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  Science in the palm of your hand
Scientific ideas and the technologies they inspire are not exclusive couples; one scientific idea may be associated with many different technologies and one technological gadget frequently relies on a multitude of scientific ideas. For example, the next time you pick up a cell phone to make a call, stop for a moment to consider all the different scientific ideas wrapped up in that tiny package in the palm of your hand.

Read on to get an introduction to the sometimes strange science behind our everyday technologies.

  • plastic case: Around 1900 chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland set out to find a synthetic substitute for natural shellac, which was being used to insulate wires. He looked back at the work of Adolf von Baeyer, who, about thirty years earlier discovered that formaldehyde and phenol react to form a gooey material. After years of experimenting, in 1909 Baekeland produced the first fully synthetic plastic, which led the way for the myriad of plastics we have today — including the ones forming the body of your cell phone.

  • antenna: In 1864, physicist James Clerk Maxwell published a paper proposing a single theory that explained the phenomena of both electricity and magnetism. Fellow physicist Heinrich Hertz realized that if Maxwell's ideas were right, then devices could be built to send and detect electromagnetic radiation. The devices Hertz built were the first antennas and they helped confirm Maxwell's theory of electromagnetic radiation. They were also the precursors of the antenna in your cell phone.

  • battery: 18th scholar Luigi Galvani inadvertently introduced science to the battery when he noticed that the legs of a dissected frog twitched whenever the muscles came into contact with two different metals and formed a circuit. The twitching legs suggested an electrical current was present — but from where? Galvani thought the electricity came from the frog itself. Having read about the strange observation, physicist Alessandro Volta argued that the metals produced the electricity. Neither was quite right — it was the interaction of the metals with the salty liquid in the frogs' body that produced electricity — but for cell phone users, the outcome of this scientific debate remains the same: the battery.

  • Liquid Crystal Display: In 1888, botanist Friedrich Reinitzer was studying cholesterol. He first needed a pure sample of cholesteryl benzoate, a cholesterol-based substance found in plants. On heating cholesteryl benzoate Reinitzer found something unusual; at 145.5°C the solid crystal became a murky liquid, and at 178.5°C the liquid suddenly became clear. Intrigued, he sent a sample to physicist Otto Lehmann. Lehmann found that between the two "melting points," Reinitzer's sample had some properties of both liquids and crystals. Because of this Lehmann hypothesized that Reinitzer had found a new state of matter — the "liquid crystal" state. This spurred further research into liquid crystals, eventually leading to applications such as the liquid crystal display on your cell phone.

  • speaker: In the 4th century BC, Aristotle hypothesized that sound is the vibration of molecules. For two thousand years, Aristotle's hypothesis was largely accepted; however, the bothersome fact remained that sound caused no detectable motion of the air. In 1660 Robert Boyle tested this by sucking the air out of a chamber containing a bell. If Aristotle were right, ringing this bell-in-a-vacuum wouldn't make any noise because the movement of sound requires air. Boyle couldn't hear the bell in the vacuum at all. Two hundred years later, others would develop thin diaphragms that move in response to an electric signal, generating vibrations in the air — and hence, noise. These were the first speakers — the precursors of the tiny speakers in your cell phone.
snapshot
  • Science often fuels technological advances.

  • A single new technology general relies on many different scientific ideas.


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