I recently read a book called The Science Class You Wish You Had to get motivated and inspired for the new school semester. It is authored by two brothers, David and Arnold Brody; the former is a science historian, and the latter a professor of pathology. The book, written in 1997, describes the seven most important scientific discoveries of all time, and gives insights into the lives of the scientists who made them.
According to the authors, the top seven scientific discoveries in history are:
- Gravity and the basic laws of physics (Newton)
- The principle of relativity (Einstein)
- The big bang and the formation of the universe (Hubble)
- The structure of the atom (Rutherford and Bohr)
- Evolution and the principle of natural selection (Darwin)
- The cell and genetics (Flemming and Mendel)
- The structure of the DNA molecule (Watson and Crick)
In the list above, we have one discovery in chemistry sandwiched between three in physics and three in biology. In each case, the story behind how the discovery was made is as interesting as the discovery itself. Noticeably absent from the list is quantum physics, but it would be hard to knock anything off this list. The importance of quantum physics has become more apparent over the past fifteen years (when the book was published) – today’s list of top discoveries should perhaps be extended to eight.
The vast majority of man’s science discoveries have taken place in the twentieth century. With the exception of Newtonian physics, all six of the others listed came to fruition in the 1900s. It appears that the most exciting period of time to be a scientist was between 1850 and 1950. The explosion of scientific knowledge that occurred during that period will probably never be matched. Although our current tools and sheer numbers allow us to drive science forward at a greater pace than ever before, today’s science attempts to push boundaries, whereas yesterday’s science discovered what those boundaries were.