Earlier this week I voted in the Great British Innovation Vote. Picking my final choice took longer than expected, not because Britain has been the site of a great many innovations (although it has), but because of chaos theory: each innovation not only stands on its own but could also make many later innovations possible.
Every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.
– The Doctor, Remembrance of the Daleks
On this basis I was strongly tempted to vote for the Universal Machine: without computers to undertake complex modelling and control machinery how many of the other innovations would have been delayed, or even not discovered?
However, I finally chose Penicillin for two reasons. First that antibiotics can extend life whereas computing only makes it more comfortable: the human mind could do the calculations and the human body the delicate tasks, all be it a longer and more tedious job. Second that there is an immeasurable knock-on effect from protecting life: an innovator is not disabled or killed by a septic wound; an innovator’s parents or grandparents do not die too young to have children.
As both cleanliness and the ability to rest were strongly associated with wealth, penicillin could even be seen as a major force in moving away from a society where the innovations of the hereditary rich were the only source of change.
Of course, there is no guarantee that had penicillin not been discovered another antibiotic (or another solution to the risk) would not have been discovered, or that a lack of adequate health care would have prevented any of the other innovations.
Stephen Fry is wrong about Alan Turing (cartesianproduct.wordpress.com)
Penicillin, not the pill, may have launched the sexual revolution (prn.fm)