What British innovation has had the biggest impact on our lives? And which British discovery is likely to revolutionise the world in the future? A vote on these topics is currently under way as part of the GREAT Campaign. It’s organised by the Science Museum, National Media Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, the National Railway Museum, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Science Association and Engineering UK. Today is the last day to vote and results will be announced tomorrow.
The list of past innovations is really fascinating – some I don’t know so much about, others I can’t even imagine life or society without them. I’ve been pondering what I would vote for all week, and I still can’t decide.
I’m naturally drawn to those in the physics/space/astronomy fields, such as
- Jocelyn Bell-Burnell’s discovery of pulsars;
- the prediction of Hawking radiation from black holes;
- Rutherford’s discovery of the neutron;
- the UCL-designed Photon Detector Assembly for the Hubble Space Telescope;
- the prediction of the existence of anti-matter;
- proving the existence of singularities;
- testing Einstein’s theory of general relativity;
but then what about all those other amazing inventions that I couldn’t imagine living without?! There are a few listed that have played prominent roles in my own career in astronomy instrumentation, such as the development of carbon fibre composites. The topic of my PhD was the application of carbon fibre composites to the manufacture of deformable mirrors for aerospace and astronomy. The text lists mainly sporting applications of these materials, and Britain’s (past) dominance in the building of Formula 1 cars is indeed very cool. But CFC materials are now also heavily used in aerospace, including space-based satellites and instruments for astronomy, and we’re nowhere near the limit of what can be achieved with these versatile materials.
During my PhD again I made extensive use of finite element analysis, and I didn’t even know that the development of the finite element method came out of a British university, Swansea. Engineering without FEA is these days unthinkable, and the method is now routinely applied to very complex problems, from mechanical engineering to biomedical modelling.
And then I haven’t even considered all the biomedical discoveries and innovations! The structure of DNA, the discovery of the ATP enzyme, hip replacements, the first randomised controlled trials, and early work in the development of three major medical scanning techniques – ultrasound, computerised tomography and magnetic resonance imaging.
Finally near the bottom of the list is the one that possibly blows everything else out of the water: the World Wide Web. And it’s not even currently listed in the top 5!.Maybe I’m not enough of a car fan, but those who pick the design of the Mini out of this amazing list of discoveries are Missing a Point – just saying. One more day to vote! I really have to make up my mind now.