Sunday Nibble #67: Friday hangover


No, not that kind of hangover. One of the Friday Free-for-All questions two days ago was what I thought was the most significant invention of the last 50 years. Coincidentally, I noticed a new documentary series on Amazon Prime which tracks important inventions by decade, starting in the 1900s and going from there to the present.

So it got me to wondering, after watching the 1900s episode, what the big inventions were exactly 100 years ago. That is, not those invented in the 1920s, but limited to 1921.

This was the year in which Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics, although he wasn’t awarded it until 1922. Oddly enough, though, he didn’t win this one for either his General or Special Theory of Relativity, but rather for his discovery of the photoelectric effect.

This would later go on to prove quantum theory, because reasons, and become very useful in things like electric eyes, smoke detectors, solar panels, and so forth. The very short version of why it supports quantum physics is that it proved that electrons could only exist at very specific energy levels with no in-between going on — that is, those levels were quantized, or set at fixed amounts.

Imagine it like this: You’re making instant mashed potatoes from the box, and it gives you options for various numbers of servings, like 2, 4, 8, 12, or the whole box. For each increment of servings, there’s going to be one unique number for the flakes, water, butter, and milk. There’s no sliding scale allowed.

That’s how electrons work. The photoelectric effect is just what happens when you throw photons — which are little packets of energy with no rest mass — into matter. Depending on the energy of the photon and how it interacts, it’ll kick an electron up to the next “step” in energy levels. Think of this as the changing microwave or cooking times for those potatoes depending upon how many servings you’re making.

And Einstein described that a century ago.

The other big inventions and/or discoveries were all medical: A vaccine for tuberculosis, Vitamin D, and insulin.

All of these were a huge deal. Tuberculosis (TB) killed a lot of people and was highly infectious, and in the crowded cities of the modernized world, that was a problem. A century prior to the vaccine, it was the stereotypical wasting disease that killed the heroines in Romantic novels and operas (think Camile). It also contributed to the death of Frédéric Chopin, who wasn’t the healthiest of composers to begin with.

The vaccine in question, and the only effective one still used to this day, is the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine, named for its creators. However, it’s only recommended to be given automatically in areas where TB is known to be prevalent. Otherwise, if someone is tested and not infected, the vaccine is optional, with only children at high-risk due to other conditions being inoculated.

In the same year, Vitamin D was indirectly discovered as science searched for a cure for rickets, which seemed to be seasonal, although Vitamin D itself wasn’t isolated and identified until 1922. What scientists did figure out in 1921, though, was the exposure to sunshine and ultraviolet light helped to alleviate or prevent rickets, which also related to the seasonal nature of the condition.

And, as is generally known now, the human body is capable of making its own Vitamin D. All it takes is sunshine.

But perhaps the biggest medical discovery and most important innovation of 1921 was the discovery of the hormone insulin, and its role in diabetes, a human disease so ancient that it was first described nearly 4000 years ago, and it was an Indian physician in the 5th century BCE who noted that ants seemed particularly attracted to the urine of such patients, said urine being sticky to the touch and sweet to the taste.

Yeah, I guess doctors went all-in on diagnosis back then.

But in 1921, researchers finally found the hormone and made the connection to the disease. There are two kinds of diabetes. Type 1 is a sort of autoimmune disease in which your body destroys the cells in your pancreas that make insulin, so that you’re incapable of producing it. Therefore, your body has no way of reducing the amount of glucose in your blood, which is bad.

Type 1 diabetes usually shows up during childhood, and requires regular monitoring of blood sugar and injections of insulin in order to treat — but never cure.

Type 2 diabetes happens when your body becomes resistant to insulin. That is, you need more insulin to get the same glucose clearing effect. However, over time, the cells in your pancreas may not be able to keep up and they burn out, so you wind up in the position of not making insulin either, or no matter how much insulin your body makes, it can never properly clear all that blood sugar.

Most Type 2 treatments involve medications that either make your body more responsive to insulin, increase your sensitivity to insulin, or cause you to make more insulin. Insulin itself is generally not a treatment. Dietary changes, however, can be very helpful.

So the big picture is that some of humanity’s most important discoveries might just be a lot older than we think but it’s also a nice reminder that, in terms of the history of humankind, a century is just the blink of an eye.

What inventions from now do you think that people will marvel at in 2121 as being so “ancient?” Let us know in the comments!

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