OUR WORLD WAS made by a million geniuses. Just switching on a light invokes a chain of historical brilliance going back centuries: from the LEDs developed by semiconductor engineers in 1990s Japan, to the power grid imagined by Nikola Tesla in New York a century before that, to Michael Faraday’s spinning magnets that are still at the heart of every power station today. My phone is a sleek slab of metal with a brain of five billion switches squeezed onto a fingernail of silicon, and those transistors only work because of some quantum physics worked out by Heisenberg, Bohr and Schrödinger in the 1920s. Tapping the maps app, I convene with GPS satellites which, thanks to Albert Einstein, can correct for how speed and gravity change the flow of time. In my palm, a screen made of seven million lights shows a map with me, a small blue dot, in the centre. Now I know my place in the universe.
Technologies transform our world – that’s obvious. But sometimes, perhaps once in a few centuries, a discovery comes along that changes things in a different way; not just the pace of life and how we live, not just how we get from place to place, or how we communicate, but how we perceive ourselves, the universe and our place in it. Such a transformation kicked off in the early seventeenth century, when one winter’s night Galileo Galilei used the newly invented telescope to see, for the first time, moons around Jupiter. This proved that celestial objects could orbit a planet other than the Earth, and marked the end of Aristotle’s Earth-centred picture of the universe. We adjusted to a new perspective, one that recognised a universe beyond our cosmic horizon, one where the human species were no longer the focus of creation, but rather on the periphery. The legacies of past discoveries live on in our minds.
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