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The labs that shaped great scientists throughout the ages

Thanks to advances in technology, scientists now have access to the most sophisticated laboratories ever known. Whether they’re still training or they’re leading their own research programmes as academics, they have an abundance of impressive tools at their disposal.

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Today, education providers and research institutes work with leading laboratory furniture specialists in the UK to create state of the art facilities to enable effective teaching and scientific investigation. Here, we review several labs that have helped to shape great scientists throughout the ages, starting way back in ancient Greece and finishing up with one of the greatest physicists of our time.

Aristotle and the Academy

The word ‘scientist’ may have only entered the English language in 1834, but people had been grappling with some of the great scientific questions for millennia by this point. One man who developed an entire scientific and philosophical system was Aristotle. This towering figure of the ancient world studied a vast range of topics, including the philosophy of science, biology, physics and chemistry.

He did much of his learning in a place called the Academy in the outskirts of Athens, which was a site dominated by an olive grove, gymnasium and park. This place of study wasn’t anything like what we would now call a lab because technology in the 4th century BC was rudimentary to say the least. Rather than relying on experiments, much of the scientific enquiry that took place here would have been in the form of discussion and debate. Founded by Plato, the Academy has been cited by some historians as the first Western higher learning institution.

Marie Curie and the ‘cross between a stable and a potato shed’

Working in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Polish-born physicist and chemist Marie Curie had access to much more sophisticated methods and equipment than her ancient Greek forebears. She and her husband Pierre Curie are famed for their pioneering work on radioactivity. She even won two Nobel Prizes and was the first woman to become a professor at the renowned University of Paris.

Completing such crucial work, you might expect that the Curies spent their time in the most advanced labs of the time. In reality though, the scientists did much of their critical research in what the German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald once described as “a cross between a stable and a potato shed”. After being shown the research area, he remarked: “If I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke.”

This humble setting, which was just a large, draughty shed with a leaking roof, was where the Curies did the bulk of their research isolating the elements polonium and radium. They opted for this unusual setting because of the large volumes of materials they had to process.

Brian Cox and the high-energy atom smashers

A far cry from these basic conditions, British scientist Professor Brian Cox has been able to use some of the most advanced equipment ever created. He’s made his academic name in particle physics at the University of Manchester and he’s also well known for his television appearances, having presented series such as Wonders of the Universe and Stargazing Live.

Professor Cox’s work involves smashing atoms and their subatomic components together at extremely high speeds in order to gain insights into the fundamental structure of the universe. As such, he’s been involved in research projects at high-energy physics centres including Cern (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) with its Large Hadron Collider. The incredibly sophisticated instruments at Cern are used to boost beams of particles to high energies so that they collide with stationary targets or with each other. Incredibly precise detectors observe and record the results of these collisions. Professor Cox has also been involved in research at the facilities Fermilab in the US and DESY in Germany.

From ancient Greek academies to ultra-sophisticated atom smashers, the labs we use have certainly come a long way and they continue to shape the research that scientists do and the insights they produce.