Where would we be without science?

Dead, probably. Or, at the very least, in a world of trouble. The study of science is something that sets us apart from the other mammals on planet earth. It’s the driving force behind every significant breakthrough we’ve made over the millennia – of which there have been many.

But suppose we had to pick just five of those breakthrough scientific discoveries. How could we possibly rank them in terms of their significance? I’m not going to make the attempt, but I will single out five suitably epic moments from our shared scientific history that changed the course of our development.

The wheel reinvents transportation – and everything else

the first wheel

Credit: John Lund

It’s hard to imagine a world where humans existed without so much as a wheel. You have to wonder how things got done prior to its invention.

The history of the wheel begins in 3500 BC. Aside from the very obvious benefits of moving larger objects and transporting goods and people from Point A to Point B, many of today’s technologies would not been developed if it weren’t for the wheel.

It’s unfortunate that we can’t credit a specific person for the invention that truly transformed mankind, but we can thank the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia as a whole.

Gutenberg brings the joy of reading to the masses

Image: Intellectual Adventures Lab

Image: Intellectual Adventures Lab

Johannes Gutenberg generally gets all the credit for inventing the printing press. But the record shows that Eastern societies most likely used similar technology prior to his 1445 invention.

In either case, Gutenberg helped disseminate the written word across all kinds of folk. With his printing press, books no longer were just treasures of the rich; they were shared amongst the masses.

Gutenberg’s contribution to science makes him a crucial figure in the field of education, as well. His printing press helped educate the masses, and we are better as a society for it.

Blurring the lines between astronomy and metaphysics

Copernicus solar model

Image: National Geographic

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Aristotle. Copernicus. Galileo. Kepler. Newton. Einstein.

You can’t talk about any epic moments in science without talking about this group of geniuses whose collective work gave humanity the stars.

Think about Copernicus in the 1500’s telling a group of other thinkers that the Sun was in the center of universe – not the Earth. Think about the reaction of those folks when they realized that a very core of their existence – their physical space in the universe – was turned completely upside down.

Together, the work of these men and their kin has consistently changed the way we understand the world around us. Which is pretty much the definition of “epic.”

The slow development of the internal combustion engine

first internal combustion engine

Image: Cars and Their Revolution

Some credit Christian Huygens with the invention of the internal combustion engine in 1680. Others say J.J. Etienne deserves the credit – he used gasoline to power his in 1859.

More accurately, the internal combustion engine is the work of many men over many years. After all, isn’t that the way most things are invented? Inventors are always being inspired by the work of others that came before. Without the internal combustion engine, we wouldn’t have automobiles. We wouldn’t have airplanes. What would that kind of world look like?

Think about America: thousands of miles of concrete connecting cities across the country’s vast landscape. The United States relies on its trucking and shipping industries to get goods from one spot to another. You can’t help but wonder how we’d travel and move merchandise were it not for the men who worked to build the first engines.

Measles, mumps and polio: Gone (Mostly)

measles polio vaccine

Image: The Hindu

It’s hard to believe that 100 years ago, measles, mumps and polio all threatened our very way of life.

But thanks to vaccinations, these three once-feared diseases have become essentially a thing of the past. For example, the World Health Organization reports that the frequency of polio cases has declined 99 percent since 1988, from 350,000 cases to 416 cases.

These three vaccines have become the bedrock upon which countless other medical breakthroughs have been built. Think about how amazing it is that, thanks to science, diseases that at one point threatened our livelihoods have become things we essentially don’t have to worry about anymore.

The Future of Science

future of science

Image: Simple Translation

Henry Ford and the automobile. Nikola Tesla and the light bulb. (Yes, not you, Edison!) IBM and the first smartphone. Even something as seemingly uninteresting as metal plating has impacted dozens of industries including electronics, dentistry, and transportation.

But the complete list of inventors who have forever changed our lives is virtually endless. And thanks to science, the list of inventors to come is almost certainly going to be longer.

These days, the news is populated by vapid, uninteresting caricatures. But hundreds of years ago, societies idolized brilliant minds and sat in awe as they listened to their teachings.

While the future remains bright for science itself – there will always be people who want to continue innovating at all costs – one can’t help but wonder whether we’re turning our back on education – and on our future innovators. When the quality of our children’s education depends on their zip code, you know it’s time for change.