One hundred twenty years ago, on Friday, 8 November 1895, Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen, a professor of physics at the University of Würzburg, made a discovery that not only changed physics, chemistry, and materials engineering, but also completely revolutionized the field of biology, and in particular medicine.
Röntgen’s monograph appeared in print just 50 days after his initial discovery. Within weeks, what he had achieved became known to the entire scientific world, at a time when telephones were still something quite rare. Already in the spring of 1896, the Italian doctor Giuseppe Alvaro was a “Röntgen apparatus” of his own construction to detect bullet fragments in the bodies of casualties from the war then underway in Ethiopia. Within just a few years, prior to WWI, the X-ray radiation that Röntgen had discovered was revolutionizing a broad swathe of the field of medicine. During the war itself, Maria Skłodowska-Curie and William Coolidge on one side of the front, and Liza Meitner and Walter Nernst on the other, were able to save thousands of human lives thanks to transportable X-ray machines.
The world had entered the 20th century with an average human life expectancy of just 31 years – alarmingly low from today’s perspective, and only 3 years higher than in ancient Greece. By the start of the 21st century, in turn, the figure had improved by a further 36 years! This incredible lengthening of human lifespans is the result of innumerable small contributions by all of the individual sciences. Modern medicine has proven to be a great integrator of ongoing advancements in physics, chemistry, biology, and of course medical research. This collective effort has not only prolonged our lives, but also significantly improved our quality of living. Millions of people are now enjoying a satisfactory level of health, are remaining professionally active, and can engage in sports and travel all thanks to implanted prostheses, pacemakers, and as a result of open-heart surgical procedures made possible by artificial hearts and lungs. How many people make use of dialysis machines every few days?
The younger cousins of Röntgen’s discovery – various types of imaging and tomography techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging, PET and ultrasonography – are now making diagnosis of many diseases possible at such an early stage that treatment is simple and can leave patients fully cured. Modern chemistry is constantly arming us with new drugs safely and effectively able to fight chronic diseases, prevent epidemics, and counteract many of the unfavourable consequences of our lifestyles. This is all due to the gigantic progress that has been made in our understanding of our own bodies, made possible by advancement in biology. Such progress, in turn, has been possible thanks to advances in the field of physics and chemistry. Science is always showing us, yet again, that it cannot really be cut up into pieces, partitioned into segments.
We would like to devote the 20th anniversary edition of the Science Picnic of Polish Radio and the Copernicus Science Centre to exploring the interconnections between science and human health. To show how the individual sciences and modern technology (e.g. materials engineering) are paving the way for progress in medicine and health care. And also vice versa, how the ongoing struggle to help people live longer, healthier, happier lives is stimulating the development of other sciences. We want to show the visitors to this 20th Picnic the many contributions made by Polish scientists to the emergence of contemporary health-related science and how we are playing a role in its worldwide development today.
Prof. Łukasz A. Turski