A world without DNA and black holes The state of science the

first_img Email Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country Science fans, hell is freezing over. The Chicago Cubs are playing the Cleveland Indians for the Major League Baseball championship in the so-called World Series. Long known as lovable losers, the Cubs, who play in the biggest city in Illinois, haven’t made it to the series since the end of World War II, and they haven’t won it since 1908. That’s a long time, for sports fans—and for science.In 1908, humans were far from ignorant. People already crossed continents and oceans on trains and ships, and they sent and received messages over vast distances using the telegraph. The telephone was in its infancy. Household electricity was beginning to spread. The first Model T automobile rolled out of the factory in October of that year. Yet, scientifically, people had only begun to systematically decipher nature’s mysteries. Indeed, a quick look at the state of the sciences shows how shockingly far humans have comes since the Cubs last won baseball’s championship.In 1908, astronomers knew of one galaxy—our own.Using the best telescopes of the time, scientists had observed that many bright spots on the sky were smudgy. But they debated whether these “nebulae” were relatively nearby clouds of gas or more distant groups of stars. The debate would continue until 1923, when U.S. astronomer Edwin Hubble determined that the clouds were actually other galaxies. Six years later, Hubble would deduce that in all directions, other galaxies were racing away from us, paving the way to the conclusion that the universe is expanding.Some physicists doubted the atom’s existence.The idea that atoms consisted of tiny elemental units dates back to the ancient Greeks. And in the early 20th century, chemists subscribed to that view, based on the constancy of ratios in which different elements combined to form compounds. However, some leading physicists still refused to believe that atoms were anything more than a helpful theoretical construct, even after U.K. physicist J. J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897. Only after Thomson’s New Zealand–born student, Ernest Rutherford, discovered the atomic nucleus in 1909 did the concept of the atom begin to come into focus. By the time the Cleveland Indians won the World Series in 1948, physicists had split the nucleus, invented the atomic bomb, and opened the way to nuclear power.The microbial world remained a mystery.Doctors struggled to contain infections prior to the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, by U.K. biologist Alexander Fleming in 1928. Coupled with improvements in public health, such as treated drinking water, antibiotics slashed rates of mortality. For example, in 1908, infectious disease was the leading killer in the United States, with pneumonia, tuberculosis, and enteritis and diarrhea accounting for a third of all deaths. Since then, the death rate from infectious diseases in the United States has fallen to less than one-eighth of that grim harvest. Viruses were known in 1908, but barely. Biologists called them “filterable agents” because about all they knew was that the infectious agents were small enough to slip through the filters used to capture bacteria.Modern chemistry had yet to revolutionize agriculture.To grow crops, farmers require fertilizers rich in nitrogen compounds, but not the diatomic nitrogen molecules found in air, which plants cannot metabolize. In 1909, German chemist Fritz Haber would discover a process to convert hydrogen and the diatomic nitrogen of the air into ammonia, a viable fertilizer. A year later, German industrial chemist Carl Bosch scaled up that process to launch the synthetic fertilizer industry. Along with pesticides, herbicides, and other measures, synthetic fertilizer enabled farmers to increase crop yields as much as eightfold and feed the ballooning human population, which has grown from 1.8 billion people in 1908 to 7.4 billion now.Earth’s inner workings weren’t yet understood.In the early 20th century, geologists did not yet appreciate the dynamic and ever-changing nature of our planet. But in 1908, Frank Bursley Taylor, an independently wealthy dropout from Harvard University, proposed at a meeting of the Geological Society of America that the movement and drift of the continents across Earth’s face created mountains, such as the Himalayas. It wasn’t until 1912 that German geophysicist Alfred Wegener published his seminal paper on continental drift, and not until the 1960s that the mechanism of plate tectonics was deduced and finally accepted. In the meantime, geologists continued to debate issues as basic as the age of the planet, which was not pinned down at 4.5 billion years—by radioisotope dating—until the 1950s.The molecular basis of genetics remained unknown.Scientists knew little about the molecules that contain biological information. In the 19th century, they had identified a substance in the nucleus of cells, first called nuclein and later nucleic acid, that they suspected was involved. However, they didn’t know how it was structured or how it stored an organism’s genetic traits. It wasn’t until 1919 that U.S. biologist Phoebus Levene discovered that the acid, now called DNA, is made up of four basic units called nucleotides. Only in 1953 did biologists figure out how those building blocks fit together to create the hugely long twisting staircase molecule that encodes your genes. But sometimes linguistics moves faster than genetics: The term “gene” was invented in 1909.Parts of our own solar system remained unknown.Although the planets Uranus and Neptune were discovered in 1781 and 1846, Pluto was not discovered until 1930. Only in the 1950s would planetary scientists predict that the solar system also contains a band beyond Neptune of innumerable icy objects called the Kuiper belt. The entire solar system is now thought to be surrounded by a vast spherical cloud of bits and pieces called the Oort Cloud that may stretch as much as 100,000 times as far from the sun as Earth. But in 1908, nobody suspected any of that.A halfway decent understanding of neuroscience was still half a century away.Since 1889, scientists had known that the fundamental units of brain tissue are long, branching cells called neurons that connect to one another via their so-called dendrites. But it wouldn’t be until 1939 that biologists reported direct observation of electrochemical signals called “action potentials” coursing down the cells. In 1908, we were limited to the rough—if beautiful—Brodmann diagrams. And only since the 1990s have researchers been able to watch different areas of the brain light up as people perform mental tasks using functional magnetic resonance imaging.Electronics had only just been born.It seems inconceivable today, but electronics did not exist in 1908. That would gradually change over the next half-century. Radio had been invented a few years earlier, but the real seeds for consumer electronics were vacuum tubes, in particular the triode vacuum tube invented by American Lee de Forest in 1907, which could be used as an amplifier. It and more refined vacuum tubes would lead to the spread of radio technology, the birth of television, and, in 1946, the first general-purpose computer—all 27 metric tons of it. Electronics would really blossom after the invention in 1947 of the transistor—a compact solid state replacement for the bulky, delicate vacuum tube—by Americans John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain. Bardeen, who died in 1991, was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in—you guessed it—1908.Your favorite geek science terms had not yet been invented.In some ways linguistics was ahead of the curve, but in many ways it was behind. In 1908, none of the following terms had even been invented: big bang, black hole, antimatter, quark, laser, neutron star, or quantum mechanics. All of these things were hypothesized, discovered, or developed only after the Cubs last won the World Series. About the only cool physics term you would have had then was “spacetime.” In 1905 Albert Einstein published his theory of special relativity, in which he explained that space and time are really different aspects of a single unified thing that are perceived differently by observers moving at different speeds. In 1908, German physicist Hermann Minkowski coined the term “spacetime” to describe the unified concept. Click to view the privacy policy. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*)center_img Of course, the Cubs’ opponent in the World Series, the Cleveland Indians, who hail from Ohio, haven’t won the World Series since 1948. Undoubtedly science progressed even faster in the second half of the 20th century than in the first. But, with the myriad technological advances made during World War II, the world of 1948 would much more closely resemble ours of today, especially in terms of our scientific knowledge.*Update, 3:17 p.m.: The story has been changed to correct the implication that the concept that the universe is expanding came after Hubble’s 1929 paper and to correct the chemistry of the Haber-Bosch process. 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