Win a SCIENCE mega-book, part 3

Another chance to win a gorgeous illustrated encyclopaedia of science!

Thank you everyone who donated their thoughts to yesterday's provoking question, the consensus seems to be that we are, right now, living in a bloody great time for science. The winner was Dave Ferret, who gets a copy of the massive, beautiful, 512 page SCIENCE: THE DEFINITIVE ILLUSTRATED GUIDE edited by Adam Hart-Davis. Today another copy must be won!

So I was leafing through this book (with the help of a JCB, because that's how big this book is), and I chanced upon this marvellous entry:


Even though Charles Babbage had trouble seeing the full potential of his marvellous counting machine (that honour fell to the first programmer, Ada Lovelace), computers are now everywhere. And I mean everywhere. We can't seem to live without them, and they've only been able to fit in our pockets for the last 50 odd years.

Anyway, to win a copy of the book, answer the following question:

What do you think has been the most influential scientific invention, ever?

Stonehenge? The caged ball bearing? Lasers? The choice is yours!

EDIT: Competition is now closed! But you can try, try again!

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I think for sheer cultural influence, the telescope wins. Galileo made good use of the telescope to provide evidence that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. Thus the telescope was the main tool by which science began to stake its claim as the ultimate arbiter of truth, and erode religion's dogma. The telescope has since shown us that we are far from the only planet around, that our sun is but one of billions of stars in our galaxy, amidst billions of galaxies, in an expanding universe, which originated in a big bang 13.7 billion years ago, and will, at some point, end. This collection of results has virtually inverted our perspective from being the single planetary show in town, to being merely a speck of dust on the back of a hasbeen sideshow performer.

From a scientific point of view, though - as your post implies - I would vote for the computer as the most influential invention around. Science is making progress at an exponential rate not so much because there are many more scientists than there used to be, but because we have computers to do so much for us. Aside from the stupendous improvement in the lubrication of scientific communication that computers and the internet allow, computers have directly made experiments possible that decades back scientists could only have dreamed about. To take the example of my own field of brain-scanning, a typical 16 subject fMRI analysis requires a few days computer power with modern computers - around 100 trillion calculations. Far too many calculations for one person to perform in a lifetime. Without computers, there'd be no brain-scanning, and therefore most of cognitive neuroscience would not exist. The same goes for large swathes of physics and molecular biology. For instance, the recent Nobel chemistry winners, who found the structure of the ribosome, were entirely dependent on computers for their influential results.

By Daniel Bor (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

I'm going to plunk right down on the side of the wheel. Or the lever. All of our other inventions require those two things, one way or another; if not actually part of the product, those two things are required in the *making* of the product.

I'm gonna go with microscope. Visualizing microorganisms led to an entirely new understanding of disease. It also led to an understanding that the world was made up of much more than we can see.

I spent a while chasing ideas around as to what scientific invention has had the most influence. Since one of the properties of science is that everything in its purview can be traced back to something earlier, typically collections of somethings earlier, one could say fire, farming, or the wheel, or Roman Road building, or Galieo pointing his telescope to the skies, or the observation of semiconductor amplification (as it happens, coincident with my date of birth, 17 November 1947). I felt trapped in an infinite regression.

My trick for escaping this is to retreat to first principles, to seek a meta-level of the problem. And so it hit me - the most influential Scientific Invention has to be - the Scientific Method itself. And for me the turning point on that is probably Karl Popper's work on elevating the status of Falsifiability: Popper asserted that a hypothesis, proposition, or theory is scientific only if it is falsifiable. This proposition established rigorous criteria for designing and evaluating scientific experiments and their results and assertions.

Earlier manifestations of Scientific Method were quite a bit fuzzier. I have not quite yet identified any particular manifesto which talks about Scientific Method as an entity in its own right. Mostly I found many examples of circling the question by enumerating variations on the theme of observation - hypothesis - experiment - refine, going back to at least 600 B.C., but none really giving the emerging recipes for performing Science a name or a reason for being. So I stick to the point at which Scientific Method became self-aware, as it were; became a self-consistent and applicable Theory in its own right, and became the yardstick by which the rigor of any actual Science is measured, and also when it became applied to the performance of Scientific enterprise.

Your mileage might vary.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

It has to be the transistor. Not specifically the computer, because we could make them before the transistor, BUT with the advent of the transistor it made it possible to make computers small, and then very very powerful. Computers are in everything now and none of that would be possible without the invention of the transistor, so I would say it has to be the transistor.

By Steven Olson (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

#4 stole my answer! And elaborated much more beautifully than I ever could. I just think that the idea that you have to TEST something and PROVE it instead of just declaring it to be so is the key component in scientific progress that lead to everything else we have today. Now, if only I could convince my students of this...(no matter how hard I try, they still think "because everybody says so" means it's true. *sigh*)

By Lorien Stone (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

It's the computer.
WW2 was won by the computers at Bletchley Park. (Let's not mention what IBM's computers were being used for at that time...).
Since the 1950s, our society has been revolutionised by computers, even more so since the 1970s.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

The most influential scientific invention has the be the Printing Press.

I know some may disagree with the definition of a printing press as scientific, perhaps it's more engineering - then engineering is just applied science.

What did it achieve: the widespread dissemination of ideas - both good and bad, the preservation of ideas and observations well beyond the lifetimes of their originators. No longer could new ideas be crushed by the simple expedient of killing their originator and persecuting their followers.

It truly enabled the centuries of scientific advance that followed its creation.

The pencil. Followed by paper.

I am torn between picking telescope and microscope, so can I just say optical enhancement devices???

If not, I pick microscope because in my mind, it is more important to understand what is going on right under, in, and around our noses.

After much thought I'm going to go with the internal combustion engine. It was a tough call, with computers in the running, but I think the internal combustion engine plays a large part in freeing up the kind of time and man power it has taken to advance to the point we are at. People have been able to dedicate their lives to math and engineering eventually creating computers for the same reason I am able to read journal articles and books, we aren't trying to grow and gather food. Tractors allow a small proportion of the population to produce enough food for everyone. Trucks carry the food to towns and cities. And we are able to spend our time on such non life essential pursuits as smashing atoms into each other.


By Michael Kingsf… (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

I think that Science (not the book, the scientific method) itself is the most influential scientific invention. I hope it counts. It has informed all subsequent developments.

By Alex walsh (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

It's gotta be automated computing, for removing tons of drudgery from both data collection and data analysis, providing results in minutes or hours where earlier methods took days or years.

Artificial light.

Due to artificial light, we have changed our working hours, changed our way of life, From gas lighting, candles to oil lamps, they began and have gone onto neon and LED - and beyond. Even the most 'primitive' light sources like candles are still used - especially when there's blackouts or in less developed countries! Lighthouses have saved many in nautical explorations and continue to function in many newer forms today.

Artificial light is integral to many components, from microscopes to televisions, computers and cars, phones and more. Even the very manufacturing in warehouses of technology has been possible due to artificial light sources. We changed the way we lived our lives and it has contributed to safer streets, hygiene, entertainment, photography from spectrometry to sculpture - let us not forget the contribution it makes to art overall.

From exploration underground to exploration in space, sources other than the sun is vital, and yet we've even harnessed solar power using cells... to give us more light in storage.

Let's not forget that even in the use of artificial light, we've considered the environmental and social effect in recent times too - changed the way we view time to incorporate opportunities to extend with 'daylight saving' and the saving of electricity in conjunction. Truly, without it - we'd be in the dark ages again. ;)

I would say birth pill...

The various scientific methods. That's the invention that makes the use of all the above-mentioned inventions reliable.

Sticks to pick bugs from logs, leaves to apply medicines, axes to cut trees, spears to fish with, hammers to hit and chisels to cut the stones of buildings, pencils to write our languages and arts, carts to carry our goods, cars to get us from here to there, computers to calculate our lives. No other invention could have been possible without one of the first inventions. Tools. General? Sure... but true.

I had to contemplate regression, as others have, but I think the invention I would choose for most influential is insulated wiring. Electricity is certainly one of the most influential forces of nature that we use, but inventions are often the most influential when they make something safe enough, easy enough and cheap enough to use routinely.

By ABradford (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

Wow! Thanks for all the great and thoughtful answers. Insulated wiring, the scientific method, and tool are all great suggestions, eloquently put forward, that I wouldn't have considered.

And so to spin the atmospheric noise-generated bottle that is and choose a winner...

It's #15 Podblack for the divine answer "LIGHT"
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