could still outdo them all. We’ll just have to wait and see!

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