Dorky Poll: Science In Your Lifetime

I’ve got another long lab this afternoon, so I’m stealing an idea for an audience-participation thread from James Nicoll:

Name five things we didn’t know in the year that you were born that make the universe a richer place to think about.

This is actually a really interesting exercise for showing how rapidly the world has changed in the last N years. I’m not all that old– to put it in pop-culture terms, the Beatles broke up before I was born– but when I try to think about the landscape of science since then, it’s astonishing how much the world has changed:

My own field of laser cooling, for example, didn’t exist at all in 1971. The field traces its origin to a couple of papers in the late 1970′s, and only really became practical in the late 1980′s. It completely revolutionized atomic physics in the mid-90′s, leading to BEC and degenerate Fermi systems, and better atomic clocks, and all the rest.

Quantum Optics didn’t really take off until well after I was born. The first conclusive demonstration of single photons came in 1977, and single-photon interference shortly after that. The theoretical apparatus was set up somewhat earlier, but the vast majority of the experiments that show the really weird nature of light were done since the late 1970′s.

Quantum information and quantum computing really only became a viable field in the 1980′s. Shor’s factoring algorithm didn’t come along until 1994, the no-cloning theorem is from 1982, the Cirac-Zoller scheme for a somewhat practical quantum computer is from the 90′s.

The whole dark matter/ dark energy/ accelerating universe paradigm has really only been nailed down in the last ten years or so. The first fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation were observed when I was a junior in college, and the subsequent results have, to steal a joke from Eric Cornell, revolutionized cosmology to the point where we call it physics and not astronomy.

I’m a little hazy on the chronology of particle physics, but I think it’s fair to say that the Standard Model was really only nailed down in the mid-to-late 1970′s. And now it’s the theory that wouldn’t die.

I could go on with a long list of other topics from physics and astronomy– high-Tc superconductors, extrasolar planets…– but that’s five right there, and it’s barely scratched the surface. If for some strange reasong, you still needed convincing that we’re living in the future, well, that ought to do it. We don’t have flying cars yet, but some amazing things have happened just in my lifetime.

So what are your favorite scientific discoveries from your lifetime?


  1. #1 Roy
    April 18, 2007

    I wonder if school books have kept up with any of this. Among the things I was taught were (1) that transmutation of matter was an impossibility (even after Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki?), (2) that the difference between organic and inorganic chemicals (such as urea) was ‘the vital life force’, and (3) that there were exactly three states of matter — solid, liquid, and gas (even though I’d seen the Sun, lightning, and fire?).

    Our civil defense booklets were issued with directions for assisting childbirth, with all of the diagrams razored out and many words blackened over. And this was a public school.

  2. #2 CET
    April 18, 2007

    We don’t have flying cars yet

    Sure we do.

  3. #3 Matt Leifer
    April 18, 2007

    Quantum information and quantum computing really only became a viable field in the 1980′s. Shor’s factoring algorithm didn’t come along until 1994, the no-cloning theorem is from 1982, the Cirac-Zoller scheme for a somewhat practical quantum computer is from the 90′s.

    It’s not just that it only became viable in the 80′s and 90′s – the theory wasn’t even invented until the 80′s. Feynman’s and Benihoff’s papers were early 80′s I think and Deutsch’s was 82. Quantum crypto wasn’t discovered until the Bennett-Brassard paper in 1984. You can argue that Holevo, Helstrom and a few others were working on quantum information theory in the 70′s, but really they only considered how to encode and extract classical information using quantum states and channels, so the insight that you can do “genuinely quantum” information processing didn’t come until later. In this context, the main idea dates from Schumacher’s papers on quantum compression in 94/95.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    April 18, 2007

    It’s not just that it only became viable in the 80′s and 90′s – the theory wasn’t even invented until the 80′s. Feynman’s and Benihoff’s papers were early 80′s I think and Deutsch’s was 82.

    I think I was mixing up the 80′s era Feynman quantum computing suggestion with his 60′s era talk that’s cited as the inspiration for nanotechnology.

    Regardless, quantum information is very recent, and all the important stuff has been done during my lifetime.

  5. #5 Matt Leifer
    April 18, 2007

    I wonder if school books have kept up with any of this.

    The worst field for that is probably Computer Science. In GCSE/A-level Computer Science I was taught about mainframe computers, paper tape, punchcards and batch processing, even although these had become obselete about 5 years ago. Even new textbooks talked about architectures and programming languages that had long been obselete. I think they realized the problem and these days the curriculum contains almost no theory and just teaches how to use Word/Excel and programming techniques. Instead of eliminating theory they would have been better off changing the theory component to cover things that don’t change so fast, e.g. logic, turing machines, computability and complexity rather than architectures, systems analysis and software design, but I guess they’re afraid of scaring students off with too much math. However, I think most people who are geeky enough to take Computer Science in school are not scared of a little math and I must say that I would have enjoyed that course much more.

  6. #6 Harlan
    April 18, 2007

    When I was in high school advanced chemistry class, we learned about orbitals. The teacher said (notoriously) “nobody’s ever seen a p orbital; it’s just a story.” About 10 years later, this came out:

    My mind was fairly-well blown…

  7. #7 sparc
    April 18, 2007

    1960: monoclonal antbodies, PCR, GMOs, IVF, confocal microscopy
    I could add hundred of other things from the field of biology.

  8. #8 adam
    April 18, 2007

    It was, in fact, in 1963, before I was born, but Edmund Gettier driving a coach and horses through the idea that ‘Justified True Belief’ was knowledge (something about which people had been relatively certain for a long time) is pretty cool.

    Since 71, I’d say that the discovery of the irregularities in the CMB is a biggy (although I guess that most people were certain that they’d be there at some level, we now know the level they’re at, which constrains a lot of cosmology).

    I’d certainly include the whole Quantum Information Theory business.

    Identifying prions and the HIV virus as the culprits in BSE/CJD and AIDS, respectively, although in both those cases the disease became big news and the answers followed relatively soon.

    I’d also include accelerated expansion of the universe from Supernova data. If I can have Gettier’s work (although it was done before I was born, so I’m cheating; since shovelling show from the bastard Nor-Easter this last weekend, however, I feel well into my 40s) then I’m done.

    Matt #5: You may overestimate the calibre of the average Computer Science student. Certainly at GCSE, some of the rather less gifted students are steered towards Computer Science and my observations of the A Level students would suggest that they are of widely varying abilities (although not so much as, for example, ‘Classical Civilisation’). The reason for variability at A Level, I think, is that it is one of the subjects that at many schools does not impose a requirement on a particular GCSE grade in the subject (unlike physics, where typically a ‘B’ is demanded and most of the students got an ‘A’ or ‘A*’).

  9. #9 Grant Goodyear
    April 18, 2007

    I’ll add fullerenes (C atoms do what?!) and high-Tc superconductors.

  10. #10 andy.s
    April 18, 2007

    Since 1959

    Sagittarius A* (galaxy’s central black hole).
    Cosmic Microwave Background.

  11. #11 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 18, 2007

    Executive Summary of the Decade 2010-2020

    The decade from 2010 to 2020 is not over yet, as I write this. But we can already see that certain events and science fiction are already important.

    This decade included the dramatic commercialization and penetration of World Wide Web culture; the explosion of genotechnology; the first hundred million entertainment, retail, and household robots; the commercial development (and first market crash) of Nanotechnology.

    Technically, the Voyager 1′s passage beyond the Transition Zone and across the Heliopause marked a start to the First Interstellar Age.

    The last vestiges of the Cold War paradigm faded. The bipolar world (Capitalism versus Communism) was replaced by a multipolar world, with the economic balance between the North and South American Free Trade Zone, Greater Common Europe, and the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

    Still unsettled was the question of whether there was still an underlying Clash of Civilizations (Judeo-Christian, Islam, Hindu, Shinto-Confucian, Animist), a have-versus-have-not division between Northern and Southern Hemispheres, or whether the realignment along Pre-Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern pseudonations was crucial.

    World War III had long past (Korea, Vietnam, and various proxy wars) and World War IV (Bush I’s Iraq War, Bush II’s Afghan-Iraq-Chad-Somalia War) merged with the so-called War Against Terrorism as part of the transitional chaos before the New World Paradigm stabilized.

    Among Christians, the Easter of 24 April 2010 was the latest in the season since 1943.

    The Ancient Mayan Long Count Calendar ended on 21 December 2012, causing messianic unrest in parts of South America. The world did not come to an end. That year, 2012, included the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. She pointedly did NOT step down to allow Charles to become king, even though tabloids hinted that she would on the condition that he almost immediately step down and allow the coronation of Henry IX.

    There were the amusingly symmetrical dates abbreviated as:
    * 10/10/10
    * 11/11/11 [with its later, tragic resonance]
    * 12/12/12

    The impact of Technology was perhaps the dominant theme of the decade.

    First, there were the 25 major technologies not quite commercially effective, but clearly on the verge of market success…

    For more details in depth, see:

  12. #12 ColoRambler
    April 18, 2007

    1970 here.

    I did my thesis work on NMR characterization of proteins at high pressure/low temperature, so there are some easy pickings there and in related disciplines:

    1) 2D NMR spectra. This, along with X-ray crystal diffraction, is how we know what proteins look like. COSY, one of the simplest forms, was invented in 1976, and the elaborate heteronuclear methods, which earned one of their developers a Nobel Prize, in the 80s.

    2) Recombinant DNA technology: if you want to study a particular protein, and you need to modify it (often the case for NMR methods), you often need to have a bacterium grow it for you. It had better know how to make it.

    3) Magnetic resonance imaging: another important non-invasive way to look inside things.

    4) Polymerase chain reaction (PCR): if you want to look at lots of DNA or RNA instead of proteins, you can get there from just a little bit of DNA.

    5) Complete genome sequences.

  13. #13 milkshake
    April 18, 2007

    There are so many wonderful things that I didn’t know in the year that I was born and which I do know now. What I do not know is where to start.

  14. #14 Mike Molloy
    April 18, 2007

    Since 1966.

    o inheritence of epigenetic information
    o black hole at the center of the galaxy (repeat, but a goodie)
    o segmentation of orgnaisms by HOX genes
    o cosmic inflation
    o oceans on europa (still hypothetical, i guess)

    Good question!

  15. #15 CCPhysicist
    April 18, 2007

    I’m astounded they even let us old folks anywhere near computers. The favorite discovery from my lifetime is one that I witnessed in real time: quarks. I saw a colloquium during my first year of grad school by a guy from SLAC reporting on the “psi” data while they were still damp. The PRL was in press, and the psi’ had not (IIRC) been seen yet. The fact that his list of “what it might be” included charm, the Z, and even the higgs !! still sticks with me. The theorists, who had already bought into the reality of quarks (weak mixing, parton data), argued for charm but the experimentalists remained neutral until the excited states were seen. The whole story recorded in the book Second Creation is in my notes from that talk.

    That is followed closely by the width of the Z (colleague: “Life is going to be very boring”), the week of insane experimentation as local experimentalists reproduced high-Tc superconductors based on the NYT story, and the observation of neutrinos from a supernova.

    Incredulous side comment: an A-level CS class teaches Word rather than emacs? What has the world come to….

  16. #16 octopod
    April 19, 2007

    The expansion of the phylogeny of life from the five kingdoms to the three domains. I didn’t learn that when I first started reading science books, and I’m only 21.

  17. #17 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 19, 2007

    I was born in 1951. Here are 5 from my year. “favorite scientific discoveries from your lifetime” by a stretch or two.

    1951: Nobel Prize for Chemistry won by Edwin M. McMillan (USA) and Glenn Seaborg for discovering Plutonium.

    Plutonium “make[s] the universe a richer place to think about.”

    1951: Mohammed Mossadegh, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year

    Iran “make[s] the universe a richer place to think about.”

    1951: Color Television introduced to the USA

    “make[s] the universe a richer place to think about” and to watch.

    1951: DNA Structure, discovered by Crick & Wilkins (England) & Watson (USA)

    HUGE implications.

    1951: Field Ion Microscope, invented by Mueller (Germany)

    In retrospect, Mueller was one of the grandfathers of Nanotechnology, Feynman being the great-grandfather.

  18. #18 Bob Hawkins
    April 19, 2007

    I was born in 1953. My whole career is based on the FFT (1965); nonlinear least-squares fitting algorithms from the 1970s; and linear least-squares algorithms, for large numbers of parameters and observations, from the 1950s and later. And the availability of computers to run them on, of course.

    (The FFT apparently was invented by one Carl Friedrich Gauss in the 1800s. But he was like the Viking who discovered America on this one. Cooley and Tukey were the Columbus.)

    I remember when people argued whether lunar craters were caused by meteors or volcanoes. Continuous Creation vs. the Big Bang. When “African Genesis” was a new idea. When the idea that mitochondria were originally separate cells living symbiotically in other cells was radical.