Science labs have been the setting of many of the most exciting and significant discoveries in human history. From major breakthroughs in medical research to dramatic advances in technology, they have furthered our knowledge in a whole range of areas.
Of course, the look and feel of these environments can vary dramatically depending on the nature of the research that takes place within them. As Innova Design Solutions, laboratory installation experts note, it’s essential to tailor the design of labs so that they meet the specific needs of the people using them.
Reinforcing this point, here are three of the greatest inventions of our time and the very different labs they were discovered in.
1. DNA fingerprinting
DNA fingerprinting is now taken for granted. Whether in criminal trials, paternity and maternity testing, personal identification or the diagnosis or treatment of inherited diseases, people are used having access to this technique.
It provides scientists with a means of comparing the parts of the more than three billion units in the human genome that show the most variation between people.
The approach was discovered by accident by molecular biologist Alec Jeffreys in 1984. He was working on a technique that he hoped would help him study inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis.
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According to Jeffreys, he had a “eureka moment” when observing an X-ray film of a DNA experiment which unexpectedly revealed similarities and differences between the DNA of members of one of his technician’s family.
His university lab may have been fairly conventional, but what he did with it over the next couple of days was anything but. He and his staff had realised that DNA profiling could potentially be used at crime scenes, but they weren’t sure if it would be possible to take useable DNA samples from dead cells.
To test this, Jeffreys effectively turned his lab into the first ever setting for a crime scene DNA analysis. He spent two days cutting himself and leaving bloodstains on surfaces. These marks were then tested and the team proved the DNA was intact.
2. The internet
Sometimes, scientists like to escape the confines of a traditional lab and take their experiments into the field – or even into the pub.
In fact, one of these more unorthodox settings was used for a essential experiment in the history of the internet.
Of course, this communication network wasn’t invented in one experiment. It took decades for it to be transformed from its original incarnation, which was a network used by the military, into the vast global system we’re familiar with today.
However, there were a number of pivotal moments along the way, and one of the most significant occurred in a beer garden in Palo Alto, California.
In August 1976, a team of scientists from the Stanford Research Institute set up a computer terminal on a table around the back of the popular bar Rossotti’s.
While sipping beer from plastic cups in the California sunshine, the pioneering researchers conducted what can be described as the first internet transmission (via a mobile radio lab housed in a van in the car park). Their experiment in this makeshift open air lab helped to prove that the technology could work.
3. Wireless electricity
From smartphones, to laptops, to MP3 players, people’s lives are now dominated by technology that requires power – and they generally need wires to recharge these devices.
However, this may not be the case for much longer. In 2007, Professor Marin Soljačić from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had the idea of transferring power from wired infrastructure to devices using magnetic fields.
With his team at MIT, he set up a ground breaking lab experiment consisting of two copper wire coils, each suspended with a nylon thread. One of the coils was connected to an AC power supply, the other to a light bulb.
>See also: Li-Fi: the new Wi-Fi?
As the team predicted, when electricity was supplied to the first coil, this caused the light bulb connected to the other coil to light up – despite the fact the two coils were not connected.
To highlight the safety of the system, the scientists even had their picture taken sitting between the power source and power capture coils as the 60 watts of electricity were being transferred.
Following the successful experiment, a company called WiTricity was formed to take the research forward from the labs at MIT. It is working on a range of systems that can power devices up to eight feet away, including computers and even electric vehicles.
The company predicts that the technology will eventually be able to power many household appliances and gadgets.
From a conventional lab, to an impromptu crime scene, to a Californian beer garden, these examples show how varied the research settings of important discoveries and inventions can be.