I was asked to write a piece for the Times to promote the Cheltenham Science Festival. It was a simple task, just pick the top six innovations in science. Easy huh? They have previously done top 6 nudes in art and top 6 spy thrillers, so all of science must also be easily summarised in 6 innovations. I knew the task was absurd, so threw together the six below, plainly aware that almost every reader would say “but what about…” and get all cross over their ploughman’s lunch. So here it is, paywall demolished. Please feel free to comment on what you think is a must, then fight amongst yourselves, it will be fun.
The Top 6 Innovations in Science
It is preposterous to narrow breakthroughs in science down to a mere six, I find it hard enough to decide on my favourite six David Bowie cover versions, so dealing with the accrued scientific knowledge since civilisation began has made my brain itch and wobble.
I have had many specifics thrown at me while talking to people about this list; the computer, the contraceptive pill, transistors and public key cryptography. I wondered about making it personality based. Marie Curie destroying the notion of science as a man’s world by winning Nobel prizes in two different scientific fields or Richard Feynman’s combination of scientific genius and Caitskills comic making the world of quantum physics so alluring to the average Joe like me. Undoubtedly I have chosen things that some readers will complain would not be possible without those discoveries that came before, so you can presume that giant’s shoulders may be unmentioned but not unthought of.
I look forward to being confronted by people waving umbrellas and saying, “but how could you miss out calculus/the concept of zero/gravity/Dalton’s atomic hypothesis/Galileo…” and so it goes on.
The astronomer Carl Sagan was said to want people to see that they were not “the failed clay of a disappointed creator, but atoms forged in stellar nurseries”, and it is one of the great achievements of human imagination that we are beginning to get an inkling of our place in this universe, even if it is discombobulating to now find out it might be one of many.
and if it is any comfort, I already disagree with my chosen six, and I haven’t even decided on them yet. At the time of writing I have narrowed it down to 30 and now I am drawing six out of a hat.
1. a little bit of narcissism seems unavoidable in a self-conscious species, so we like being the centre of our world. Copernicus taking the earth from the centre of our universe to being a planet circling the sun is part of the journey to look at ourselves more humbly and see ourselves as part of this universe.
2.Smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s, thanks to the pioneering work of Edward Jenner. Vaccination is one of the great medical achievements, though there is no room for complacency as evolution means disease battles to survive.
3. The Haber Bosch process that synthesised ammonia has fed the world. Whenever I hear people dismiss scientific ideas as “not natural” I think we as a species have not been “natural” for some time.
4. The tree of life is something to behold. The journey from biochemicals coming from an ocean vent billions of years ago to the variety of life on earth we see now is quite an accomplishment for a planet. The natural selection of Darwin and Wallace is a beautiful theory
5. The cynic likes to accuse people of “not living in the real world” and quantum physics suggests they might be right, though not in the way they thought. Vital to so much modern technology and intensely counter instinctual, living in a probabilistic universe makes existence even more intriguing.
6. Thomas Huxley wrote that “known is finite, the unknown is infinite”. It is unlikely we will ever hear the words “hey everyone, great news, we’ve finished science”. It seems to me to be a great breakthrough that we know we may be unable to ever be 100% right, but that through experiment and imagination we can continue the journey to become less and less wrong.
new app – Incomplete map of Cosmic Genome – complete with Stewart Lee, Brian Cox, Helen Czerski, Lucie Green, Lawrence Krauss and much more is available here – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/incomplete-map-cosmic-genome/id644882342?mt=8