Mothers Of Invention: 6 Best Scientific Developments In History

The moment a scientific theory is published there are already a dozen others lining up to contradict it, or a newer discovery ready to usurp its mantle.  Science is, of course, a field of inquiry into the workings of the world, devoted to the acquisition of knowledge and understanding about how stuff works.  With this knowledge and understanding reshaping with every newly-proposed hypothesis, it’s difficult to narrow down the history of scientific achievement to a few choice selections.  However, as always, we can try.

Penicillin

Have you noticed how nobody dies from strep throat anymore? Or bladder infections? Or food poisoning? Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin remains one of the most significant scientific advances in human history, as a whole host of previously serious, and even deadly, diseases were effectively wiped off people’s lists of things to worry about.  Derived from the Penicillium fungi, this group of antibiotics was discovered quite by accident – Fleming accidentally left a petri dish of Staphylococcus plate culture open in his lab, and upon returning to work observed a ring of fungus had formed around it, inhibiting the culture’s growth.  Further experiments revealed the mould’s nature, and its effectiveness against a wide range of bacteria.  85 years on, and penicillin continues its widespread use, protecting us from the deadly clutch of the common cold.

Prosthesis

Prosthetic attachments have a long history behind them.  The Ancient Egyptians were early pioneers of the concept, using wooden prostheses, while renowned writers and thinkers Herodotus and Pliny the Elder also mention their use.  While not an entirely new invention, the rapid advancement of prosthetic technologies during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has seen them become an invaluable resource for amputees and those suffering from related disabilities.  The development of myoelectric limbs now enables prosthetic limbs to be controlled based on electric impulses triggered by muscle movement, bringing its users closer to a full capacity for movement and experience than ever before.  While the Million Dollar Man and Robocop were fun fantasies, the reality of prostheses continues to open more and more doors for the future.

DNA

1953. James Watson of the USA and Francis Crick of England discover the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. Instantly, the face of science and medicine changes forever. It cannot be overstated how significant this discovery was – while DNA and its centrality to genetics had already been under investigation for some time, yet their more concrete and complex inquiry into its nature provided the launchpad for all subsequent developments in molecular biology. An understanding of DNA also allows for an understanding of disease and genetic mutation: potentially, Watson and Crick’s work holds the key to the future cures for cancer and heart disease. Significant indeed.

The wheel

Before you get up in arms about the sheer corniness of this addition, you’re going to have to explain why the wheel doesn’t belong on a list of the greatest scientific developments in history.  Archaeologists have found that this device appeared almost simultaneously in several different cultures worldwide, in the 4th millennia BC.  We’re willing to give everyone involved a bit of credit for this one. Without the wheel, I wouldn’t be able to ride my bicycle to pottery class, nor use a pottery wheel to make my vases. I’m sure it’s helped the world in other ways, too.

The atomic bomb

Another slightly controversial entry, yet entirely justified. Since its invention, it is arguable that atomic weaponry has shaped global human relations more than any other factor.  The success of the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s saw the refinement of uranium and the development of the bomb, which was subsequently deployed by the United States against Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945, obliterating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These attacks ended World War Two for all intents and purposes, yet triggered the arms race which came to define a generation through the Cold War.  From the Cuban Missile Crisis to the current standoff with North Korea, nuclear arms continue to loom large on the international political spectrum.  Of course, their existence is generally accepted as a guarantee that they won’t be used – mutually assured destruction is something not many world leaders are interested in.  Conversely, atomic power itself is one of the leading lights in alternative energy sources for the world.  However it does not come without its own sordid past: the names Chernobyl and Fukushima need no further introduction.

The electric motor

An English scientist with very little formal training lays the foundations for the concept of electromagnetic fields in physics, establishes the laws of electrolysis, and invents electric motor technology. Well, may we say hats off to you, Michael Faraday.  The electric motor, from its earliest days in the 1820s, has revolutionised the way in which the world operates, giving momentum to the industrial and technological booms which have defined humanity since that time.  Want to live in a world with no cars, planes or large hadron colliders? Didn’t think so.

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