Wednesday, May 15, 2013

10 Liberating Inventions of the Last 10 Years

Seems like a good time to check the progress “down at the global idea factory” – as James Badham put it, and that’s what he did.

There have been some big advances: the iPod, smartphones, Google, texting, Twitter, Facebook, Tivo and LCD televisions are a few that come to mind.

“It’s strange to consider the inventions and ideas that change our lives — or might,” says Mr.Badham, a writer and media liaison for the environmental graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara.. “Some of them, like the large hedron particle collider, a massive contraption straight from science fiction, will forever remain largely incomprehensible to the vast majority of us,” he says. “Others, like screw-top wine caps, seem almost comically mundane yet have a huge effect on tens of millions of people. To see them juxtaposed a quest to learn the secrets of the universe on one hand, a quest for a good bottle of wine on the other, is somehow satisfying.”

Let’s take a look at the 10 big ideas – including one major healthcare advancement – from the past decade that Mr. Badham listed for their powerful impact.


Although it may not directly change your life, it may confirm, disprove or shift some theories about how the universe works. The particle collider is the world’s largest machine, a 17-mile-long circular tunnel some 500 feet below the border of Switzerland and France.


Wind power is the fastest-growing form of renewable energy. (The first wind turbine was built in Ohio in 1888. It produced only 12 kilowatts of electricity to power a lawn mower.) Wind farms today supply only 2% of worldwide electrical usage, but that’s twice the level of just three years ago. Watch for that number to go way up.


Developed for military use, the global positioning system hit its populist stride when cell phones became GPS-enabled, so that first responders could more easily locate the source of 911 calls.


Edison’s incandescent lightbulb was one of the most important inventions of all time, but the light-emitting diode (LED) will likely soon replace it. The Department of Energy predicts that LEDs will be the primary source of household illumination by 2017.


In 1990, the Department of Energy partnered with the National Institutes of Health to begin the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003 two years ahead of schedule. The primary goals of the project were to identify some 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA, to determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA, and then to create systems for storing and analyzing the information and transferring it to the private sector. Already, the HGP has enabled researchers to pinpoint errors in genes that cause or contribute to disease, to develop and administer genetic tests that can show predispositions to illnesses, and to begin finding ways to treat, cure and prevent thousands of diseases that result from genetic inheritance. (Some of them are described in my colleague Brenda Rizzo’s blog “Therapy based on genetics–one step closer” on August 18, 2011.)


Begun in 2000 by a group of musicians and technophiles, Pandora is an endless realm for musical explorers. Pandora’s database catalogs such attributes as melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, lyrics, and vocal style.


Screw tops used to be reserved for the humblest wines no self-respecting oenophile would look at, much less drink. But they’re on the rise now, for the simple fact that bad corks cost tens of millions of dollars per year. A screw top may be unromantic, but it’s a revolution in freshness.


An American game of numbers with a Japanese name, sudoku has been around a while but became popular only about five years ago. A type of Latin square, Sudoku puzzles now appear in every newspaper, in puzzle books, all over the Internet and even in handheld electronic devices.


Gehry’s asymmetrical designs of organic shapes, unexpected protrusions and a host of original forms — often with metal and glass surfaces — have become instant tourist attractions wherever they’ve gone up. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, made Gehry’s name a household word in 1997. A Gehry structure, like the BP Bridge in Chicago’s Millennium Park, doesn’t just sit there; it says to the kid in everyone, “Walk around here; it’s really cool.”


In the new wave of grand libraries, stuffy rooms and dowdy design have given way to extraordinary architecture with books in the kind of suitably grand and inspiring environment they deserve. Combined with extra-literary attractions, these modern word temples bring millions to buildings where reading is the main thing.

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