Once, when Albert Einstein was young, he became ill and was stuck in bed. In order to cheer him up, his father gave young Albert a magnetic compass to play with. This simple gift had a huge impact on Einstein ”” he was fascinated by the fact that no matter how he held the compass, the needle always pointed in the same direction. Even in his old age, he wrote about receiving the compass saying, "I can still remember...that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things."
This compass ”” as tiny and seemingly insignificant as it was ”” sparked Einstein's curiosity and was his introduction to scientific inquiry. Eventually, of course, his curiosity and brilliance would lead him to become one of the most influential scientists in history. So what other small objects have had a significant impact on humanity? Read on to find out more.
As the story goes, an apple fell on Isaac Newton's head, causing him to have a stroke of genius and developing his theory of gravity. Although this story is almost certainly embellished, there is evidence to suggest that a falling apple did indeed inspire Newton.
One of Newton's younger contemporaries named William Stukeley wrote about a conversation he had with Newton while the two of them were enjoying some tea under an apple tree:
"Amid other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why sh[oul]d that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood.Why sh[oul]d it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the Earth's centre? Assuredly the reason is, that the Earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. And the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the Earth must be in the Earth's centre, not in any side of the Earth."
Aside from just being an excellent snack, the candy bar is largely responsible for the discovery of one of the most ubiquitous modern appliances.
In 1945, Percy Spencer ”” one of the world's leading experts on radar tubes ”” was building magnetrons for radar sets. While he was working, he noticed that a candy bar he'd had in his pocket had melted. Spencer and some of his colleagues then began trying to heat other foods to see if they could replicate his discovery. Eventually, Spencer created what we know today as the microwave oven, and making popcorn has never been the same since.
But that's not the only time a bar of chocolate came in handy. A few years before some melted candy inspired the invention of the microwave oven, some unmelted chocolate brought about one of the best-loved cookies in America.
One night, a woman named Ruth Graves Wakefield decided to make a batch of chocolate cookies. But as she started mixing the dough, Ruth realized that she was out of baker's chocolate. Luckily for her (and for America), she had a block of Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate on hand, so she chopped it up into little pieces and added it to the dough. She assumed the chocolate would melt in the oven and disperse throughout the dough, but when she removed the cookies from the oven, she found that they were filled with chocolate chips! And thus, the first chocolate chip cookie was created.
In Pensées, Blaise Pascal writes: "The nose of Cleopatra, if it had been shorter, would have changed the face of the Earth."
Indeed, it is Cleopatra's beauty (including the appearance of her nose) that is often cited as having a big impact on the way the world looks today. She made Egypt into a major power in the Hellenistic world, established her children as monarchs and managed to snag not one but twoof the most powerful men in the world as her consorts.
After an accident on the Apollo 13 mission took out the Service Module's two main oxygen tanks, the crew's biggest problem was an abundance of carbon dioxide from their exhalations. The astronauts moved into the Lunar Module and use it as a "lifeboat," but the LM wasn't equipped to handle the amount of CO2 the three men were expelling.
Thankfully, duct tape (and a lot of ingenuity) allowed them to make the "square peg" of the Command Module CO2 filters fit into the "round holes" of the Lunar Module's barrels. This unorthodox solution worked like a charm and all three astronauts returned safely back to Earth.
In fact, duct tape is the perfect tool for many jobs back on Earth, too. But that doesn't necessarily mean it should be used for every job.
On June 17, 1976, security guard Frank Willis was patrolling the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. when he noticed some duct tape had been placed on a door in order to keep it from latching closed. Willis removed the tape and continued his patrol. However, the next time he passed that same door, the tape had been replaced. Willis immediately called the D.C. police, and five men were arrested and charged with attempted burglary and attempted communication interception. This, of course, eventually led to the downfall of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.
Although they weren't responsible for saving astronauts' lives like duct tape, peanuts also played an important part in NASA's history before humans ever got to the moon.
After JPL began experimenting with lunar exploration in 1959, a series of failures caused both the press and the top dogs at NASA to question whether they would ever be able to get spacecraft to the moon. Ranger 7 was one of JPL's last hopes. Just before Ranger 7 launched to the moon on July 28, 1964, mission manager Harris Schurmeier handed out peanuts to everyone in the control room in order to ease tensions, and...success! The spacecraft had perfectly impacted with the surface of the moon and sent back stunning images. Ever since then, peanuts are handed out for all of the big launches.
On a lovely day in 1941, Swiss inventor George de Mestral took his dog out for a walk. When he arrived home, George noticed that both he and his dog were covered in thistle burrs. Fascinated by these very small, poky pieces of plant matter, George immediately began inspecting the burrs under his microscope. He found that the seed pods were covered in many tiny hooks which allowed them to "grab" the soft loops in the fabric of his pants. George decided to create a two-sided fastener ”” one side with small hooks and the other small loops ”” and thus created Velcro. His invention is now used all over the world for thousands (if not millions) of jobs. In fact, Velcro is even used in space! Some astronauts attach patches of Velcro on the inside of their helmets in order to scratch itchy noses.
When Carl Sagan was a young boy, his parents took him to the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. While there, he saw a number of exhibits that had a lasting impact on him, including the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule in Flushing Meadows. (Bonus fun fact: included in the time capsule was a message from Albert Einstein!)
The experience of watching the time capsule's burial apparently stuck with Carl Sagan well into adulthood, when he created two of his own time capsules ”” to send out into space! The Golden Record is a series of images, greetings and natural sound recordings on a 12-inch gold-plated copper phonograph record. Copies of the record were put aboard Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 and are currently 16 billion and 20 billion kilometers away from Earth, respectively.