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• Urine is recycled into drinking water on the International Space
Station, which saves transporting water up to the ISS at a cost of
$40,000 per gallon. See page 335.
• If you took all the DNA in one human cell and laid the chromosomes
out end to end, they would reach nearly two metres. See page 241.
• The well-known tale that Isaac Newton discovered the concept of
gravity by watching an apple fall from a tree is almost definitely
untrue. See page 144.
• About 90 million mobile phones are lying unused in homes
throughout the UK, amounting to 11,250 tonnes - five times the
weight of the London Eye. See page 378.
• The megathrust earthquake that caused the Boxing Day tsunami in
2004 displaced 30 km3 of water that created a series of waves so
powerful that they travelled round the world for 40 hours. See page
• The Hubble space telescope is the size of a large school bus, and
travels at 8 km per second, taking just over an hour and a half to
complete one orbit of the Earth. See page 92.
• If tin foil gets stuck in your teeth, a tiny electric current is generated
between the foil and any metal fillings you have. See page 153.


As a young girl I had two posters on my wall. One was an illustrated
poem, from the Natural History Museum, of the complete history from
the dinosaurs to the 1980s (or as comprehensive as an A3 poster allows).
The other was a picture of the Space Shuttle. To mini-me, the idea that
there were astronauts rocketing into space inside that craft was mind-
boggling. And so, for that reason, I would choose space travel as the big
idea and the Moon landing as the most iconic moment in our history.
The outstanding people I interviewed while writing this book have
each picked out one invention, theory or discovery that they feel truly
changed the world. While the book is written by me, when one of the
experts contributed their thoughts on why the idea was so revolutionary,
their words appear as a quote.
The experts sometimes surprised me with the ideas that they chose,
but the more I researched their choices, the more I would understand
their decision and how the idea made its impact on society. On the
opposite page are listed just a handful of things I found out while writing
this book. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Seeking the truth

Nominated by Professor Brian Cox, professor of physics at

Manchester University, Royal Society University Research Fellow
and BBC presenter

According to legend, one day in 1612 the Italian scientist Galileo

clambered up to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, dropped two
weights from the top and showed that despite having very different
masses, they hit the ground at the same moment (see page 144). It was a
startling, counter-intuitive discovery and completely refuted the
teachings of Aristotle, which then held sway in the academic world.
While the Leaning Tower story itself may be the result of several
hundred years of embellishment and exaggeration, there’s no doubt that
Galileo performed experiments aimed at debunking Aristotle’s views of
how gravity works. That makes Galileo a pioneer in what has become
known as the ‘Scientific Method’: the formulation of a hypothesis,
followed by an experiment to test the hypothesis and the drawing of
conclusions. It was an approach to understanding