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Science sagas of the '80s

— Some of today's coolest technologies - ranging from DNA analysis to the personal computer and the space shuttle - were built upon foundations laid during the 1980s. The '80s also marked the start of the global fight against AIDS, as well as growing concern about the effect of greenhouse-gas emissions on global climate.

This week we're revisiting 50 of the top science sagas of the past 50 years - and it goes without saying that every saga has made a contribution to the current state of society. But if you had to pick one decade that sowed the seeds for the current crop of technological triumphs and troubles, it just might be the '80s.

Today we highlight 10 scientific sagas from the decade, selected for a timeline that marks the 50th birthday of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

You won't find the shuttle's first flight or the PC's debut on this list, and maybe they should be there. Doing a beta test on the timeline is what this exercise is all about. Feel free to let us know what we're missing, what we're putting too much emphasis on - and what you remember about the technological tenor of the times.

For example, I'll always remember buying my first "computer" in the early 1980s. It was an Atari 800, which I actually used at the newspaper where I worked to tabulate the votes in an Oscar poll. To program the darn thing, you had to type in lines of code, oh so carefully, then hit the "record" button on a cassette tape recorder to store the program. Later, I sprung for a floppy-disk drive. Today there's far more computing power packed inside your typical cell phone (which first came to market in 1984, by some accounts).

Am I really remembering all this right? Set me straight or share your own tech tall tale in the comment section below.

1980

23. Farewell to smallpox: The World Health Organization announces that smallpox has disappeared worldwide. The infectious disease killed untold millions over the course of centuries, and its eradication through widespread vaccination was a crowning achievement in public health.

24. Killer asteroid: Luis and Walter Alvarez propose that a cosmic impact was responsible for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The hypothesis provided a focus for further scientific study into the causes of great extinctions. Cosmic impacts as well as the effects of climate change have come to be seen as the primary factors behind ancient die-offs.

25. Cosmic inflation: Inflationary big bang theory is put forward by Alan Guth to explain seeming contradictions in the scientific model for the universe's creation. Subsequent observations supported inflation as the leading explanation for what happened immediately after the universe's origin to create the seeds of cosmic structure.

1983

26. HIV identified: French doctors isolate the virus that causes AIDS. The discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus marked the beginning of a continuing effort to develop treatments for a disease that was at the time seen as a death sentence.

27. Evo-devo: Researchers at the University of Basel and Indiana University independently discover homeobox DNA sequences within genes, which regulate patterns of development in a wide spectrum of organisms. Such work helped lead the way to evolutionary development ("evo-devo") studies that shed light on how different species are interrelated.

1984

28. DNA decoders: Polymerase chain reaction technique for DNA analysis is developed by Kary Mullis, who won a Nobel Prize in 1993 for the discovery. PCR analysis has become the foundation of modern genetic research, touching on fields ranging from medicine and evolutionary biology to criminology.

29: String theory: The first superstring revolution begins. Theorists suggest that string theory - the idea that the most fundamental constituents of matter can be thought of as minuscule strings vibrating in multidimensional space - could resolve the inconsistencies between general relativity and quantum physics. The first superstring revolution (1984-85) set the precedent for the second superstring revolution (1994-97). Even today, string theory sparks debate over whether it could be a "theory of everything" ... or a "theory of nothing."

1985

30. Nanotechnology: Buckminsterfullerene is created in the lab by Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley. The soccerball-like C60 molecule was the first of several artificial carbon constructs that paved the way for innovations in nanotechnology such as carbon nanotubes. Other nanotech innovations, such as gold nanoparticles and quantum dots, appear to have medical applications - but nanotechnology has raised medical concerns as well.

1986

31. Catching up with comets: Europe's Giotto mission observes Halley's comet up close. For the first time, humans were given a glimpse at the source of one of the most dramatic displays in the heavens - and, according to some theories, a primordial source for the stuff of life. Cometary studies continued with 2005's Deep Impact mission, which fired a "bullet" into the heart of a comet, and the Stardust mission, which brought samples of comet dust back to Earth in 2006.

32. High-temperature superconductors: The first high-temperature superconductor is discovered by Karl Mueller and Johannes Bednorz. The achievement earned them the Nobel Prize in 1987. High-temperature superconductors could eventually be used for more efficient power transmission and vehicle propulsion.

Go back to the 1960s

Go back to the 1970s

Jump ahead to the 1990s

Jump ahead to the 2000s

See the full 50-year timeline at the CASW Web site.


I'm on the board of CASW and will be in charge of revising the timeline for next year's 50th-anniversary observances. 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."