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?