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Top 20 greatest inventions of all time
The most impactful technology inventions in history are ranked.
Technology is a core component of the human experience. We have been creating tools to help us tame the physical world since the early days of our species.
Any attempt to count down the most important technological inventions is certainly debatable, but here are some major advancements that should probably be on any such list (in chronological order):
1. FIRE - it can be argued that fire was discovered rather than invented. Certainly, early humans observed incidents of fire, but it wasn't until they figured out how to control it and produce it themselves that humans could really make use of everything this new tool had to offer. The earliest use of fire goes back as far as two million years ago, while a widespread way to utilize this technology has been dated to about 125,000 years ago. Fire gave us warmth, protection, and led to a host of other key inventions and skills like cooking. The ability to cook helped us get the nutrients to support our expanding brains, giving us an indisputable advantage over other primates.
2. WHEEL - the wheel was invented by Mesopotamians around 3500 B.C., to be used in the creation of pottery. About 300 years after that, the wheel was put on a chariot and the rest is history. Wheels are ubiquitous in our everyday life, facilitating our transportation and commerce.
Circa 2000 BC, Oxen drawing an ancient Egyptian two-wheeled chariot. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
3. NAIL - The earliest known use of this very simple but super-useful metal fastener dates back to Ancient Egypt, about 3400 B.C. If you are more partial to screws, they've been around since Ancient Greeks (1st or 2nd century B.C.).
4. OPTICAL LENSES - from glasses to microscopes and telescopes, optical lenses have greatly expanded the possibilities of our vision. They have a long history, first developed by ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, with key theories of light and vision contributed by Ancient Greeks. Optical lenses were also instrumental components in the creation of media technologies involved in photography, film and television.
5. COMPASS - this navigational device has been a major force in human exploration. The earliest compasses were made of lodestone in China between 300 and 200 B.C.
Circa 1121 BC, An ancient Chinese magnetic chariot. The figure, pointing to the south, moves in accordance with the principle of the magnetic compass. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
6. PAPER - invented about 100 BC in China, paper has been indispensible in allowing us to write down and share our ideas.
7. GUNPOWDER - this chemical explosive, invented in China in the 9th century, has been a major factor in military technology (and, by extension, in wars that changed the course of human history).
8. PRINTING PRESS - invented in 1439 by the German Johannes Gutenberg, this device in many ways laid the foundation for our modern age. It allowed ink to be transferred from the movable type to paper in a mechanized way. This revolutionized the spread of knowledge and religion as previously books were generally hand-written (often by monks).
1511, Printing Press, from the title page of 'Hegesippus' printed by Jodocus Badius Ascensius in Paris. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
9. ELECTRICITY - utilization of electricity is a process to which a number of bright minds have contributed over thousands of years, going all the way back to Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, when Thales of Miletus conducted the earliest research into the phenomenon. The 18th-century American Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin is generally credited with significantly furthering our understanding of electricity, if not its discovery. It's hard to overestimate how important electricity has become to humanity as it runs the majority of our gadgetry and shapes our way of life. The invention of the light bulb, although a separate contribution, attributed to Thomas Edison in 1879, is certainly a major extension of the ability to harness electricity. It has profoundly changed the way we live, work as well as the look and functioning of our cities.
10. STEAM ENGINE - invented between 1763 and 1775 by Scottish inventor James Watt (who built upon the ideas of previous steam engine attempts like the 1712 Newcomen engine), the steam engine powered trains, ships, factories and the Industrial Revolution as a whole.
circa 1830: An early locomotive hauling freight. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
11. INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINE - the 19th-century invention (created by Belgian engineer Etienne Lenoir in 1859 and improved by Germany's Nikolaus Otto in 1876), this engine that converts chemical energy into mechanical energy overtook the steam engine and is used in modern cars and planes. Elon Musk's electric car company Tesla, among others, is currently trying to revolutionize technology in this arena once again.
12. TELEPHONE - although he was not the only one working on this kind of tech, Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell got the first patent for an electric telephone in 1876. Certainly, this instrument has revolutionized our ability to communicate.
13. VACCINATION - while sometimes controversial, the practice of vaccination is responsible for eradicating diseases and extending the human lifespan. The first vaccine (for smallpox) was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. A rabies vaccine was developed by the French chemist and biologist Louis Pasteur in 1885, who is credited with making vaccination the major part of medicine that is it today. Pasteur is also responsible for inventing the food safety process of pasteurization, that bears his name.
14. CARS - cars completely changed the way we travel, as well as the design of our cities, and thrust the concept of the assembly line into the mainstream. They were invented in their modern form in the late 19th century by a number of individuals, with special credit going to the German Karl Benz for creating what's considered the first practical motorcar in 1885.
Karl Benz (in light suit) on a trip with his family with one of his first cars, which was built in 1893 and powered by a single cylinder, 3 h.p. engine. His friend Theodor von Liebig is in the Viktoria. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
15. AIRPLANE - invented in 1903 by the American Wright brothers, planes brought the world closer together, allowing us to travel quickly over great distances. This technology has broadened minds through enormous cultural exchanges—but it also escalated the reach of the world wars that would soon break out, and the severity of every war thereafter.
16. PENICILLIN - discovered by the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928, this drug transformed medicine by its ability to cure infectious bacterial diseases. It began the era of antibiotics.
17. ROCKETS - while the invention of early rockets is credited to the Ancient Chinese, the modern rocket is a 20th century contribution to humanity, responsible for transforming military capabilities and allowing human space exploration.
18. NUCLEAR FISSION - this process of splitting atoms to release a tremendous amount of energy led to the creation of nuclear reactors and atomic bombs. It was the culmination of work by a number of prominent (mostly Nobel Prize-winning) 20th-century scientists, but the specific discovery of nuclear fission is generally credited to the Germans Otto Hahn and Fritz Stassmann, working with the Austrians Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch.
Austrian nuclear physicist Lise Meitner (1878 - 1968) congratulates German chemist Otto Hahn (1879 - 1968) on his 80th birthday, Gottingen, Germany, 8th March 1959. The pair collaborated for 30 years in the study of radioactivity, work which culminated in the discovery of nuclear fission. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
19. SEMICONDUCTORS - they are at the foundation of electronic devices and the modern Digital Age. Mostly made of silicon, semiconductor devices are behind the nickname of “Silicon Valley", home to today's major U.S. computing companies. The first device containing semiconductor material was demonstrated in 1947 by America's John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley of Bell Labs.
20. PERSONAL COMPUTER - invented in the 1970s, personal computers greatly expanded human capabilities. While your smartphone is more powerful, one of the earliest PCs was introduced in 1974 by Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) via a mail-order computer kit called the Altair. From there, companies like Apple, Microsoft, and IBM have redefined personal computing.
(BONUS) 21. THE INTERNET - while the worldwide network of computers (which you used to find this article) has been in development since the 1960s, when it took the shape of U.S. Defense Department's ARPANET, the Internet as we know it today is an even more modern invention. 1990s creation of the World Wide Web by England's Tim Berners-Lee is responsible for transforming our communication, commerce, entertainment, politics, you name it.
Cover photo: a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>