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Jon Agar

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13 Awesome Moments In Science History (PHOTOS)

Posted: 03/28/2012 11:49 am

Science has been at the heart of twentieth-century history - from Einstein's new physics to the Manhattan Project, from eugenics to the Human Genome Project, or from the wonders of penicillin to the promises of biotechnology. Science's claim to access universal truths about the natural world made it an irresistible resource for industrial empires, ideological programs, and environmental campaigners.

What I show in my book, Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond [Polity/ John Wiley & Sons, $35.00] is that the history of science in intimately woven into to the history of how we solve everyday problems and get things to work. This connection applies as much to the arcane, extraordinary leaps in theoretical understanding as it does to the routine practices of the average scientist. So, for example, the maintenance of human health, or the efficient operation of large technological systems, and especially to conduct of war, have all thrown up problems for science to solve, and in the process science is developed in spectacular ways.

Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond tells a global story - how could it be otherwise, since good (and bad) science is done across the globe? But it also asks why the United States became such a productive scientific superpower. "When we first met in 1929, American physics was not really very much, certainly not consonant with the great size and wealth of the country. We were much concerned with raising the level of American physics. We were sick and tired of going to Europe as learners. We wanted to be independent," recalled the physicist Isidor I. Rabi, testifying at the security clearance trial of Robert Oppenheimer in the 1950s, "I must say that I think our generation .... did that job, and that ten years later we were at the top of the heap". Other disciplines followed physics, not least biology.

Here's a selection of awesome moments drawn from the past 11 decades. They illustrate the encounters between science and other forms of power, from political authority to private fortunes, as well as the unexpected discoveries. Some of them give clues to why the twentieth century was the American century for science.

Discovery of the nuclear atom
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Manchester 1908-1909. Hans Geiger (pictured above) and Ernest Marsden ran an experiment in Ernest Rutherford's laboratory. They are firing alpha particles at a gossamer-thin sheet of gold, and mapping the directions of ricocheting material. Most sail through, but every so often an alpha particle rebounds back. Rutherford's conclusion: atoms are made of empty space with a tiny, ultra-dense nucleus at the centre. "It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life", Rutherford recalled, "It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper, and it came back to hit you".
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