09 December 2005

The Top 10 Science Discoveries . . . Ever!

Great Science Breakthroughs Which Shape Our Modern World

(If you have others you would include, or would drop any of these, use the Comments feature below.)

Invention of Modern Numeration, Arithmetic and Algebra

The Brahmasphutasiddhanta (Brahmagupta, 628) is the earliest known text to treat zero as a number in its own right. It also gives modern rules for the arithmetic of negative numbers and zero.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi, through his book On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals written about 825, was principally responsible for the diffusion of the Indian system of numeration in the Islamic world and then Northern Europe. al-Khwarizmi also provided a systematic method for solving linear and quadratic equations, establishing the mathematical field of algebra, a word that is derived from the name of his 830 book on the subject, al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa'l-muqabala ("The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing").

Ghiyaseddin Jamsheed Kashani (Al-Kashi) published The Key to Arithmetic in 1427, which gives a description of decimal fractions and their use, including today's place-value system using a decimal point, popularizing these methods. (See Wikipedia article on Hindu-Arabic numeral system.)

Copernican Revolution

Nicholas Copernicus presented the heliocentric theory in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium published in 1543. (It had been anticipated in the work of Indian astronomers.) Additional support came from Johannes Kepler's Astronomia nova in 1609, and the foundations of modern dynamics was set out in Galileo's book Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo of 1632. The new theory was not officially accepted by the Roman Catholic Church until two and a half centuries later. The realization that the Earth is not the center of the universe had profound impacts on philosophy.


First developed by Indian astronomers and mathematicians, especially those of the Kerala school, between the 13th and 16th centuries, it was re-discovered and elaborated by European mathematicians and unified by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz in the latter half of the 1600s. It provides the mathematical foundations for all modern mechanics, dynamics, and most other science and technology. The technologies and research that support modern life would not be possible without calculus.

Classical Mechanics

Building on the work of Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo on planetary motion, and Galileo on dynamics, Isaac Newton described the laws that govern the motions of objects, including his universal law of gravitation, in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. "Newton's laws" are still used to describe the motions and interactions of macroscopic bodies from projectiles to planets.

Probability and Statistics

Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat developed the modern concept of probability in 1654, and in 1657 Christiaan Huygens gave the earliest known scientific treatment of the subject. Jakob Bernoulli (1713) and Abraham de Moivre (1718) further developed the mathematics. Pierre-Simon Laplace (1774) made the first attempt to deduce a rule for the combination of observations from the principles of the theory of probabilities. Based on these foundations the methods of statistical sampling, statistical inference, and other tools were developed. These tools are essential to all modern science and industry.

Geological Uniformitarianism

Uniformitarianism is one of the most basic principles of modern geology: the theory that fundamentally the same (generally slow but steady) geological processes that operate today also operated in the distant past. This implies that the Earth is very old, since it has taken many hundreds of millions of years for slow processes of erosion, deposition, plate movement and uplift to form the geological structures we see today. The concept was formulated by James Hutton and published in the 1780s and 1790s, and popularized by Charles Lyell in a series of influential textbooks in the 1800s. The implications regarding the age of the Earth were the source of decades of controversy since they contradicted accepted religious doctrines.

Natural Selection

Proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, and established by Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859. In its modern form (incorporating genetics, statistical analysis and molecular biology), the theory that natural selection is the driving force for biological evolution is the foundation of all modern biology, including ecology, paleontology, taxonomy, biotechnology, etc. Nonetheless, it is still not widely accepted today even by the educated public. Nearly half of Americans believe "life on Earth has existed in its present form since the beginning of time," according to recent polls.

Germ Theory of Disease

The theory that diseases are caused by invisible micro-organisms, rather than by "miasmas", spontaneous generation, or supernatural causes, is the foundation of modern medicine and public health, and a major contributor to the welfare of people all over the world. Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrated in the 1840s that iatrogenic childbed fever could be prevented by making doctors wash their hands. Louis Pasteur proved that spoilage and disease only occurred by contamination or infection (1860s). Joseph Lister (1860s) developed aseptic surgury. In the 1870s Robert Koch proposed his Postulates, which are still used to demonstrate the connection between a specific microbe and a specific disease. Other contributors included Girolamo Fracastoro (1546), Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1670s), Agostino Bassi (1844), and Jakob Henle (1840).


James Clerk Maxwell, building on the earlier work of Michael Faraday, André-Marie Ampère, and others, developed a set of differential equations that unified and described electromagnetism, published in 1864. He discovered that light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. These theories were the basis for developments in electricity, electronics, radio, and related technologies, and are one of the great unifying theories of science.

Double-Helical Structure of DNA

James Watson and Francis Crick, using X-ray diffraction data from Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, figured out how the hereditary material DNA is arranged and how it self-replicates. This discovery forms the foundation for modern molecular biology, biochemistry, biology, genetics and medicine.

Other breakthroughs I had to leave out of the "Top Ten"

Can you make an argument that any of these, or any other discoveries, should replace one or more of my top ten?
  • Atomic theory and the periodic table
  • Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity
  • Einstein's General Theory of Relativity
  • Alan Mathison Turing 1930s and 1940s: computer science
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Size and Age of the Universe (Edwin Powell Hubble's discovery of galaxies beyond our Milky Way.and discovery of the rate of expansion of the universe, 1929.)
  • Discovery of microscopic organisms, cells (Anton van Leeuwenhoek, Robert Hooke)
  • Thermodynamics
  • Classical Greek science (especially logic and geometry?)

David Wheat's Science In Action site has articles about science and math in the real world, weird science, science news, unexpected connections, and other cool science stuff. There is an index of the articles by topic here.

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Betsy said...

I think Turing should replace geologic uniformitarianism. It's cool that they were able to put forth such strong evidence for the fact that the earth is so old, but I think the immeasurably huge impact that computers and computer science have had on the lives of so many people outweighs knowing that the earth is really really old. The very way of life all first world countries is based on computer technology, and those countries whose people don't have extensive access to computers still rely on the output of and support from countries that do. So ultimately the whole world would be vastly different without computers and their many uses.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it should replace any of the top ten (maybe Watson-Crick and doublehelix DNA), but I've seen some really strong arguments for the concept of double-blind experiments.

Orac (http://oracknows.blogspot.com/) has the best explanations I've seen for the importance of this experimental method. My too-brief summary: it allows the determination of causation given suggestions of correllation, and controls for both observer and subject bias.

The fact that some quacks claim it doesn't apply to their "results" speaks volumes about its efficacy.

Obviously, this comes after the development of probability theory and statistics, since it's built on those.

Nice summary, by the way. It's good to see this laid out in a clear timeline.

Jake said...

While the double-blind method is an important contribution to investigational technique, it's not a scientific discovery in and of itself.

I'm also concerned that the Watson-Crick discoveries are not preceded by any other work in chemistry, although I'm not qualified to make nominations.

I'd further suggest that geologic iniformitarianism is appropriately included, since it's not only the basis for all modern geology, but also an essential steppingstone in the development of paleontology, anthropology, archeology, and, of course, evolutionary theory.

blackskimmer said...

i vote for the general discovery that we are molecular machines. 10^23 molecules per handful arranged in about 8 or 10 hierarchical levels. this allows us to for the first time imagine actually building something that acts like living creatures. it allows us to imagine that flesh is complex enough to make a soul.

by the way, i think that various aspects of the scientific method, ARE scientific discoveries.

Anonymous said...

I think albert einstein special relativity should be put in there somewhere because it is really important and can be facinating to some people like me for example