Mankind's Greatest Searches

Something to Think About

Discoveries that changes the course of history

There’s nothing quite like a good search. Especially when success means all kinds of chocolate-coated deliciousness! Some of mankind’s greatest discoveries have been significantly less fun than hunting for Easter eggs, though.

The mystery and allure of hidden treasure brings with it a wonderful satisfaction of believing something’s out there, and searching, undeterred, until proven right! Mankind’s development is rich in discoveries that began as pure faith, and went on to change the course of history.

While many of us gear up for less-than-impossible quests and playful riddles that (hopefully) lead us to wonderfully fattening treats, only justifiable at this one special time of year, spare a thought for those nobler, tougher quests that have propelled mankind forward in mighty heaves. And of course, those enduring mysteries that carry on unsolved, despite relentless efforts to decipher their secrets.

The Rosetta Stone

The mystery and allure of hidden treasure brings with it a wonderful satisfaction of believing something’s out there, and searching, undeterred, until proven right!

Originally displayed within an Egyptian temple, the 2 200-plus year-old Rosetta Stone was mysteriously removed during the medieval Christian conquests, and later used by the Ottoman Empire.

Hundreds of years later, in 1799, it was rediscovered by French soldier Pierre-François Bouchard. The French were soon defeated by the British in 1801, and the Stone was moved to the British Museum the following year, where it remains the most visited artefact. It took another 20 years to decipher, and unlock the Ancient Egyptian pictographic language of Hieroglyphics thanks to its trilingual message: originally a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196BC, the Stone featured the same message (more or less) in Hieroglyphics, Egyptian Demotic Script and Ancient Greek (a bit like the evacuation instructions on an international airline, only a lot more useful).

What’s the big deal?

Without the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian Hieroglyphics (along with much of Egypt’s mysterious and often disturbing history) may well still be regarded as random cartoon characters, driving historians insane with frustration.

The Human Genome Project

The human genome, simply put, is the blueprint of information stored within the DNA of each person. While the science involved would require many more pages than this (not to mention many, far-more-educated writers) to explain, the genome contains the billions of genetic variations that form the instructions for building a human. This information in your DNA tells your body what colour skin to have, what shape nose to grow, how tall to become and – crucially – which diseases and disabilities to be susceptible to, or to develop hereditarily.

Although still ongoing, the fundamental mapping of the Human Genome Project took an international collaborative effort and more than 13 years for a complete draft to be published in 2003.

What’s the big deal?

It’s widely believed that understanding the billions of potential gene-variations in each person will let us identify and repair genetic disorders before they happen. The quality and duration of human life could be improved in ways we couldn’t have previously imagined. We’ve only just unlocked the door, but it’s widely believed that the greatest leaps in medicine and biology are just around the corner.

Mrs Ples

Strictly speaking, Mr. Ples – a 2.05 million-year-old Australopithecus Africanus fossil skull – wasn’t something that mankind ever specifically endeavoured to find. The skull is, however, one of the most famous of many hominid fossil-discoveries found in and around the Cradle of Humankind, situated in the Northwest of Johannesburg. Since 1890, palaeontologists, miners and hobbyists have been excavating for hominid fossils in the area, world-famous for its richness in well-preserved, pre-human bones and artefacts. Mrs Ples – found by Dr Robert Broom and John T. Robinson on 18 April, 1947 – may be the most famous of all. Although the fossil may not be female (or even fully grown) “she” is the most complete skull of the species (believed to be a distant relative of modern man) ever found in South Africa.

What’s the big deal?

The countless fossils found in and around the Sterkfontein area add proof that humankind’s earliest ancestors originated in Southern Africa. They also give great insight into how our earliest ancestors slowly began to walk upright, develop tools, spread throughout the world, and adapt to each new environment they faced.

The Higgs Bosun Particle

When it comes to mankind’s searches, none come bigger – nor more expensive – than the quest to prove the existence of the Higgs Bosun particle; a tiny, sub-atomic particle so small, it’s almost inconceivable. The machine built to find it, though, was anything but tiny. Built as deep as 175 metres below the ground near Geneva, Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is (to put it very simply) a massive, super high-tech, circular ‘tube’, 27 kilometres long, designed to propel two opposing particle beams of protons toward each other, close to the speed of light. Then, observe what happens when they collide. Built between 1998 and 2008, with participation from more than 10 000 scientists from 100-plus countries, with a budget of nine billion Euros, it’s the biggest, most expensive search in scientific history.

What’s the big deal?

On 4 July 2012, scientists announced the discovery of a particle they believe to be the elusive Higgs Bosun, which had remained unproven for more than 50 years. This discovery proved the Standard Model of particle physics – the fundamental “rules” of physics on which most advanced scientific theory is based. For decades, scientists had been basing theories on what they believed to be “most likely”. Now, the LHC is being upgraded to further explore theories that depend on the Standard Model being true. Ideas like dark matter, multiple universes and manipulation of time... Sounds far-fetched? Maybe not, thanks to the Higgs Bosun.

And the search goes on...

Just because some things haven’t yet been found, doesn’t mean they’re not worth searching for.

Renewable, clean energy

Perhaps the Holy Grail of scientific quests: the ongoing search for safe, renewable, clean energy that costs little or nothing to produce. Today, we know that burning fossil fuels can have catastrophic environmental effects, and nuclear power plants pose the risk of devastating meltdown, and produce extremely dangerous waste that needs to be safely stored indefinitely. As our technological needs increase, so does our need for power. Imagine if every home, vehicle and – especially – school could be powered for free, forever. Just imagine...

Although not widely practiced (nor believed-in) today, the philosophical tradition of alchemy goes back centuries, possibly millennia. Almost all civilisations throughout history have at some point attempted – using combinations of “magic” and fringe science – to create substances and concoctions of great power. Elixirs of youth, love potions and – most famously – the ability to turn base metals like lead into noble metals such as gold. While it might sound completely crazy today, many great minds, over many generations, dedicated their entire lives to these searches. We’ll leave our hopes with giant experiments under Switzerland, though.

The Kruger Millions

Legend has it that in 1905,John Holtzhauzen – a convicted horse thief, sentenced by President Paul Kruger to 30 months in prison for stealing a horse and carriage – began a myth that endures even today. The prisoner let slip that he had been secretly instructed by the government to hide two million pounds’ worth of gold and diamonds in the hills of what is now known as Mpumalanga, to prevent the loot falling into the hands of the British. While some believe the story was never true, and others claim that the treasure was found long ago, treasure-hunters still take to the beautiful hills in search of the lost treasure. If you ever find yourself there, keep an eye out for anything that looks old and shiny!