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50 years of science sagas

Jenny Moltar / NASA
The top science sagas of the past 50 years span the spectrum from the cosmos
to the world of atoms, molecules and subatomic particles.

How do you summarize the past 50 years of discoveries in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics? And how do you predict what breakthroughs will be made in the next 50 years? That kind of challenge would be doubly daunting for any one person - but fortunately, we have a huge crowd of science fans to help with the task.

Coming up with the top 50 sagas in science is one of the ways that the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing plans to mark its 50th anniversary in 2010. The council began its work in 1960, in the wake of the first satellite launch, to help researchers and writers get the word out about the new era in science and technology that was dawning back then.

The end of the year is a fitting time to review the highlights of the past 12 months, and the end of the decade provides an opportunity to look back at the top stories of the previous 10 years. But the chance for a 50-year perspective doesn't come along too often, so the rules have to be different.

For this list, we're focusing on research milestones that have generated headlines through the years. You won't find listings for events in the realm of science, space and medicine that may have generated huge headlines but did not involve advances in research - for example, the Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986 and the Columbia tragedy of 2003. However, we are including the Sputnik launch in 1957 as part of the '60s timeline, in part because it seemed to serve as a fitting start for the past five decades of discoveries.

To engineer a list of 50 science sagas that are evenly distributed over five decades, you need to combine some developments and separate others. A single item on the list encapsulates five decades of particle physics, while no fewer than eight items document the revolution in genetics.

Strangely enough, you'll find that a lot of the stories we're talking about today trace their roots back to the 1960s. The Large Hadron Collider, for example, builds upon theories and experiments that are more than 40 years old. The Internet we know and love got its start in 1969. The effort to send humans beyond Earth orbit dominated the decade, and a renewed effort is much on NASA's mind today. 

This list draws upon the input of other science writers, including members of CASW's board, but it's not set in stone. We welcome your comments about breakthroughs we may have missed. Perhaps there are some science sagas we've addressed in a single phrase that deserve a more extended mention. Or maybe there's a better way to explain the significance of a particular science saga.

This week, we're going to roll the list out day by day, decade by decade. Here are the milestones we've come up with for the 1960s:


1. Satellites: Russia launches Sputnik, opening the space race. America responded with the 1958 launch of Explorer 1, the first satellite to produce a significant scientific return - namely, the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt. The first successful weather satellite (TIROS 1) and the first communication relay satellite (ECHO) were launched in 1960. The space race and the satellite revolution kicked scientific and technological progress into high gear – and created greater demand for science news coverage.


2. 'The Pill': The first oral contraceptive is introduced. The Food and Drug Administration's approval of Enovid-10 ushered in the era of "the Pill." Few medications have had such a widespread impact on society and social norms.

3. The laser: First working laser is put into operation. Theodore Maiman's optical-light ruby laser followed up on earlier research by Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, who developed the first maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) in 1954. The 1964 movie "Goldfinger" may have portrayed it as a killer ray, but the device came to have user-friendly applications ranging from eye surgery to DVD players to supermarket checkouts.


4. Cracking the DNA code: Biochemist Marshall Nirenberg and his colleagues publish the first of a series of papers laying out how DNA's genetic code is translated within the cell. The cracking of the code built upon Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA's double helix almost a decade earlier, and opened the way for the genetic revolution to come.

5. Plate tectonics: Geologists Harry Hess and Robert Dietz propose that seafloor spreading and subduction are basic parts of the mechanism for plate tectonics - a finding that led to the rapid acceptance of the tectonic theory behind Earth's large-scale geologic changes. The study of paleomagnetism led scientists to conclude that Earth's magnetic poles periodically reversed, providing an important geological dating method.


6. The environmental movement: Marine biologist Rachel Carson's masterwork, "Silent Spring," is published. The environmental concerns voiced in the book helped spark a grassroots movement that led the federal government to create the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and phase out the use of DDT in 1972.

7. Quasars: The first quasar - quasi-stellar radio source - is discovered by Dutch astronomer Maarten Schmidt. Scientists eventually determine that quasars are compact regions in the center of active galaxies that mark the presence of a supermassive black hole. The discovery was a key turning point in our understanding of galactic development and structure.


8. Quarks and all that: The quark model of particle physics is proposed. The ideas put forth by physicists Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig touched off a decades-long quest to find the subatomic particles that matched the theory, including the J/Psi particle (found in 1974), the W and Z bosons (1983) and the top quark (2004-2005). The quest continues today at America's Fermilab and Europe's Large Hadron Collider, where scientists hope to detect the Higgs boson, the last particle predicted by the Standard Model.

9. Big bang's afterglow: Cosmic microwave background radiation is discovered by radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, an achievement that earned them a Nobel Prize in 1978. The background radiation serves as the fossil imprint of the big bang and has helped astronomers determine the geometry of the universe. The Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), launched in 1989, was a landmark space mission that followed up on Penzias and Wilson's discovery by mapping variations in the background radiation.


10. Heart transplants: First human-to-human heart transplant is performed. Dr. Christiaan Barnard's operation in South Africa prolonged his patient's life by only 18 days, but helped set the stage for rapid progress in medical transplantation techniques. Stanford heart surgeon Norman Shumway was an early pioneer in transplant medicine, and Denton Cooley and Domingo Liotta made a significant contribution in 1969 with the first human implantation of an artificial heart.


11. Moon landing: Humans make first landing on the moon. The Apollo series of moon surface missions, beginning with Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, marked the climax of the decade-long U.S.-Soviet space race and also led to fresh scientific insights into the origins of Earth and the moon.

12. Internet: First node is connected on ARPAnet, the predecessor to the modern Internet. What began as an research project to develop a nuke-proof communication system ended up revolutionizing academic exchange - and eventually modern society. Twenty years after the Internet's birth, CERN's Tim Berners-Lee brought the global network to a higher level with the invention of the World Wide Web.

Jump ahead to the 1970s ... to the 1980s ... to the 1990s ... to the 2000s ... or see the full timeline on CASW's Web site.

As long as we're talking about timelines, please suggest some of the milestones we might see on a timeline stretching from 2010 to 2060. My favorites include private-sector spaceflight to Mars and beyond, hints of life (or at least livability) beyond Earth, fusion power, more widely available terrestrial solar power and space solar power, cell-based therapies and increasingly intelligent machines. What are yours?

To get the creative juices flowing, here are some additional perspectives on the 50 years (and five years) to come:

Alan Boyle serves as the treasurer of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."