So, I wondered what do I think? What are the ten most remarkable scientific ideas?
I have used the following rough criteria. The idea
- is far from obvious
- is often not thought about because we have become so used to it that we take it for granted
- may evoke not just an intellectual response but also a somewhat emotional one of wonder and awe
- is profound but can be simply stated
- is a specific law, principle, or property, rather than a general scientific idea such as that laws can be encoded mathematically, experiments must be repeated, the same laws apply everywhere in the universe.
1. The universe had a beginning.
2. Time has a direction.
3. The fundamental constants of nature are fine-tuned for life.
4. All elementary particles are identical.
5. Energy is quantised.
6. Particles are fields and fields are particles.
7. All of life has a common molecular template (DNA and proteins).
8. Everything is made from atoms. The periodic table of chemistry.
9. Evolution: many small genetic variations can produce biological diversity.
10. Emergence and reductionism. Complexity can emerge from simplicity.
Here are some runners up. Some are more specific versions of those above.
A. The genetic code. DNA prescribes protein synthesis.
B. Genetic information is encoded in DNA.
C. Water is a unique liquid with remarkable properties with important implications for biomolecular function.
D. Diffraction of waves [x-rays, electrons, neutrons] can be used to determine the atomic structure of materials.
E. The geometry of molecules and chemical reactivity is determined by quantum mechanics [and can be described by potential energy surfaces].
F. The second law of thermodynamics: entropy is a state function. Free energy determines stability of open systems.
G. Symmetry constrains physical laws; spontaneously broken symmetry leads to different physical interactions and states of matter.
H. Macroscopic properties are determined by microscopic properties.
I. Protein folding. Amino acid sequence uniquely determines protein structure which determines function.
I am missing anything about earth science due to my ignorance.
Presumably, others have compiled such lists and taught courses based on them. Please let me know. One example is a course by Robert Hazen and James Trefil. Each chapter is centred around a great idea.
What do you think?
How would you change the above lists?