A history of science in 20 objects
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For as long as humans have walked the Earth, we have been exploring, experimenting and seeking out knowledge. That long chronicle of scientific endeavour is written in objects, from ancient tools to the revolutionary inventions of recent times. A new book selects twenty that help tell that story.
Sumerian sickle: 3000 BC
Beginning in Mesopotamia around 10,000 BC, previously nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers began to settle and form agricultural communities. The age of agriculture spurred the development of new and increasingly specialised tools, like this Sumerian sickle, which dates back to 3,000 BC. One of many such tools recovered from the region, this instrument was probably used for agricultural and manufacturing tasks, such as gathering resources for food and construction.
Agricultural inventions such as the sickle transformed the nature of early societies. Without the constant pressure of having to hunt for food, humankind found themselves with more time to think and explore.
Edwin Smith papyrus: 1600 BC
Dating back to 1,600 BC Egypt, the Edwin Smith papyrus is a medical textbook focused on diagnosis and surgery. Believed to be a copy of a document made in c. 3,000 BC, the papyrus reveals the extraordinary extent of Ancient Egyptian medical knowledge.
The document contains descriptions of 48 different types of trauma, including dislocations, fractures and wounds, as well as analysis of various physical functions, including those of the bowels and blood vessels.
But perhaps the most notable aspect of the Edwin Smith papyrus is what it is not. In contrast to the majority of medical scholarship in this era, the papyrus does not look to superstition and magic as primary causes of and cures for disease. Instead, it constitutes an early example of an evidence-based, scientific approach to medicine.
EucLid’s ‘Elements’: 300 BC
Ancient Greece was home to a great many advances in thought and knowledge, not least in the field of mathematics. Compiled by the great scholar Euclid, the ‘Elements’ consists of 13 books exploring the intricacies of geometry and various mathematical theories.
The text’s scale and depth has earned Elements the accolade of being the most influential textbook ever written, and until recently, Euclid’s seminal work was considered required reading for any educated person.
More than anything, Elements demonstrates the Ancient Greek commitment to logic and rational thinking – an approach that helped to lay the foundations for both mathematics and the sciences more broadly.
Gutenberg’s printing press: 1439
Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press is considered amongst the most significant inventions in all of human history. Developed in 1439, at the height of the Renaissance, Gutenberg’s press helped to transform the science community in Europe.
Gutenberg was neither the first to create a printing press nor to use moveable type; the technique had been in use in East Asia for many years beforehand. However, Gutenberg refined the movable type method and introduced the technology to Europe, where it rapidly spread. By the turn of the 16th century, millions of texts were being printed and shared all over the continent.
This effect was transformative for science. Scholars could easily distribute their findings and access the work of their peers. The notion of an international science community began to take shape, and the seeds of a scientific revolution were sown.
Medieval Islamic astrolabe: 1480
By the medieval period, the Islamic world had become a centre for science and discovery. Between the 7th and 10th centuries, scholars made great advances in astronomy, mathematics and medicine.
It was during this historical moment that the spherical astrolabe was invented somewhere in the Middle East – most likely Syria or Egypt. Sometimes referred to as an ‘astronomical computer’, astrolabes are a type of inclinometer, used to measure the altitude of objects. This makes them powerful tools for surveyors, geographers and astronomers alike. The spherical astrolabe demonstrates the skill of medieval Middle Eastern scholars and remains symbolic of the enduring scientific legacy left by a period dubbed the Islamic Golden Age.
Galileo’s telescope: 1610
The polymath Galileo Galilei has been dubbed the father of astronomy, physics and even modern science itself. He discovered the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, and popularised the Copernican theory that Earth and other planets revolve around the sun.
None of this would have been possible were it not for Galileo’s superior telescope, which he designed himself by refining existing models to dramatically improve magnification. Eventually, Galileo’s telescope was able to achieve 30x magnification, compared to the original telescope’s 3x magnification.
This allowed the scholar to observe the night sky in unprecedented detail, uncovering a level of complexity invisible to the naked eye. Galileo’s telescope is emblematic of the ways in which technology has shaped the course of scientific history and advanced our collective knowledge.
Hooke’s microscope: c.1665
From the very big to the very small, English polymath Robert Hooke used microscopy to reveal a world hiding right before our eyes.
In the early 17th century a new invention began to spread across Europe: the compound microscope. By the end of the century, scholars had discovered blood cells, microorganisms, bacteria and much more, uncovering an entirely new realm of biological life.
Many of the most iconic images from this period originate in Hooke’s seminal 1665 text ‘Micrographia’. The intricate engravings in ‘Micrographia’ revealed microscopic marvels, like the delicate structure of a fly’s wings, the cell walls in cork, and the minute hairs on the body of an ant.
Perhaps the most recognisable image of all is that of the flea. Crafted by Hooke in painstaking detail, the engraving unravels the intricate anatomy of the humble insect. Even now, the image can’t help but conjure up a sense of wonder at the complexity of the natural world.
Watt’s steam engine: 1781
There are many objects that emblematise the ingenuity and optimism of the Industrial Revolution, but perhaps none more so than James Watt’s steam engine.
Patented in 1769, Watt’s engine was a dramatic improvement on the previous model popularised by Thomas Newcomen around 50 years prior. The efficiency of this new and improved engine meant that it could be used in a greater variety of locations and geographies, allowing factories to be built all over Britain. Sectors like mining, cotton and brewing expanded rapidly, creating booming centres of industry and transforming the cultural and physical landscape.
Of course, this progress did not come without a cost; today scientists are working to tackle another legacy of industrialisation: climate change and environmental degradation.
Edward Jenner’s lancet: c.1796
In 18th-century Europe, around 400,000 people died every year from smallpox. The virus devastated victims, causing painful pustules, fever and vomiting. Survivors were left heavily scarred and often blind.
However, there was one particular group who seemed never to contract smallpox: milkmaids. A physician named Edward Jenner deduced that milkmaids’ exposure to cowpox, via their cattle, had somehow conferred them with immunity to smallpox. To test his theory, Jenner used his lancet to transfer a small amount of liquid from cowpox pustules to a healthy eight-year-old boy. The child was then exposed to smallpox, but he remained unaffected – Jenner had developed the first scientific approach to vaccination.
Darwin’s finches: 1831
The story behind the discovery of evolution is among the best-known tales in the history of science. In 1831, Charles Darwin set off for South America on a five-year voyage.
During a stopover in the Galapagos Islands – an isolated cluster of islands off the coast of Ecuador – he observed that the size and shape of finches’ bills varied from island to island. Darwin concluded that all of the finches had originated from the same ancestor, and had then gone on to adapt new characteristics to suit their different environments.
In 1859, Darwin published his book ‘On The Origin of Species’ and the theory of evolution was born.
Faraday’s disc generator: 1831
In 1831, physicist Michael Faraday constructed the world’s first electric generator, with which he was able to prove the principle of electromagnet induction. Although Faraday’s disk was too inefficient to be of practical use, it allowed future researchers – from James Clerk Maxwell to Nikola Tesla – to produce, control and study electricity. Indeed, Faraday’s device set the stage for the great war of the currents – pitting Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse against one another.
Faraday’s principles have gone on to form the basis of modern electric power, making his disk generator one of the most transformative inventions ever created.
John Tyndall’s radiant heat apparatus: 1859
Scientific proof of the greenhouse effect dates farther back than you might think. In 1859, physicist John Tyndall demonstrated the ways in which different gases vary in their ability to absorb radiant heat.
Tyndall constructed an apparatus consisting of an infrared source, a tube of gas and an absorption detector. He filtered infrared heat through a series of different gases and discovered stark differences in heat absorption. Ozone and ethene, he found, absorbed much more radiant heat than water vapour, meaning that even small atmospheric traces of these gases could cause excess heat to be retained. We now know that greenhouse gases emitted by humans are a key cause of catastrophic global warming.
William Röntgen’s X-ray: 1895
The discovery of X-rays highlights how fundamental physics can be a gateway for practical developments in engineering and technology.
In 1895, the physicist William Röntgen was experimenting with passing electrical rays through an induction coil inside a glass tube. During the research, Röntgen noticed that photographic plates near his equipment were glowing. He deduced that a physical reaction taking place inside the glass was emitting some sort of ray.
Röntgen set about studying these ‘X-rays’, and discovered that they could be used to generate images on photographic plates that captured the density of the objects exposed. To demonstrate this, he made an X-ray of his wife’s hand – to which she famously responded: “I have seen my death”! Despite their disquieting appearance, X-rays are now used for medical diagnosis and treatment.
Marconi’s wireless: 1896
Many great minds of science and technology were ahead of their time, and Guglielmo Marconi was no different. In the 1890s, he developed a communication system capable of transmitting messages over great distances. Using radio waves, in 1897 Marconi successfully transmitted a radio signal across open sea. Eventually, the first message reached its target location in Morse code: “Can you hear me?”; the response: “Yes, loud and clear.”
By the dawn of the 20th century, radio communications systems could send messages across the Atlantic and beyond. Soon, Marconi’s technology was being used in everything from naval communications to entertainment broadcasting.
This marked one of the early steps towards a fundamental revolution in how we communicate. Everything that followed, from Skype to social media, can be traced back to Marconi’s vision of a more connected world.
Alexander Fleming’s penicillin mould: 1935
The history of science is filled with any number of serendipitous discoveries, but few so impactful as the discovery of penicillin.
In 1928, Scottish bacteriology professor Alexander Fleming returned to his lab after several weeks away, only to discover that his petri dishes had become contaminated. Entire colonies of bacteria had been eaten away by a mould: penicillin.
Recognising the potential for the mould as an antibacterial agent, Fleming attempted to purify the substance. However, it was not until 1940 that scientists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain successfully refined penicillin into drug form. Their antibiotic became the first in a class of drugs that has since saved an estimated 200 million lives.
Hedy Lamarr’s torpedo system: 1942
Hedy Lamarr – the iconic Hollywood starlet of the 1940s – was also an inventor, responsible for developing pioneering military technology.
In the midst of the Second World War, Lamarr teamed up with composer George Antheil to develop an ingenious system that would prevent German forces from jamming torpedo signals and sending weapons off-course. Their frequency- hopping technique allowed missiles to switch between different radio frequencies, and so avoid detection.
While not initially accepted, the invention was exploited during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and later informed the development of GPS.
Photo 51: 1952
Perhaps the most important photo ever taken, Photo 51 was the missing link that allowed scientists to unpick the structure of DNA.
Created in 1952 under the supervision of British crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, Photo 51 is a diffraction image, made by firing X-rays at a sample. The resulting pattern can be used to work out the atomic structure of the sample.
In 1953, researchers James Watson and Francis Crick solved the structure of DNA, in part thanks to Franklin’s ground-breaking image. However, her contributions were downplayed by the pair, and she died before the Nobel prize was awarded.
Franklin’s work on DNA is now recognised as a vital contribution to this historical achievement.
Saturn V rocket: 1964
A staple of the US space programme in the 1960s and 70s, the Saturn V successfully launched 13 separate missions, carrying hardware, crew and even Nasa’s first space station into the cosmos.
The Saturn V rocket was a feat of engineering. Design began in 1961, and six years later the first launch took place, just 64 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight.
On 16 July 1969, Saturn V launched the Apollo 11 mission; four days later, human beings took their first steps on the Moon.
The Saturn V remains one of the most powerful machines ever built.
Intel 4004 processor: 1971
The story of the 4004 begins with a Japanese company looking to create a more powerful calculator. Intel’s engineers were commissioned to simplify the existing technology, but the project was low priority for the company; a distraction from their main area of focus, which was memory chips.
However, the engineers devised a revolutionary solution: four chips, including a central processing unit, which could be programmed to perform different functions. This was the world’s first commercially available microprocessor: a general-purpose computer chip that comprises multiple functions in a single, tiny unit. The device was rudimentary by today’s standards. It contained 2,300 transistors and a 10,000 nm-wide circuit line; modern microprocessors contain hundreds of millions of transistors, and circuit lines just a few dozen nm wide. The 4004 was a key milestone of the digital age.
Large Hadron Collider (LHC): 2010
Many of the most perplexing mysteries awaiting scientific explanation sit within the realm of fundamental physics.
A collaborative project involving 20 countries, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. The machine collides proton beams, causing the particles to smash into smaller atomic particles that scientists can study, revealing the workings of nature at its most basic level.
In 2010, the facility famously discovered the Higgs boson: an elusive particle that gives matter its mass; but the LHC’s work is far from done. Its researchers continue to investigate fundamental phenomena like anti-matter, gravity and dark matter.
Like all objects on this list, the LHC demonstrates humanity’s innate curiosity. From star-gazing to particle collisions, the motivation is still to seek, to discover, to know.
Mary Cruse’s book ‘An Illustrated History of Science: From Agriculture to Artificial Intelligence’ is published this month by Arcturus
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