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Last week we revealed the first half of the top ten greatest moments in materials' science history, according to The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society. This week we've got the remaining top five:
5.) Optical microscopy. OK this one is definitely big. Microscopes changed everything. Suddenly we were able to see a world 200+ times smaller than what we can see with our natural eyes. It was developed by Anton van Leeuwenhoek around 1668, and the design of the optical microscope has pretty much remained the same since. Even though Leeuwenhoek may not have "invented" the microscope, he is officially credited with popularizing it (and as we know from Apple, popularizing something is as important as inventing). The oldest drawing known to have been made with a microscope is the one on bees, up above.
4.) Glass. After ceramics, glass is the greatest non-metallic engineering material, according to The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society. Of course volcanic glass has been naturally found and used since the Stone Age, to make sharp cutting tools. But the first man-made form is thought to come from Northern Syria but glassmaking was practiced more formally in Iran. Apparently the elements of early glass included lime, soda and silica (beach sand). It wasn't until the 19th Century that glass became more of an aesthetic art form, including jewelry and sculpture. To be sure, that in scientific terms the word 'glass' actually refers to a wide range of materials. Basically every solid that has a non-crystalline structure, which means its atoms are not arranged in a lattice form, and can move from a brittle to a molten-like state is called a glass.
3.) The transistor. This little device is considered by many to be the greatest invention of the 20th Century. And that title may be quite deserving since it is the essential foundation upon which all modern electronics and computing rests. John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William Shockley invented the transistor at Bell Labs in 1948. They observed that when they connected two gold point contacts to a crystal of germanium (a semiconductor similar to silicon) it produced a signal that had greater output power than its input...and they were rewarded with the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work.
At a basic level, a transistor is a semiconductor that can amplify and "switch" electrical signals. It's most well-known for its ability to act as a logic gate and switch between a '1' state and a '0' state. The 1's and 0's are what make up the computer code that runs all of our computer programs. But what is truly amazing about a transistor is this odd attribute: The number of transistors that can be placed on a microchip has doubled approximately every two years since the late 60s. This is why computers have decreased in size as well as decrease dramatically in price. Nothing, no other product in history, has provided this sort of economic magic. The exponential difference is hard to wrap your head around...but it is the equivalent of a $500,000 house in the 1960s costing a nickel today. No wonder this tiny device has profoundly revolutionized not only computing but human life and culture.
2.) Smelting iron. It's thought that the Egyptians were the first to smelt iron way back in 3,500 BC (though you may want to read this). This is considered to be the first trick of processing the world's greatest metallurgic material. Smelting is the process by which an metal is removed from its ore. Most of the earliest known possibilities for smelting iron ore happened in a furnace called a bloomery where the temperature is just low enough to not melt the iron itself. The process produces a spongy porous mass of iron called a bloom. It then gets hammered into a desired shape. It's thought that the Egyptians pounded their iron into tiny ornaments and objects for various ceremonies.
1.) Periodic Table of the Elements. This is material science's historic moment of extreme organization. And became the number one most referenced tool for all materials' scientists and engineers. Dimitri Mendeleev created his first organization of the elements in 1869. The modern table lays out 118 elements based on their atomic number and chemical properties. Elements are represented by the number of protons in their nucleus, and this increases from one, Hydrogen, up to 118, Unonoctium. The table has 18 columns called 'groups' and 7 rows called 'periods.' It's the word periodic that is so important. Periodic refers to a recurring trend and that recurrence allows one to come up with relationships between elements, as well as predict the properties of new, yet to be discovered, elements. By leaving gaps in the table for those yet-to-be-discovered elements, Mendeleev gained recognition as the inventor of the Periodic Table. He was also the first chemist to organize the elements into their "chemical families" as opposed to strictly adhering only to their atomic weights, as so many chemists of his day had done. This led him, unintentionally and somewhat without his own recognition, to order the elements by atomic number.