What IS the most important scientific breakthrough of last fifty years?


It seems odd to accuse the BBC of “hiding” a television programme in a prime time slot on their flagship channel, but amidst the hype for their Christmas schedule I saw no advertising whatsoever for the latest Robert Winston vehicle How Science Changed Our World (BBC1, 20:00, 23rd December, 60 mins). This is a huge pity because the documentary shone an engaging spotlight on ten important scientific advances of the past 50 years.

Robert Winston chooses his list of the top ten scientific breakthroughs of the past 50 years

Perhaps inevitably, given Winston’s own background, there was a bias in the coverage towards developments in molecular bioscience. Many of the advances have ethical dimensions and I plan to comment on those more fully over at bioethicsbytes. For now, here is a summary of Winston’s 10 key breakthroughs in the order discussed:

1. Contraceptive pill (01:43 to 08:55) The ability to plan pregnancies has been liberating, but had unforeseen consequences
2. Microchip (08:56 to 13:01) The silicon chip is an unseen but ubiquitous feature of modern life – a tool for good and ill
3. MRI scanner (13:02 to 21:49) The ability to see inside someone’s head opens up new medical possibilities
4. LASER (22:46 to 27:23) Another development with diverse applications, including potential roles in development of greener fuels
5. Biomechanics (27:25 to 34:45) Winston uses the term biomechanics interchangeably with ‘bionics’ to describe developments at the machine-body interface biomechanic limbs
6. World Wide Web (35:07 to 39:39) The internet has only been in broad use for a decade but is integral to contemporary life world wide web
7. Growing evidence for big bang (40:20 to 45:29) Included by Winston as a symbol of mankind’s innate inquisitiveness evidence for big bang
8. Human Genome Project (45:44 to 50:44) One of several inclusions in the list where the benefits have yet to outrun the hype human genome project
9. Stem cells (50:46 to 53:23) As above, a well-known development that has yet to live up to its potential stem cells
10. IVF (53:27 to 56:52) IVF and spin-offs such as Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, in which Winston has played a role IVF

The list is somewhat idiosyncratic and, to my mind, includes several entries that have yet to justify their inclusion. Non-biologists might argue that other fields of science are under-represented. Teflon was too early a discovery to fit the criteria but there must be a whole range of other polymers that have a proven track record of changing our lives. Pharmaceutical chemistry must also have generated a number of candidate molecules worthy of inclusion.

Ultimately I think that the Human Genome Project will prove to be truly revolutionary, but we are just starting to reap the benefits of this huge investment. Purely in terms of impact on the largest number of the earth’s population I would guess that either the microchip or the Internet would have to be the winner (with the contraceptive pill as the most significant biological innovation).

What do you think? There is an opportunity to register your vote on the BBC Science page. There is no closing date advertised, but the result is due to be revealed at 2:30 pm on Monday January 10th (it says 2010 but presumably means 2011 unless time-travel should have made it onto the list.)

The programme was available on iPlayer until 22:59 on Thursday 30th December 2010. TRILT members can obtain copies for education use from the BUFVC. The TRILT code for the episode is 018B1255.


  1. Tempted to say the human genome sequence, but probably the microchip, without which determining any genome sequence would not have been possible.

    • Yes, impeccable logic Dr C. You could also argue that the internet needs computers and computers need microchips, so the microchip it is (… probably)

  2. I cannot find the results of the poll on the BBC website, but according to the Society of Biology blog (http://tinyurl.com/62ur4qy) The results of the public vote were:
    The microchip (37.3%)
    The Internet (18.7%)
    Stem cell research (14.3%)
    Decoding the Human Genome (10%)
    The laser (6.2%)
    Evidence for the Big Bang (6.1%)
    MRI scanning (3.9%)
    IVF (2.8%)
    The Contraceptive Pill (2.7%)
    Bio-mechanics (2.1%)

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