Wednesday, June 10, 2009

10 scientific objects that changed the world

New Scientist, which used to be a decent science magazine, has a list of 10 scientific objects that changed the world. You are invited to vote for your favourite on the Science Museum site.
To mark its centenary, the Science Museum in London had its curators select the ten objects in its collection that made the biggest mark on history. Explore them in this gallery, and cast your vote in the public poll to decide the most significant of all.
In fairness, the Science Museum picked ten objects that had a big impact on history. It appears to be New Scientist that labeled these "scientific objects."

Here's a preview.
  1. Apollo 10 capsule: engineering, not science
  2. Thompson’s Atmospheric Engine: engineering, not science
  3. The electric telegraph: engineering, not science
  4. Model T Ford: definitely not science
  5. Pilot ACE Computer: engineering, but used in science
  6. V2 rocket engine: military, not science
  7. Penicillin: science as applied to medicine
  8. DNA double helix: the only pure science choice
  9. X-ray machine: a scientific instrument
  10. Stephenson's Rocket: definitely not science
That's quite a list. I really don't like that fact that science and technology are hopelessly confused in the minds of the general public. And I loathe the idea that a so-called "Science Museum" and a so-called "science" magazine can't tell the difference.

The Science Museum in London is a wonderful place but the displays do nothing to teach the difference between real science and its applications.

Here's are some objects that are missing: The Beagle or Darwin's notebooks, Galileo's telescope, the ultracentrifuge, Lucy, the microscope, the electron microscope, William Smith's map, model of an atom, COBE, an early DNA sequencing apparatus, Newton's Principia Mathematica, Lyell's Principles of Geology, a camera, a bottle of oxygen, Pasteur's bell jar, Einstein's 1905 paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" ....

I'm sure there are many more I haven't thought of.


  1. How about Michaelsons' interferometer which was used to show that the absolute motion of the earth through the aether could not be measured, a totally unexpected result. The fallout from that experiment, perhaps the most important ever performed in the history of science is Einsteins Theory of Relativity.

  2. I'd go with Pasteur's bendy-glass-tubey apparatus that demonstrated that spontaneous biogenesis doesn't happen -- another very important negative result like the interferometer.

  3. Actually, it might be fun to come up with a list of the all-time most important negative scientific results. Any other good ones out there? Feathers and bowling balls fall at the same rate in vacuum?

  4. Aren't many items on your own list, eg. microscopes, ultracentrifuge, camera, etc., also engineering/technology and not pure science objects?

    Or are you just following the Science Museum's lead as to what counts?

  5. tough call. Objects by their nature are applications, and it can be difficult to discern scientific products vs products that produced science (like the Beagle). I'll pick Einstein's patent office pencil.

  6. Three of the most important scientific objects of all time would surely be the brains of Newton, Darwin and Einstein.

    Of course, they're probably not well preserved, if at all.

  7. Galileo's telescope is not just an instrument. It's a splendid example of how science works. As Fayerabend notes, although the telescope was instrumental in "proving" a physical theory, the data obtained with it were basically an act of faith. This is because at that time the fundamentals of optics were not yet established scientifically and therefore there was no rational reason to accept whatever one sees through a telescope as a piece of physical reality.

    If papers suit museums, Maxwell's "A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field" should be right up there with Einstein's.

    And no science museum should be without Periodic Table hanging somewhere.

  8. I don't see any reasonable way to draw a line between "science" one the one hand and "it's applications" on the other. To be, they are two sides of the same coin.

    There are a lot of valid ways to do science.

  9. Bayman says,

    I don't see any reasonable way to draw a line between "science" one the one hand and "it's applications" on the other. To be, they are two sides of the same coin.


    You don't think there's any way of distinguishing between evolution and social Darwinism? Or between research into the structure of atoms and the atomic bomb?

  10. I would agree that theory, experimentation and technology development are distinct facets of the general scientific experience. Some of us engage specifaclly in one particular facet of science in work. Most of us practice some combination of all three.

    But all three aspects drive each other to move what we call science forward. They are not, as you suggest, discrete entities existing indepently in a vaccuum.

    I think it is commonly accepted by scientists that basic science drives new applications. But applied science can be just as important in creating new basic knowledge. Undoubtedly the manhattan project led to advances in basic theoretical physics. A lot of the best theoretical physics of more recent years as done at Bell Labs, with the explicit purpose of developing a single product,
    the transistor. In biology, Mullis developed an application, PCR, at a private company, that has had obviously a massive impact on basic research....etc, etc

    Science is a highly heterogeneous and dynamic enterprise...not so black and white as "basic be applied"

  11. The most important invention ever, is in my opinion the scientific method. It is the foundation of what caused the scientific advances of the West. It sure changed the world.

    Is it an object? Debatable!

  12. mani deli says,

    The most important invention ever, is in my opinion the scientific method.


    What is the scientific method? This is a serious question as I'm currently haven't some discussions about it in another venue.

  13. What is the scientific method?

    Scientific method is whatever works in obtaining knowledge that affords explanatory and predictive powers about natural phenomena. There is no fixed set of rules that is generally adhered to by science practitioners. It's a vague ideal that means different things to different people.

  14. Any definition of the scientific method has soft edges but it has a firm center. The set of rules are a list containing words like, observation, evidence, repeatability, logic, etc. which are also soft edged.

    In spite of this and its piecemeal invention it’s rules set off the explosion of progress that became the sciences.

    It is not just a “vague ideal.” Viewed historically we can compare the rates of progress of those who possessed this invention as opposed to those who didn’t.