Experimenting is a human compulsion. From the very beginnings of history, experimentation has provided our curious minds with the tools we need to develop and test our ideas, structure our society and invent technology.
Experimentation by Australian radio astronomers led to WiFi; early agriculturalists experimenting with crops changed our nomadic existence and transformed our planet. Experiments have led us to understand light and gravity, allowed us to study stars and galaxies on the other side of the universe, and learn about the conditions just fractions of a second after the Big Bang. The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is the biggest experimental technology of its kind, smashing atoms in milliseconds to understand the fundamentals of physics. Experimenters studying the human mind have found out how and why we think and act the way we do. In the future, experiments will lead to new technologies we can hardly imagine today.
The Bragg Prizes are named for Australia’s very first Nobel Laureates, the father-and-son team of William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg. 2015 marks the centenary of their Nobel Prize win in Physics for their work on the X-ray analysis of crystal structures.
Sometimes experiments have come about because of an unforseen combination of circumstances, or a planned experiment that may have had an unexpected outcome or led to a fortuitous result.
The invention of the microwave was seeded when Dr Percy Spencer, an engineer with the Raytheon Corporation, found that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted when he was testing a new vacuum tube. Later experiments with an egg and popcorn confirmed that the heating from low-intensity microwaves was responsible. Engineers went to work on the concept and in 1947, the prototype microwave, the ‘Radarange’ was put on the market for US$3000-$4000.
The amazing accidental experiment that led to the invention of the microwave
Penicillin is invented from mould on dirty dishes
How noticing a strange glow led to the development of the X-ray
9 other things discovered by accident
The most amazing experiments in the world today cover vast areas, are located in extreme environments, take years to perform and can work at the smallest possible scales. Take a look at some of the biggest, longest, strangest, coldest and most amazing experiments on the planet.
To find gravity waves, ripples in space predicted by Einstein to exist in 1916, the US $365 million LIGO experiment uses two observatories 3000 km apart
The biggest machine in the world – the Large Hadron Collidor – is a giant experiment that attempts to recreate the conditions just after the Big Bang
The world’s longest running lab experiment, the Pitch Drop Experiment, shows how a seemingly a solid object can drip like a liquid – if you have 80 years or so to watch it!
Is it a bird, or a plane, or…a giant balloon used for science experiments? Yup it’s a balloon, and NASA flies these at heights of up to 42 km in the atmosphere.
From testing our space rockets to helping us understand humanity, experiments with animal subjects have driven much of what we know in biology, psychology, neuroscience and even planetary exploration. Here’s a snapshot of some of the incredible animal experiments people have done.
Dian Fossey changed the way we thought about our close relatives in her amazing field study of mountain gorillas.
Laika was the name of the brave Russian dog that paved the way for humans to orbit the Earth.
By observing how monkeys prefer to look at images of themselves rather than receive a food reward, these experimenters shed light on why we love to watch celebrities.
The 1991 launch of the space shuttle Columbia carried an unusual cargo – 2478 jellyfish. Researchers were interested in how the baby jellyfish would adapt to low gravity.
A study of the effects of drugs on web-weaving spiders produced some surprising results, and amazing spiderwebs.
With a reputation for being tinkerers and experimenters with a ‘make do’ attitude, Australians since European occupation have worked on some inventions used worldwide. Indigenous Australians were able to use their ingenuity and natural resources to live in a diverse community that existed alongside and in parallel with their country. Here are just a few typically Australian experiments.
Fiona Wood is famous for the invention of spray-on skin, which has saved the lives of dozens of burns victims.
Dr Mark Lidwell’s incredible attempt to save the life of a baby born with heart problems led to the invention of the pacemaker, which helps patients with heart disease worldwide.
Graeme Clark’s bionic ear is the first device that can interact directly with the human brain, helping hundreds and thousands of hearing impaired people to hear
Where would we be without WiFi? This iconic Australian invention came about because radioastronomers were seeking out black holes in space.
Aboriginal Australians 40,000 years ago possessed some of the most technologically innovative solutions to the extreme environments of Australia.
Scientists might have good intentions at heart, but boundary-pushing experiments always come with risks and benefits that need to be carefully assessed. Ensuring the benefits of scientific experiments outweigh the risks is tricker said than done. Some strange experiments from the past have led accidentally to breakthroughs in scientific discovery, while others are now perceived as wildly unethical. And some more recent science experiments are still up for debate…
The Conditioning of Little Albert
The Milgram Obedience Experiment
Laser isotope separation for nuclear medicine: also key for making nuclear weapons
Brain scanning machines that can read human thoughts: although useful to understanding the complexity of the human brain and cognition, is it an invasion of privacy or potentially damaging in other ways?
Mutating deadly viruses so scientists can keep on top of emerging strains; medical hazard?
Brain sampling: removing brain cells from a live subject to assess and learn from the DNA
Imagine our world without antibiotics and other medicines such as analgesic drugs that allow us to combat and survive illnesses and disease. Imagine what it would be like not to know what countries and oceans exist on the other side of the planet. Over the course of history science experiments have changed the world and how we perceive and interact in it. People are living longer and stronger, and we have a wealth of knowledge about the Earth and everything that inhabits it. We are also continually pushing the boundaries of discovery – from the discovery of new continents to deepening our understanding of astronomy, alternative dimensions and outer space. Here are just a few examples of mind-blowing experiments from the past that unarguably have changed our world.
Marie Curie: the first lady of science and the experimental discovery of radium/radioactivity
Albert Einstein: theory of relativity and the single most important contribution by one man to science
Galileo: his famous Leaning Tower of Pisa thought experiment proved that balls of different masses fell with the same acceleration, disproving Aristotle’s theory of gravity
Isaac Newton: the colour spectrum; how the rainbow refracts white light with a prism, revealing its component colours
Rosalind Franklin: 3D DNA molecule helical structure
Louis Pasteur: pasteurisation and the discovery of antibiotics
From DNA manipulation to time travel, lab-grown meat to re-growing body parts – technology is changing the way we think about science. A hundred years ago, no one could have imagined mobile phones, social media and space travel. Fictional experiments touch on what could be possible – turning science fiction into fact. Here are some popular examples:
Jurassic World: bringing palaeontology to the next level with wonders of genetic engineering – can we reconstruct a dinosaur from DNA?
Tomorrowland: time travel into a futuristic world in an alternative dimension
The Hunger Games: social experiment pitting people against each other in a ‘game’ for survival involving game theory and probability
Given what we already know and what we discover on a day-to-day basis – especially given the rapidly-advancing technologies of the 21st century and the ‘big data’ that is emerging – what will be scientifically possible in the future is anyone’s guess. Take a look at what scientists today are dipping their toes into… and where it might lead.
Higgs boson and the Standard Model – could the masses of data unleashed reveal the next big discoveries in modern physics?
Time travel and quantum experiments:
Explain that stuff: 10 great physics experiments
25 Mind Blowing Psychology Experiments…You Won’t Believe What’s Inside Your Head