THE LAST CENTURY, LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE WORLD WE LIVE IN”
100 to 10 years ago
| This photo was taken on April 20, 1972 during the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission. Lunar module pilot Charles M. Duke, Jr., took this photo of astronaut John W. Young, commander of the mission, saluting the U.S. flag during an extravehicular exercise.
Credit: Photo by Charles M. Duke Jr.,
Courtesy of NASA.
What are the most important human achievements of the last century? Our understanding of the nature of the universe, the strange laws of space-time physics, and the structure of the code of life (DNA) and how it replicates were major discoveries of this time period.
Technological innovations included rockets and jets, spacecraft, television, computers made with transistors and silicon chips, the beginnings of the World Wide Web, antibiotics and unique medical devices, and the harnessing of the atom for war and peace. High technology (personal computers, cell phones, GPS, etc.), became an ever-increasing part of a person’s lifestyle and in an ever-expanding wave around the world. Air transportation could shuttle a person anywhere in the world in less than a day. Satellites were employed for telecommunications, weather forecasts, and surveillance.
Human societies became ever-more dependent on hydrocarbons (coal, petroleum, natural gas) for energy production for power plants, houses, cars, planes, and ships, creating changes in the earth’s atmosphere in the form of increased carbon dioxide. Genetics and molecular biology were used as tools to study evolutionary relationships.
If you are reading this, you were probably born during this Time Scale. Never before had science, technology, and communications developed and spread so rapidly. High-tech devices that were cutting edge a few years previously could now become quickly and completely outmoded. We now live in a Brave New World…
“IT’S ALL RELATIVE”
RELATIVITY AND QUANTUM MECHANICS
Late 1800s, early 1900s
E=mc2. Most of us have heard of this equation, and may even know that it means “energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.” But what does this really mean, and why does everyone think what Einstein discovered is so important? Basically, Einstein had realized that energy and mass are not completely different things, but different forms of the same thing, and that huge amounts of energy are contained in each atom (that’s where the “speed of light squared” comes in). Einstein’s famous papers on relativity appeared about 100 years ago (one a little more, the other a little less than 100) and ended up revolutionizing science’s ideas about the nature of space and time.
ROCKETS, SATELLITES, AND LUNAR LANDINGS
Beginning 1926 AD
On a dark, starry night you can usually spot a man-made satellite crossing the night sky. This seems usual to us now, but such satellites are relatively new in human history, and depended on the development of rocket technology. Rocketry has had a long, long history, going back more than a thousand years, but the guided rocket technology that has led us into the Space Age emerged during the 20th Century, less than 100 years ago. About 1000 years ago, the Chinese developed gunpowder-fueled projectiles, and such early rockets were used in warfare by the Chinese, and then the Mongols and Ottomans, between 1000 and 1500 AD The military use of rockets finally spread to Europe by the 1500s, but became especially important during the 1800s after William Congreve developed a rocket for the British military in 1805 (we often sing about the “red glare” of such early British rockets – fired on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 – in the U.S. national anthem!). But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that scientists started exploring the possibility of using rocket technology to explore outer space.
“YOU’RE ON THE AIR”
Beginning 1935 AD
Television, for most of us, is an integral part of our lives. The average American watches an astonishing five hours of television a day: news, sports events, movies, documentaries, dramas, comedies, game shows, talk shows, soap operas, reality shows, religious programs, and even infomercials. Television developed in the 1930’s, with moving images collected by cathode ray tubes and converted to electrical impulses could be sent over the airwaves and picked up by televisions with antennae. One of the first major showcases of television technology was the ominous 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin during the rise of Nazi Germany. By the late 1940’s, three network television stations had been established in the United States: ABC, CBS, and NBC, and television began to be a major focal point of the household.
“BITS AND BYTES”
COMPUTERS, TRANSISTORS, SILICON CHIPS
Beginning 1937 AD
Most of us living in the U.S. today can hardly imagine a world without the computer – The one on our desktop, or the laptop or notebook we carry around with us, perhaps the smart phone we carry in our pocket or purse, or even the small computer tucked away in our mp3 player or Ipod. Such electronic computers are all around us today, but go back about 70 years ago to the early 1940s, they were just getting their start. The first modern computer was invented by Geoge Stibitz of Bell Labs, who put it together at his kitchen table and named it “Model K.” And you wouldn’t believe what the early computers of the 1940s looked like – they were huge, room-size monsters that gobbled up loads of energy to make fairly simple calculations. At first they used vaccum tubes for their electronics, which were replaced by the much smaller transitors by the 1960s, and then by the extremely small but complex integrated circuits by the 1970s, when microprocessors took over as the central processor for computers.
“WHEN YOU’RE A JET”
A jet engine differs from a conventional internal combustion engine for a propeller aircraft by producing much higher thrust values through the use of an air-breathing reaction engine which drives a gas turbine (turbojet). They can generally fly faster and higher than propeller-driven aircraft, and today some fly even faster than three times the speed of sound (Mach 3). The first flight of a first jet-engine airplane was in Germany in 1939 with the flight of the prototype of the Heinkel He 178. Towards the end of World War II the Germans developed the first practical jet aircraft fighter planes, the Messerschmitt Me 262, the first jet to see military action. Fortunately for the Allies, these jets came too late to make a major difference in the war, and Germany was defeated. After the war, jet technology advanced rapidly, and today most of our commercial and military planes are some form of jet aircraft.
“MIRACLE DRUGS & MEDICAL DEVICES”
PENICILLIN AND OTHER MEDICAL ADVANCES
Beginning 1941 AD
Most people today assume that they will survive into adulthood. This was not the case a century ago, when death by infection was much more common. After the beginning of research into the mass production of penicillin starting in 1941 and dramatic improvements in the production process over the next couple of years, millions of doses were on hand for injured troops by the time of the Normandy invasion in 1944. This was the beginning of a radical revolution in the successful treatment of infections that has had significant impact on human populations for many decades now, and eventually set forth massive efforts to find other powerful antibiotics to combat the spread of bacterial infections.
“THE GENIE HAS LEFT THE BOTTLE”
DAWN OF THE ATOMIC AGE
Beginning 1942 AD
The atom (Greek for “uncuttable”) was a concept forwarded by the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus for the hypothetical smallest unit of matter. During the late 1800’s and 1900’s physicists explored deeper and deeper into the structure of matter. In the early 1900’s studies of radioactive materials like uranium, thorium, polonium, and radium by Madame Marie Curie and her husband Pierre (this research tragically caused her death from radiation poisoning) showed that these unstable materials gave off high-energy particles. Between 1910 and 1945 a tremendous amount of headway was made in modeling the nature and structure of atoms, in understanding processes such as radioactive decay that naturally transform certain atoms into other atoms, and, in deliberately manipulating atomic structure to produce other forms of atoms through bombardment with certain particles (such as alpha particles and neutrons). Eventually such manipulation resulted in control of nuclear fission, which not only produced new, smaller particles but also a tremendous amount of energy in the process. The meaning of Einstein’s equation E=mc2 had been truly revealed, and, with the construction of the first nuclear reactor in 1942 to contain and control nuclear chain reactions, the atomic age was born.
“CRACKING THE CODE”
DNA STRUCTURE & GENETIC ENGINEERING
Beginning 1953 AD
During the 1940’s, a race was underway by several research teams to find the hypothetical “Code of Life”, that is the structure of the DNA molecule. Biologists James Watson and Francis Crick, as well as Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, discovered that DNA was a double helix structure (similar to a spiral staircase) and could “unzip” its structure to create copies of itself. Watson and Crick’s paper on DNA structure, published in 1953, led to their being awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1962, which they received jointly with Maurice Wilkins who, like Rosalind Franklin, had done xray diffraction work that helped reveal the structure of DNA. (Rosalind Franklin had died four years earlier). Our understanding of genetics, reproduction, and evolution was revolutionized by this discovery, and most of the later advances in molecular biology have used the discovery of the structure and mechanics of DNA as the foundation of research.
“CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?”
Beginning 1973 AD
‘Telecommunication’ simply means communication over long distances, which can include any way of communicating to someone far away through some sort of signal, including smoke plumes, flags, drums, vocal calls, and so on. More modern telecommunication in the past couple of centuries has relied on transmission of electrical signals, such as by means of telegraph, radio, or television. The classic example of such telecommunication in our everyday lives is seen in the development of mobile phones beginning in the 1970s. The idea for such portable phones, able to be used as one moved from place to place, got started early in the 1900s, but it was in 1973 that a researcher at Motorola, Martin Cooper, put in a patent for, and also made the first telephone call from, a mobile telephone.
THE WORLD WIDE WEB
Beginning 1989 AD
Imagine a magic carpet (or the modern metaphor, a magic surfboard) that allows you to travel all over the world, visit with anybody you want, and gather almost any conceivable type of information that you wish. In a very real sense, this is what the Internet and the World Wide Web has allowed. Information is knowledge. Knowledge is power. Information is power.