Thursday, November 09, 2006

Discoveries that changed human history ...

... and yet, are underappreciated. What might they be? Listen to Thomas Hager:

I am very interested in Big Discoveries —- not theoretical insights, but major hands -- on discoveries that have a direct impact on human lives every day. Many of them are little-known. One was sulfa. Another is the subject of the book I'm finishing now, the discovery of the Haber-Bosch system for nitrogen fixation. In case you've overlooked that one, it's the discovery that's responsible for keeping alive two or three billion people on Earth today; also the source of half the nitrogen in your body. Another in this league, I think, might be the discoveries involved in the long-distance transmission of electricity. All of these changed human life and human history enormously, yet are -— like sulfa and the antibiotic revolution —- simply incorporated into daily life in such fundamental ways that they are ignored.

Here's Thomas Hager's website. His book on the discovery of sulfa drugs sounds quite interesting. In the Seed interview (from which I took the above quote) he says this about what he found interesting in that story:

I stumbled across this story entirely by accident, while I was researching something else. I think what first caught my eye was a researcher who won the Nobel Prize for finding the greatest medicine the world had ever seen, but instead of being honored by his government -— this was in Nazi Germany -— he was tossed in jail. That got my attention. The more I researched [Domagk's] life, the more I saw that his discovery is really a central story of our time. Science is at the core of our culture in so many ways, most of them pretty much unappreciated by most people. And I think this is a core story of twentieth century science, showing not only how science changes lives, but also how politics, money, personal agendas, and luck change science.

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Thanks to Guru for the links.