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The sun, a stick and a well: the simple tools of scientific progress

Scientific advances requires men and women of high intellect, but it doesn’t necessarily need a cast of thousands and billion-dollar equipment. It costs nothing to think, and we believe the capacity to think imaginatively is the most important tool of all when it comes to discovery, whether in science or investment.

There are, to be fair, some scientific advances that do require a huge amount of time, tools and money.

Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider, which conducts ambitious experiments in the field of physics, was completed in 2008 in collaboration with more than 10,000 scientists and engineers in more than 100 countries, at a cost of about €7.5 billion.

Right at the other end of the scale, back in the third century BC the Ancient Greek thinker Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth with the aid of a stick and a well.

A man living in the Egyptian city of Swenet told Eratosthenes in a letter that when he looked down a local well at noon on the summer solstice, his head blocked the reflection of the sun in the water at the bottom of the well. This meant that the sun was at its zenith, directly above Swenet. Measuring the sun's angle of elevation at noon on the solstice in Alexandria, he found it to be 7.2 degrees south of the zenith – one-fiftieth of the Earth’s spherical, 360 degree span. To work out the circumference of the planet, he multiplied the distance between Swenet and Alexandria by 50 and came up with a figure equivalent, in modern units of measurement, to 46,620 km.

It was a pretty good estimate, given the scientific tools available at the time, when compared to the Earth’s actual circumference of 40,075 km. Had Christopher Columbus chosen to believe Eratosthenes’ maths, rather than other sources that insisted the Earth was much smaller, he would have realised that he had discovered a new continent when he landed in the Americas, rather than believing to his dying day that he had arrived in the East Indies.

Other great discoveries have been based on equally simple props

Other great discoveries have been based on equally simple props – even those made many hundreds of years later, when it might have seemed that there was little else to be found without sophisticated equipment and a large number of lab technicians. In 1845 Dutch meteorologist Christophe Ballot placed one team of trumpeters at a station and the other on a passing train, and listened for the change in pitch as the train approached and departed. The results demonstrated the Doppler effect – the change in frequency of a wave sensed by an observer as the source’s wave draws nearer and recedes. Nowadays we can hear the Doppler effect by listening to a police car’s siren: the sound changes as it passes us by. The understanding of this phenomenon eventually led to advances in radar, medical imaging, and satellite communication.

What does this tell us about what you need to achieve a scientific breakthrough?

We’d suggest this.

You don’t need all, or indeed any, of the following:

• Your own state-of-the-art lab

• Billions of dollars

• The assistance of an international army of scientists

However, you do need:

• A good brain

• An ingenious idea for finding something out

If you have that, there are more than enough trains, trumpets, wells and other props to help you make your name in science. It’s simpler than you think.





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