Try to imagine life without antibiotics and electricity. Tough would be an understatement, wouldn’t it? Now think about what the human condition would be like if our forebears had not discovered that the Earth isn’t flat, that gravity keeps our feet planted on the ground, and that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe.
Many scientific discoveries have changed the world for the better; some, perhaps, for the worst. Some of these discoveries are famous and celebrated while some are mostly overlooked. All had tremendous impacts on the way we live.
These are the 10 biggest scientific discoveries in history.
Rounding out this list of the biggest scientific discoveries is the discovery of oxygen, the colorless, odorless, life-supporting component of the air. It was first detected around 1772 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish pharmacist, who called it “fire air” because of its ability to support combustion. It was also identified in 1774 by Joseph Priestly who called it “dephlogisticated air”. Priestly shared his discovery with Antoine Lavoiser, the French scientist who would eventually exhibit how oxygen supports respiration in animals. The discovery of oxygen is crucial to the development of modern chemistry and modern medicine.
The discovery of gunpowder is one of the biggest scientific discoveries ever – but has this discovery caused more harm than good? We’ll leave that for you to decide. Gunpowder was first used by Chinese alchemists in the ninth century. Their original intention for the substance was to figure out how to use it to achieve immortality. Today, it is used in hunting, construction, sports, entertainment, and warfare. It has also been instrumental to the beginnings of rocket science. So while it isn’t always used with good intentions, it has helped put man in space.
One of the biggest scientific discoveries – this one regarding anthropology – was the discovery of Australopithecus africanus, the first human in existence. In 1924, an unidentified South African stumbled upon his remains and Australian anatomist Raymond Dart made further investigations. The fossil was determined to be 3.7 million years old. Investigators originally thought the fossil to be the skull of an ape, but after seeing that the spine was attached below the skull and not at the back, they concluded that it had to be the skull of ancient man. This discovery provided significant data about the ancestral line of human beings.
7. The Earth is Round
Why is this discovery important? Because after humans were stripped of their original belief that the Earth was flat, they no longer feared that their boats would fall off the edge of the Earth. This information – certainly one of the biggest scientific discoveries in history – opened up trade routes to far-flung areas of the world and led to discoveries that would enrich our knowledge of geography, science, and other fields of learning.
6. The DNA Double Helix
Aside from being one of the biggest scientific discoveries in recent history, the discovery of the DNA double helix structure was also one of the most challenging. We owe this one to James Watson (of the USA) and Francis Crick (of the UK) who solved the puzzle in 1953. They would win the Nobel Prize for their work in 1962. Puzzling out the complexity of DNA has given us information about how organisms pass on traits and how the mechanisms of cells are governed. This discovery has also enabled doctors to better understand diseases. In the future, DNA research may even help prevent illnesses like cancer and heart disease.
One of the biggest scientific discoveries in medical history happened in 1928 when absent-minded genius Sir Alexander Fleming came back from vacation to find that something had grown on the cultures he had left behind and had killed the bacteria in its periphery. This “something” turned out to be penicillin and its discovery would win Fleming the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. Boris Chain and Howard Florey, the scientists who isolated and purified penicillin, were also instrumental in the discovery. Penicillin treats many diseases and has saved countless lives. Without it, diseases now easily treated with antibiotics such as staph infections would still be deadly.
Charles Darwin’s trip to South America gave rise to one of the biggest scientific discoveries in history. In 1859, 20 years later, he published On the Origin of Species. His theory of natural selection is still being hotly debated today by Creationists and Evolutionists; nevertheless, his findings on evolution were instrumental in the development of modern humanist and scientific ideas.
3. The Copernican System
On his deathbed in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published one of the biggest scientific discoveries ever, the theory of Copernican heliocentrism. Completely upending what astronomers believed at the time, Copernicus claimed that the sun is at the center of the solar system and that the planets revolve around it. The Copernican system changed our understanding of astrology, influenced modern science, and gave us a whole new (though initially upsetting) view of the universe.
Without electricity, you wouldn’t be reading this now. In fact, without electricity, we would all be left in the dark. There would be no computers, no coffeemakers, no TV, and no smartphones. It is undeniable that we are hugely dependent upon electricity to function. The credit for one of the biggest scientific discoveries in history goes to Benjamin Franklin, who flew kites in a rainstorm and thus discovered electricity, and to Michael Faraday, whose observations on electric currents led to the development of the electric motor and who would also be the first person to produce an electric current.
Isaac Newton, possibly the most well-known scientist in history, made one of the biggest scientific discoveries in 1664 when he identified gravity as the force that draws objects together and keeps things from falling down. Though it has since been superseded by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the great English physicist and mathematician’s law of universal gravitation remains one of the most important laws in physics today.