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Eureka(s) : Greatest Moments of Scientific Discovery

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Science is amazing. You can do A expecting B or C possibilities, only to get the answer as 42 while you and your colleagues scratch your heads. Yes, the process of discovering the truth about the world we live in can be a tricky and difficult process. But sometimes years of hard work or sheer luck pays off, resulting in great scientific experiments that quickly become landmarks.

Here are some such experiments that changed the world and our understanding of it.

1. Atoms are not puddings

Before the Geiger–Marsden (Rutherford gold foil) experiment, it was believed that atoms were spheres of positive charge with electron embedded in them, much like raisins or plums in a pudding. However, when alpha particle beams were passed through a thin gold foil, some particles bounced back instead of passing straight through. This proved that the positive charge of atoms was concentrated in a tiny, tiny space, with a lot of emptiness around. These series of experiments were the foundation of the atomic model as we know it today.

2. Resistance is Useless

One of the most controversial and famous experiments of Psychology, Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment consisted of a participant/teacher, a ‘learner’ (who was actually a confederate) and an experimenter. The teacher was to shock the learner every time they made a mistake, with the experimenter urging them to continue. While no shocks were administered in reality, teachers thought the learner was suffering. Despite this, an alarming number of people obeyed the experimenter’s instruction to continue the administration of shocks. The study demonstrated how powerful authority is, and how easily humans can be compelled do to things they know are wrong.

3. O2 burn away

Till the 18th century, it was believed that all things that burnt did so because they contained something called phlogiston. The father of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier, conducted experiments which showed that the weight of phosphorus actually increased on burning, refuting the idea of a substance flying away with heat. He subsequently explained that the process of burning took something from the atmosphere, thereby providing us with the discovery that oxygen (which he named) had a role to play in combustion. This discovery also had a key role in our understanding of the composition of our atmosphere.

4. Untidy habits brilliant results

Famed for his scientific brilliance, Alexander Fleming was still prone to a very human bad habit – he frequently left his lab in a state of disarray. Working on the properties of the bacteria Staphylococcus, he left for a vacation and came back to discover a petri dish with some weird mould on it had no growth of the bacteria like the other dishes did. Famously remarking ‘that’s funny’, he went to work identifying the mould, and later released penicillin, the antibiotics that were the first line of defence against many bacterial infections. Though many bacteria have today developed resistance to it, there is no denying that Fleming’s accidental discovery help save and heal millions of lives.

5. All Colours of the Rainbow

Isaac Newton had a lot of free time when he was holed up in his home trying to avoid the plague. So he carried out a simple experiment. Belief had been up till that point that white light or sunlight was the purest of lights. Using only a glass prism, Newton showed that the sun’s rays were actually made up of the VIBGYOR colours.  There is a lot of scientific importance of this discovery, but what is more salient is the fact that this is the prime example of how even everyday, fundamental things like the sun’s light become something completely new and fascinating when put under the scientific lens.

6. Dark Side of Matter

Two of the most basic requirements of science are the ability to measure (quantification) and the ability to observe (empiricism). Dark matter eludes both. Its very name is due to the fact that Dark Matter has never been observed. Yet, persuasive indirect evidence suggests that this mysterious thing is out there in the universe. Dark matter is supposedly composed of elements other than protons, electrons and neutrons, and seems to not interact with any type of electromagnetic radiation, making it hard to observe it. Our current understanding of the universe is only made possible by our acceptance of dark matter.

Often, the discoveries we unearth give us more questions than answers. We can clone people, but is it ethical to do so? How do we counteract this strong obedience that all of us fall prey to? Will we be able to solve the mystery of dark matter, and would we be willing to sacrifice all our current understandings for it? But that is the great thing about science. It is curious, and it is self-correcting. So hopefully, you and I will have answers soon enough.

By Niharika Rawat

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