Knock knock, open, progress has come! 6 interesting stories about scientific achievements

1. Painful road to the invention of anesthesia

October 16 is World Anesthesia Day. It was on this day in 1846 that the world’s first operation under ether anesthesia was performed. It is hard to imagine what medicine looked like before this invention. A handkerchief clamped between teeth, arms and legs tied to a couch, anesthesia with alcohol before a surgical incision – ready-made plots for horror films. And these are not all known options for early anesthesia. Among others, blows to the head, profuse bloodletting, and squeezing of the carotid artery were popular. By such methods, the doctors of the past introduced patients into an unconscious state. And in one London hospital, according to legend , a bell is still preserved, with the ringing of which they tried to drown out the cries of patients during operations.

Fortunately, in the history of anesthesia there was a place not only for terrible screams, but also for laughter. This period is associated with the use of nitrous oxide, laughing gas, as anesthesia. The first to test its effect on himself was a 20-year-old English chemist Davy Humphrey. It happened in 1799 . The young scientist was cutting his wisdom tooth, and he inhaled gas to get rid of the pain. Dental wisdom did not justify itself immediately: Davy published an extensive work on his observations, doctors dabbled in similar experiments, but laughing gas in medicine did not gain public recognition. Until, in 1844, dentist Horace Wells decided to remove his own tooth under nitrous oxide. The specialist was inspired by the sight of his friend, who, at a lecture under gas vapor, did not notice how he broke his knee. The operation to remove Wells’ tooth was a success. But the repeated demonstrative experiment of 1845 is not. Horace was ridiculed, and that was the end of the fun. The young dentist developed a nervous breakdown and soon committed suicide. But ether anesthesia came on the scene again—this time successfully—under the guidance of another dentist, William Morton . It was he who became the world’s first anesthesiologist.

Scientific discoveries today should not take place in the atmosphere of horror films. Modern equipment and comfortable laboratories are provided to Russian scientists thanks to the national project ” Science and Universities “. For example, over the past three years, 25 billion rubles have been allocated to upgrade the instrument base, and 268 leading scientific and educational organizations have received modern equipment for breakthrough research.

And thanks to the national project, installations of the megascience class are being created in Russia. These are super-powerful complexes that will allow Russian scientists to achieve a breakthrough in the field of synchrotron and neutron research. One of the representatives of the megascience class facilities was the Gatchina PIK reactor, launched on February 8, 2021.

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2. The dual history of the microwave

Photo: New Africa / Shutterstock

There is a theory that the first microwave was invented in the USSR. This is supported by an article in the Trud newspaper dated June 13, 1941. It says that a miracle machine using ultra-high frequency currents can reduce the cooking time of a ham from 5–7 hours to 15–20 minutes. But the patent for the magic chef’s box belongs to the American Percy Spencer.

Divergence in geography is not the only ambivalent moment in the history of the microwave. As for the gastronomic inspirer of this invention, there are also different legends. The most popular version says that Spencer was visited by the engineering muse at the moment when, under the influence of magnetron waves, chocolate melted in his pocket. Other sources claim that the magnetron did not spoil the candy, but warmed up a sandwich standing next to it. At the same time, both options are unanimous in the idea that the microwave oven is an accidental invention. The laboratory where the kitchen helper was born was dedicated to the development of military radars. And a chocolate bar (or sandwich) that ended up near the magnetron is a happy coincidence that has made modern home cooking much easier. By the way, the first microwaves were one and a half meters high and weighed more than 350 kilograms. Buying such a device to warm up yesterday’s dinner was not very cost-effective. So it was only a couple of decades later that microwave oven buyers could firmly establish themselves in the everyday life of microwave oven buyers.

3. Natural motives in the invention of Velcro

This invention was presented to the world by the Swiss engineer Georg de Mestral. In 1958 , he patented a discovery that still saves millions of people from fussing with shoelaces today.

The simplest clasp consists of two layers of material: on the surface of the first – bristles-hooks, on the second – loops. Technology inspired by nature. Once George de Mestral was walking his dog and on the route they met a burdock bush. Combing the pet, the engineer thought: how do the seeds cling so strongly to wool and clothes? The burdock went under a microscope, and de Mestral saw the very hooks that today are made of nylon and flaunt on down jackets, sneakers and toys. The technology was presented back in the late 1950s, then used for NASA astronaut suits in the 1970s, and only then came to widespread use.

4. Accurate calculations and everyday accidents in the discovery of Neptune

Photo: NASA

Neptune is the eighth planet in the solar system and the only one discovered using preliminary calculations, and not direct observation through a telescope. The prerequisite for the search for Neptune was the inappropriate behavior of its neighbor, Uranus. The seventh planet did not want to obey Newton’s law in any way: the ice giant had problems with gravity, and the position of the naughty number seven did not coincide with Newton’s theory of planetary motion. Then scientists suggested that another, eighth and yet undiscovered planet affects the gravity of Uranus.

The representative of this theory was, in particular, the French scientist Urbain Le Verrier . The astronomer calculated the position of Neptune mathematically, but his work was ignored at home. Then Le Verrier wrote to a young colleague from the Berlin Observatory, Johann Galle. The decision to appeal to the younger generation turned out to be very successful. The fact is that Halle’s namesake, Johann Franz Encke, head of the Berlin Observatory, did not at all like new ideas that required interventions in a strict observation schedule. And Le Verrier’s theory needed immediate confirmation with the help of equipment. Young Galle was so fired up with the ideas of the French comrade that he obtained access to the telescope from Encke, who, by a lucky chance, was in a hurry to attend his own anniversary. That same night, Halle sat down to watch with his student assistant, Heinrich d’Arre. And after a few hours of work, the guys were already waking up the pedantic head of the observatory with the triumphant news about the discovery of a new planet. This happened on September 23, 1846.

It is noteworthy that the international prestige of the discovery of Neptune could belong not only to the French. Around the same time, independently of Le Verrier, a young student from Cambridge was able to accurately calculate the position of the eighth planet and paint some of its properties. His name was John Adams , and the theory of an inexperienced Englishman also met only ridicule and distrust from older colleagues. So excessive conservatism and distrust of young talents cost France and England a high-profile discovery in the treasury of world achievements.

Thanks to the national project ” Science and Universities “, the voices and ideas of young scientists in Russia are increasingly being heard. The country has already established 500 youth laboratories and 15 world-class scientific and educational centers . Everyone now has a chance to leave their name in history and bring bold ideas to life.

In 2021, more than 1,500 graduate students received grant support under the national project — the younger generation today can make a contribution to the science of the future. And including under the supervision of experienced mentors from around the world. For example, under the mega-grant program. Its participants — Russian universities and scientific organizations, together with foreign or domestic leading scientists — can receive a grant for scientific research in the amount of up to 90 million rubles. So, in 2021, the International Laboratory of Applied Radiophysics at the National Research University ITMO won a mega-grant to improve the methods of magnetic resonance imaging under the leadership of David Bendahan.

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5. Provincial trail of life-saving vaccine

Mass skepticism about vaccines is a familiar situation in history. And in the case of smallpox, people’s wary attitude towards everything new was especially expensive. Up to 40% of patients died from smallpox, and the contagiousness of the infection was so high that the probability of getting sick after contact with an infected person was almost 100%. In the 20th century alone, the virus claimed the lives of 300 million people.

In Russia, Catherine II was the first to be vaccinated against a terrible infection. True, manipulation from imperial times had little in common with the modern procedure. Unless the main principle is: it is better to have a mild form of infection beforehand from a small dose of infection and acquire immunity than, most likely, to die later. But instead of the sterile syringes and bottles with the saving liquid that we are used to, the scabs of the sick were used then. Pieces of the affected tissue were simply rubbed into the wound on the body of a healthy person. The procedure is not the most pleasant – it is not surprising that anti-vaxxers began to appear everywhere among the people.

Mortality in the army and at the court of the empress decreased after vaccination: the soldiers were not asked, and the highest circles were inspired by the example of Catherine herself. Meanwhile, ordinary people avoided medical innovations. It is ironic that the modern vaccine comes from the people. Namely, from a cow stall. The main milk suppliers in Europe also had smallpox, and Edward Jenner , an English doctor from the provinces, somehow decided to check what would happen to a person infected with a cow virus. Spoiler: for the happiness of mankind and the eight-year-old son of the gardener Jenner, nothing terrible will happen. It was this boy who, in 1796, received some of the dangerous animal virus. And the fruits of the ethically dubious experiment were successfully disseminated by the WHO, which in the late 1960s called on all countries of the world to be vaccinated. By the way, the final victory over the terrible virus was announced not so long ago – only in 1980 .

6. “Flying” history of ultrasound

People born to walk and crawl quite successfully master bird flights – observation of the diversity of nature has inspired mankind to great discoveries for thousands of years. Humans also owe the discovery of ultrasound to animals, namely bats.

The method, which is actively used in medicine, was discovered by the Italian biologist-physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani. The scientist observed bats and their ability to navigate in dark caves. Lazzaro suggested that the excellent sense of space is not at all connected with the possibilities of vision. And the proof was found: it turned out that if you plug the ears of bats, the animals become helpless. In this “brutal” experiment of 1794, ultrasound was discovered – waves with a frequency above 20 kHz, inaccessible to human hearing.

And again, more than a century had to wait for recognition. Ultrasound received medical use only in the 1930s. Then, with the help of high-frequency waves, pain and inflammation from arthritis were relieved. A decade later, ultrasound became the diagnostic method. The corresponding properties of the technology were discovered by the Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Karl Dussik , who noticed that the waves pass through healthy tissues and through the tumor with different intensities.

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