The introduction of new ideas in civilization is a fundamental
component of progress. Still, really great ideas are rare, their
occurrence does not seem to follow any predictable pattern,
and often are not recognized as such for a long time.
Great ideas have a long lasting impact, influence the way we
think about ourselves or the way we live our life.
Do you have any examples that we should mention in our growing
list ? PLEASE SEND
US WHAT YOU THINK IS A GREAT IDEA THAT WE SHOULD INCLUDE
IN OUR LIST, AND WHY.
HERE ARE SOME CONTRIBUTIONS:
Charles Darwin published his treatise On the Origin of
Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation
of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life on November
24, 1859. The book sold out the first day and immediately
was both attacked and praised.
The idea itself of evolution was not novel, but nobody had
ever proposed a mechanism that could explain it. Darwin's
contribution to our understanding of evolution was the Principle
of Natural Selection. (Alfred Wallace proposed the same ideas
simultaneously, but became less famous).
The idea that species form when two parts of a population
are genetically isolated; that the environment shapes the
species; that there is no need to postulate a designer in
order to explain the structure of an organism; that complex
knowledge can be acquired by mutations and selection; and
that it can be passed over through the generation (note: DNA
was yet to be discovered) had a long lasting impact on the
history of thought, of science, of religion and of philosophy.
The main contribution of Sigmund Freud is the idea that
some very important mental activity is not only subconscious,
but firmly resists conscious access through the mechanism
of repression. At first Freud's idea of the unconscious was
greeted with consternation as being virtually self-contradictory,
but it has since won acceptance as being useful and entirely
The impact of this notion on our self image has been
Since the beginning of the XX century, physics had become
the queen of sciences. It had become so advanced and specialized,
that a scientist had to choose between a theoretical and an
Enrico Fermi, an Italian American born in Rome in 1901,
was the last great physicist to do both. His theory of beta
decay introduced the last of the four basic forces known in
nature (gravity, electromagnetism and two nuclear forces).
But most importantly, he also invented and designed the first
nuclear reactor, starting it up in a historic secret experiment
at the University of Chicago on Dec. 2, 1942.
If Hitler had not hounded Jewish scientists out of Europe,
the Anglo-American atom bomb program sparked by the discovery
of fission late in 1938 would have found itself shorthanded.
Fermi and his fellow emigres--Hungarians Leo Szilard, Eugene
Wigner, John von Neumann and Edward Teller, German Hans Bethe--formed
the heart of the bomb squad. In 1939, still officially enemy
aliens, Fermi and Szilard co-invented the nuclear reactor
at Columbia University.
This technology changed the history of the XX century, and
probably also the early XXI.
INFORMATION AND COMPUTATION
The XIX century belonged to chemistry, the XX to physics,
and the XXI to information (in every form).
Claude Shannon and Alan Turing separately created the
conceptual framework that enables us to talk about information
and computation, the central concepts of XXI century (together
with genomics, of course).
Turing simply created theoretical computer science by defining
the concept of Turing Machine, and formalizing the notion
of computation. Then moved on to creating computer engineering,
building what probably was the first electronic computer of
history, during the second world war.
Shannon formalized the notion of information, creating a mathematical
theory for communication and storage of information, based
on probability and the notion of entropy.
EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGES
The first systematic theory of the relationships between
human languages began when Sir William Jones, "Oriental
Jones," proposed in 1788 that Greek and Latin, the classical
languages of Europe, and Sanskrit, the classical language
of India, had all descended from a common source. This became
the theory of "Indo-European" languages, and today
the hypothetical language that would be the common source
for all Indo-European languages is called "Proto-Indo-European".
It is now widely accepted that all languages are formed by
evolution from proto-languages, and that they are organized
in families that reflect their origins. More controversial
is the hypothesis that possibly all languages might ultimately
originate from a single mother tongue.
The demarcation problem, or definining what distinguishes
science from non-science, was solved by Karl Popper in the
XX century. The notion that scientific knowledge cannot be
'verified' but only 'falsified' paves the way both to a demarcation
between science a non-science (knowledge that cannot be falsified
is non scientific), and to a depper understanding of the epistemological
status of knowledge and scientific method: the first one temporary
and fallible; the second one devoted to the effort to falsify
existing theories. One of the most influential philosophers,
loved by scientists, achieved the result of imposing his ideas
as 'obvious' to such an extent that their greatness is today
non fully acknowledged. Turned our way to perceive knowledge
and science completely on its head.