If you’ve been following along, you know that over the last week I’ve been involved in heuristic analysis of what shaped the modern world. Although my method has been rather less scientific than that approved of by the academy — indeed, a bit scattered and whimsical, even — I challenge you to find a more compelling list of discoveries than those enumerated herein. Thus, without further ado, I give you my penultimate list of discoveries that shaped the ancient world and spurred us on to our current magnificence. If you aren’t a Luddite, you may appreciate a few of these.
1. The circulation of blood. Each person has a certain amount of blood (based primarily on size) circulating throughout his body in one fixed direction. This fact was first discovered in the 12th century by the Arab doctor Ibn al-Nafis. Remarkably, the knowledge was lost by careless pre-internet humans and only rediscovered by the English physician William Harvey in the 17th-century. This revolution was set forth in an exquisitely written 70-pagemonograph entitled “Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis etSanguinis in Animalibus” or “Anatomical Essay on the Motionof the Heart and Blood in Animals” commonly referredto as “De Motu Cordis” or simply “De Motu.” It was publishedin 1628 when Harvey was a mere lad of 50.
2. Microorganisms. In the late 1600s, when microscopes were new, Dutch lens maker Antoni van Leeuwenhoek scraped some plaque off his own teeth and looked at it through a microscope. As one might expect with the benefit of 400 years of hindsight, it was crawling with animalcules. Less than two centuries later, knowledge of this invisible universe enabled Louis Pasteur to construct his germ theory of disease, which in turn enabled doctors to conquer polio, typhoid, measles, small pox, and a whole host of other diseases that had plagued the world since Babylonian times.
3. Electricity and magnetism. Stay with me here on this one, all you non-techies. Read it twice, and then read it backwards to see if it’s secretly an anagram (hint: it’s not). Ørsted’s discovery in 1821 that a magnetic field existed around all sides of a wire carrying an electric current indicated that there was a direct relationship between electricity and magnetism. Moreover, the interaction seemed different from gravitational and electrostatic forces, the two forces of nature then known. The force on the compass needle did not direct it to or away from the current-carrying wire, but acted at right angles to it. Ørsted’s slightly obscure words were that “the electric conflict acts in a revolving manner.” The force also depended on the direction of the current, for if the flow was reversed, then the force did too. The phenomenon was investigated further by Ampère, who discovered that two parallel current-carrying wires exerted a force upon each other: two wires conducting currents in the same direction are attracted to each other, while wires containing currents in opposite directions are forced apart. The interaction is mediated by the magnetic field each current produces and forms the basis for the international definition of the ampere.
4. The electric motor. Ørsted’s recondite musings on his discovery were extremely important, as the relationship between magnetic fields and currents led to Michael Faraday’s invention of the electric motor in 1821. Faraday’s homopolar motor consisted of a permanent magnet sitting in a pool of mercury. A current was passed through a wire suspended from a pivot above the magnet and dipped into the mercury. The magnet exerted a tangential force on the wire, making it circle around the magnet for as long as the current was maintained. The electric motor, of course, led to the invention of the automobile, which led to the asphalting-over of half the known world, killing a remarkable number of indigenous species with very little in the way of bad publicity prior to the enactment of the EPA. Now we can drive wherever we like, but we are prohibited from building a new house half a mile away because the Blue Spotted Butterfly has been spotted there twice this decade.
5. Genes. Not Lucky, nor Levis, and certainly not your old childhood Wranglers. I’m referring to the scientific code, what the head of the Human Genome Project called The Language of God. Despite hints from Pavlov and Mendel, it wasn’t until 1953 that Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA, a molecule shaped like a twisted ladder and contained in every cell. DNA manipulation is already changing the world in ways that you only notice subliminally — Monsanto has genetically modified corn to resist disease, the Koreans have cloned a sheep (and perhaps a human), and now you have the option of selecting the sex of your child (“I’ll take that spermatozoa over there, Doctor. The big one.”). Soon, with the aide of stem cell therapy, we may be able to conquer diseases and genetic flaws that we have been unable to even think of approaching using traditional techniques of Western medicine.
With any luck, in the next 10 years all of these inventions will be combined into a fantastic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang automobile of the future that will cure what ails you as you race through Biarritz with a horde of angry agents of SMERSH hot on your heels. (You did remember that Ian Fleming wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, didn’t you?). Think Tesla on steroids, with a stem cell injector that adds charm, wit and insouciance on demand — and makes a mean martini to boot.