Past Discoveries Pave the Way for the Advancements of Today

An atom's electron orbital

An atom’s electron orbital

The world of science is built on the work of the past. This is true of almost all things, but when looking at a new scientific advancement, one can often trace a direct line from past breakthroughs to the present, in a way that’s more logical and clear than history often is. Because of that, understanding the past is vital. Looking at the newest scientific breakthrough without any context of the breakthroughs that led up to that moment is akin to looking at something magical; but by going backwards, looking at how the pieces have added up to the current whole, we can begin to understand even the most abstract concepts.

It’s fitting, then, that many scientists seek to understand the mysteries of life by looking at the smallest components of matter. For years, scientists have studied atoms: how they are constructed, how they function, how they come together to create life as we know it.

Recently, some great new advancements have been made. Using a newly designed quantum microscope, scientists in the Netherlands were able to observe an atom’s electron orbital. This is the first time scientists have been able to directly observe the wave function of an atom. Similarly, researchers in Berkeley, California, were able to capture high resolution images of molecules as they break and reform chemical bonds.

Both of these advancements, while highly technical, will help scientists gain a greater understanding about how the smallest units of matter function, thus increasing our understanding of how life and the universe works, and why. Undoubtedly, these advancements will allow further discoveries in the near future (if they haven’t already), and these discoveries will seem common-place and easy to understand.

So it is with the scientists who more than a century ago helped discover atoms and molecules, and introduced the idea that everything in the universe was made of smaller and smaller parts. Many scientists worked in this area and made essential discoveries, but two giants in the field were John Dalton and Ernest Rutherford. Dalton is credited as a pioneer in the development of Atomic Theory, while Rutherford was a respected experimentalist who was vital in the development of nuclear physics and was integral in the discovery that atoms could be broken down into smaller parts, such as the nucleus and protons.

In their own time, the work of Dalton and Rutherford and others like them was complex and controversial, but their theories and discoveries are viewed as essential building blocks of modern science. Without their work, the discoveries being made today would almost probably be impossible; they would almost certainly be incomprehensible. It’s impossible to tell now exactly which advancements being made today will be the basis for discoveries of tomorrow, and which modern scientists will be remembered like Dalton and Rutherford. But it is clear that to understand what’s coming, we must have knowledge of what has been done and discovered, just as to understand the universe, we must look at it’s smallest parts.

To learn more about John Dalton and Ernest Rutherford, please read the newest additions to Morgan Reynolds Publishing’s acclaimed Profiles in Science series: John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory  (ISBN# 978-1-59935-122-3) and Ernest Rutherford and the Birth of the Atomic Age (ISBN# 978-1-59935-171-1), both by Roberta Baxter, available now! Check them out from your local library, purchase them from Morgan Reynolds or a distributor, or download an ebook version to read on your computer or e-reader.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

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