We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

5 Scientific Assumptions That are Surprisingly New

Discoveries such as DNA and Penicillin seem like a no-brainer. But they haven't been around for as long as you may think.

By Sara Novak
Mar 24, 2023 1:00 PM
Scientist holds DNA helix


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Some ideas feel so obvious and make so much sense that you’d think they existed for millennia. But it’s incredible how fast science has moved in the past two centuries. The strides that we’ve made may seem so conspicuous that you can’t imagine a world without them, but you’d be surprised. These five scientific assumptions and discoveries are more recent than you might imagine.

1. DNA Structure


In 1953, we learned that DNA was a double helix, a twisted ladder structure that would be called deoxyribonucleic acid. James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery would change history and begin a new field of study called molecular biology. For the first time, we understood that our genes controlled many of the processes in the body. Researchers already knew that a gene was the smallest form of genetic information, but they did not yet know what the structure looked like. 

2. Penicillin Discovery

(Credit:Kallayanee Naloka/Shutterstock)

Antibiotics have changed the face of humankind by staving off the destruction of a simple bacterial infection. But in reality, they are a relatively new phenomenon. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, less than a century ago, in St. Mary’s Hospital in London. He realized that his Petri dishes had been contaminated with a mold called Penicillin notatum, and under the microscope, the mold had prevented the growth of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. It took him a few more weeks to realize that this mold could be used to stave off infectious diseases.

Read More: Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria: What They Are and How Scientists Are Combating Them

3. Plate Tectonic Theory

(Credit: Semnic/Shutterstock)

It’s hard to imagine a world without plate tectonics — the idea that the Earth’s crust is made up of enormous tectonic plates that have been on the move for billions of years. Without tectonic plates, the Earth’s continents would be stagnant, and it would be impossible to imagine that 200 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangea existed.

But that all changed thanks to James Morgan. In 1967, he discovered the now widely accepted concept of plate tectonics. The young geologist realized that the lithospheric plates that make up the Earth slip past each other and create movement. 

4. Pluto: The Dwarf Planet

(Credit:Wow Galaxy/Shutterstock)

On February 18, 1930, astronomers first discovered the planet, Pluto. Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered it at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Astronomers had long thought that a ninth planet existed because of how the two planets, Uranus and Neptune, wobbled while orbiting. But it wasn’t until Tombaugh figured out a new method for using a blink microscope that he could finally pinpoint the planet. 

However, in August of 2006, Pluto was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet. While it meets two criteria needed to be considered a planet, it does not meet the third. It is round, and it does orbit the sun, but its gravity is not so strong as to clear away all objects from its orbit. Still, the decision is widely controversial among scientists.

5. Anesthesia Invention


It’s one of the most important inventions in history because it’s helped humans to manage pain. This matters because going under the knife is much more traumatic if you’re awake. Anesthesia was invented in 1846 by a renowned surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, John Collins Warren, and a dentist, William T.G. Morton. They proved that ether gas inhaled could safely and effectively provide anesthesia during surgery. Since then, we’ve perfected the art of anesthesia by using IV medications that have shortened the recovery time for patients.

Read More: Here’s How Anesthesia Affects Your Brain

It’s hard to imagine life before the invention and discoveries of DNA structures, penicillin, plate tectonics and others. But there was a time when such knowledge wasn’t known. It takes a beautiful mind to develop these concepts that we so fiercely depend on in our daily lives today, and we shouldn’t take these innovations for granted.

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.