Via Gia Milinovich’s blog, I came across the Great British Innovations web site, which is asking members of the public to vote for their top past and future scientific innovations. The results will be announced on the 25th March 2013.
The lists are interesting, and I’m finding it difficult to choose which two (past and future) I will vote for. Perhaps it’s just me, but when I think of the term innovation, I tend to think of something that results in practical impact on our lives in a fairly direct manner. So, for example, while Turing’s Universal Machine was a stunning scientific theorising about the nature of computation, I don’t think it could be said to lead directly to computers as we know them today. Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the protocols that underpin the World Wide Web, on the other hand, has completely transformed the way in which we share information in just over twenty years. In the same vein of practical impacts, Percy Shaw’s catseyes have had direct impact on making the roads safer for millions of road users.
I see that Gia will be voting for Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars, which, again, while it transformed aspects of astronomy enormously, I don’t think it has resulted in practical impacts on most of our lives. The Bell Burnell story is an interesting one, and one that, as Gia says, deserves to be better known. But, practical impact? I’m not so sure.
The shorter list of future innovations also contains a couple that seem to me to be out of place when judged in terms of direct practical impact. For example, the discovery of the Higgs boson is indeed a stunning scientific achievement, and a confirmation of the standard model in physics, but isn’t this really about the engineering achievement of the building of the Large Hadron Collider? I’m not sure what the practical impact of that will be for the rest of us, unless it leads to the engineering that will enable us to build fusion reactors. That would indeed be a real innovation, and a revolution in our energy sources.
It looks as though the Raspberry Pi is currently the front-runner in the votes. Personally, it’s not a favourite of mine. I can see that it has had a direct impact on a new generation of children growing up and getting them introduced to programming, but I’m not entirely convinced that we really need “to create a new generation of computer programmers”. I think I’d be more inclined to vote for one of the others, e.g. Graphene, or Ionic Liquids, or Quantum Dots.