Saturday, November 10, 2007

Unsung Technology: The Lens

Without the lens, there would be no Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering. Without the lens, your car wouldn't be able to give you live directions. Without the lens, millions of people would die yearly from smallpox. Without the lens, I couldn't be writing this.

Although lenses have been used for more than 2500 years, they took a while to take off. The were first used to start fires, though it's not known if they used them to burn ants. Some emperors used them for sight correction.

It wasn't until the 17th century that the lens got its day in the sun. That was when telescopes and microscopes were invented. Telescopes aided in astronomy, allowing astronomers to verify the heliocentric theory and defined astronomy as we now know it. Accurate knowledge of astronomy was necessary for the space program, which led to commercial satellites and GPS. Microscopes allowed the first glimpses at microbiology and led to cell theory and germ theory. These form the foundation of modern medicine, and allowed the development of antibiotics and vaccines.

Of course, just because lenses gained all these new roles, doesn't mean it ever gave up its original uses. Without lenses, I wouldn't be able to see two feet in front of my face.

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