Friday, November 6, 2009

Top invention has the X-factor

What would you say is the top scientific invention of all time? What has made our lives more safe, more healthy, more fun? There's lots to choose from. The mobile phone would certainly be up there for some people. For others, it'd be right at the bottom of the pile.

Would you go for something that has improved your life or the lives of many people?

I recall the controversy earlier in the year when, as people were celebrating International's Women's Day, the Vatican newspaper had the atrocious timing as to suggest that the humble washing machine had "liberated women". In an article entitled "The washing machine and the emancipation of women: put in the powder, close the lid and relax”, the vatican press managed to create a storm of controversy.

In a way, you can see where they were coming from, but to avoid a lynch-mob, I won't discuss it here!

The point is, one person's great scientific invention is another person's piece of junk.

Well, the Science Museum in London has now come up with the definitive list...kind of. The museum selected ten items from their massive collection and asked visitors to the museum (and their website) to vote on which of the ten was their favourite. So, despite being limited to a short-list of ten, the British public have now voted on their favourites.

And there was a clear winner. With 50,000 votes cast, 20 % of people named the X-ray machine as the best invention for having the greatest impact on the past, present and future.

The case for X-ray is clear. This particular type of radiation can penetrate solid objects and by far their most important use is to take images inside objects (including ourselves) and to produce an X-ray image.

In medical X-ray machines, electrons are accelerated in a vacuum tube and then released to collide with a metal target (usually tungsten) producing X-rays. These X-rays are used for diagnostic imaging of everything from broken bones to pneumonia and lung cancer and can also be used at much higher dosages for the treatment of some cancers through radiotherapy.

Most people will hopefully not encounter the X-ray in a medical setting too many times in their life. We are probably more familiar with the use of X-rays in airport security. Admit it: who hasn't had a sneaky look over the operator's shoulder to see what your hand luggage looks like under X-ray?

The Science Museum in London has on display one of the oldest X-ray machines in the world.

Built by a Russell Reynolds in 1986, he was inspired by Wilhelm Rontgen who discovered what he called "X" rays simply because he could think of no other name for them. In many languages, what we call X-rays, are known as Rontgen-rays.

Russell Reynolds was still in school when he built the machine within a year and he's a great example of what "amateur" scientists can do!

The full list (in order) of the top scientific inventions is printed below. Which would you vote for?

1st place - X-ray machines
2nd place - Penicillin
3rd place - DNA double helix
4th place - Apollo 10 capsule
5th place - V2 Rocket Engine
6th place - Stephenson's Rocket
7th place - Pilot ACE Computer
8th place - Steam Engine
9th place - Model T Ford
10th place - Electric Telegraph


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