18 Mar 2022 STEAM / STEM

British Science Week: Timeline of UK Science

For #bsw22, STEAMWORKS has assembled a quick UK STEM history breakdown. The UK has a lot to be proud of when it comes to science. British doctors, chemists, physics and engineers have changed the history of the world! Lets meet some of them.

The UK is a science capital of the world! At STEAMWORKS we’ve spent a lot of time trying to inspire the next generation of STEM trailblazer, so for British Science week we thought we’d look back at what other British scientists have managed so far.

Medieval Science

Science wasn’t one of Britain’s strong points back in the dark ages. Nearly all of the STEM we use today was discovered in the middle east or in other European countries before around 400 years ago.

British monks tended to focus on ancient texts, Roman or Greek ones if they could get their hands on them, or, rather embarrassingly, believe in some interesting medicines.

Plague doctors thought illness was caused by bad smells so wore massive leather beaks full of lavender. Other medics believed in the ‘humors’. Instead of being funny, the humors were actually all about the amount of blood, bile and phlegm in our bodies, and that by having the right amount of each we can stay healthy. Yuk.

1687– Physics and Issac Newton

After several thousand years of doing very little, the UK made began making it’s mark on the science world! Issac Newton (1643-1727) came up with the laws of motion in 1687 and gravity which remained amongst the most important theories in physics until Einstein came up with the theory of relativity 200 years later!

1700s– Steel and Sheffield!

Being from Sheffield, we couldn’t resist mentioning the city in a STEAMWORKS blog post. Benjamin Huntsman’s ( 1704 – 1776 ) crucible steel process cemented Sheffield as the steel capital of the world for hundreds of years and made materials strong enough to take the UK through the industrial revolution of the 1800s. But we won’t go on about that here, check out our Sheffield STEM blog to learn more about the steel city.

1786– Astronomy and Caroline Herschel

Having moved to the UK in 1772, Herschel (1750-1848) was an astronomy pioneer and made more astronomical discoveries in 9 years than someone would hope to make in a lifetime. 8 comets, 14 nebulas and reams of star clusters later, Herschel made history when doing her work made her the first women to get paid for scientific work on record.

1811– Dinosaurs and Mary Anning

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was a paleontology pioneer and spent her entire life searching the sands of Devon’s Jurassic Coast looking for fossils.

She first made her mark in 1811 at the age of 12, when Anning and her brother dug up an ichthyosaur skull- a prehistoric sea creature.

Her famous shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot, sold the world’s most complete dinosaur fossils at the time. Her work was hugely significant in broadening the appeal of geology and prehistory, despite being an outsider in the science community.

1833– Computer Science and Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was an incredible mathematician who many believe was amongst the first ever computer programmers.

The daughter of the famous poet, Lord Byron, and mathematician, Lady Byron, she developed an interest in science at an early age. In 1833, she met Charles Babbage and started one of the best known partnerships in computer science history.

Lovelace’s unparalleled understanding of computing was essential in the proposal of Babbage’s Analytical Engine, one of the world’s earliest complex computer designs. She also authored the very first computer algorithm, all this despite the odds all of the incredible women had to overcome in a socially conservative Victorian Britain.

1859– Evolution and Charles Darwin

Perhaps the most famous biologist ever, Darwin (1809-1882) had an incredible impact on science and society around the world.

His travels to the Galápagos Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean aboard HMS Beagle, coupled with the discovery of impressive fossils like those Mary Anning found in Devon, lead to his 1859 work- On The Origin of The Species. It stated that animals ‘evolved’ over millions of years to better adapt their environments. The smarter, stronger and best adapted animals outlived their counterparts.

Today the whole scientific community now agree with this idea but, at the time, it was hugely controversial. Most people thought all animals had been identical since the beginning of the Earth, and were furious to hear that humans evolved from apes.

1928– Antibiotics and Alexander Fleming

If you look at the chart above, you’ll see life expectancy shoot up at the start of the 1900s. That’s no coincidence, 100-year-old scientific discoveries still save thousands of lives today.

Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) was a Scottish scientist who discovered Penicillin in 1928. When studying influenza, he noticed a mould on a petri dish he’d accidentally left out in his lab. He notices that the mould left a circle of immunity again bacteria around itself.

Fleming’s discovery lead to the creation of antibiotics, the world’s most useful tool in fighting bacterial infections. In his lifetime the drug saved countless patients and continue to do so today.

1952– DNA and Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) contributions are crucial in helping us understand the molecular DNA, RNA, viruses, and graphite. Despite all that, in her lifetime and the decades following she did not get the recognition she deserved.

During the early 1950s, Franklin and her team experimented with X-ray crystallography, a way of recording microscopic molecule’s shapes. In 1952 they made a break through and made observations which would help discover DNA’s double helix structure.

Franklin died in 1958 of ovarian cancer, some believe from being exposed to high levels of radiation in her lab. The famous scientists Watson and Crick used Franklin’s research to propose DNA’s structure. While they won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, many suggest Franklin did not get the credit she deserved.

1958– Genetics and Anne McLaren

The UK has a strong track record in contributing to the study of genetics. Anne McLaren (1927-2007) was a genetics front runner whose work helped make in-vitro fertilisation a reality for families around the world.

Her research produced the first litter of mice using egg cells grown outside the mouse and transferred to a surrogate mother- an essential step in making human IVF possible. For the next half decade, she continued to research in genetics, reproduction and fertility. In 1978, following from her research, the first IVF ‘test-tube baby’ was born.

1970– Cosmology and Stephen Hawking

There are very few scientists who could gain such stature in science and pop culture than Stephen Hawking (1942-2018).

In 1970, Hawking began making substantial contributions to research into the general theory of relativity and black holes after a recent diagnosis of motor neurone disease. He was told he would struggle to live another two years and his muscles and speech began to stop working.

Instead, from his wheel chair and using a computer generated voice, he dedicated the next 40 years of his life making vital contributions to the world of physics. Combine his genius with an ability to make intricate ideas understandable for the public makes him one of, if not the best, British scientists to ever live.

2004– Graphene and British Science Today

UK science hasn’t slowed down. British scientists are still coming up with amazing ideas that can change the world! Just look at what we’ve managed in the last 20 years.

First there’s graphene, a tiny conductive material made from one-atom-thick carbon. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov discovered it at the University of Manchester by in 2004. It’s still being researched today, but scientists around the world think it’s hugely useful. They think it can be used:

  • in medicine
  • in light bulbs, screens and solar panels
  • to speed up chemical reactions (a catalyst)
  • to filter water
  • as soundproofing
  • as waterproofing
  • and more!

Geim and Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010 for the discovery.

Then there’s the Rosetta probe and the Philae lander which made the first ever landing onto a comet, a huge block of ice, dust and rocks moving through space at 2000 miles per hour. British scientists worked as part of a team with the European Space Agency (ESA) to make the impossible task possible.

That’s the list so far! It doesn’t cover everyone though- hundreds of amazing scientists have come out of this country!

Do you think there’s anyone we should have added to this list? Let us know! We want to know who your favourite British scientist is- you can chat with STEAMWORKS on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.