Why Have Some Groundbreaking ’80s Scientific Discoveries Been Forgotten?

The 1980s, a vibrant and transformative era, was not just about neon colors, big hair, and iconic music; it was also a period of remarkable scientific discoveries. Yet, surprisingly, many of these groundbreaking findings have faded into obscurity. This blog post delves into why some of these incredible scientific achievements from the ’80s have been forgotten, despite their potential impact and significance.

The Rush of Information: Information Overload in the Digital Age

In the ’80s, the world was on the cusp of the digital revolution. This shift marked the beginning of an information overload and some of the most amazing gadgets, with the internet and 24-hour news cycles bombarding us with constant updates. This deluge often caused older discoveries to be overshadowed by newer, more sensational news. Scientific findings, once celebrated, soon became buried under a pile of fresher information, leading to a collective forgetfulness about past innovations.

Moreover, the digital age introduced a new pace of scientific advancement. Rapid technological progress meant that new discoveries quickly outmoded older ones. This relentless march forward often left little room to reflect on or fully appreciate the discoveries of the recent past, including those from the ’80s.

Computer in 1988 

The Media’s Role

Media portrayal significantly influences public memory, and in the ’80s, this was no different. While the media did cover scientific breakthroughs, there was a tendency to focus on more sensational or immediately impactful stories. Discoveries with subtle, long-term implications often didn’t receive the same level of attention. As a result, many significant scientific achievements failed to imprint on the public consciousness.

Additionally, the ’80s saw the rise of science communication as a specialized field. However, this also meant that complex scientific ideas were sometimes oversimplified or misrepresented in the media. This led to a misunderstanding or underappreciation of certain discoveries, contributing to their eventual obscurity.

For example, IBM’s introduction of its first personal computer in 1981 revolutionized the computing world. However, this technological breakthrough’s media coverage was more focused on its immediate impact and commercial potential, rather than its scientific significance. This focus by the media contributed to overshadowing other equally important scientific discoveries of the time

Economic and Political Reasons

The economic and political climates of the ’80s played a crucial role in determining which scientific areas received attention and funding. For instance, the Cold War era prioritized defense and space research, while other fields, despite their potential, struggled for recognition and resources. This imbalance often determined which discoveries remained in the limelight and which ones faded away.

Furthermore, economic downturns during the decade led to budget cuts in research and development. This not only hindered ongoing scientific work but also meant that less funding was available to promote and build upon existing discoveries. As a result, many groundbreaking findings from the ’80s were left underdeveloped or underpublicized.

Collaboration and Competition in Science

The scientific community itself also plays a role in the longevity of its discoveries. In the ’80s, as now, the community was a complex network of collaboration and competition. While collaboration can lead to significant advancements, competition for funding, publication, and recognition can sometimes result in important discoveries being overshadowed by those deemed more immediately lucrative or prestigious.

Moreover, the ’80s experienced a surge in scientific publications, making it challenging for any single discovery to stand out. Important findings could easily be lost in the sea of scientific literature, especially if they didn’t immediately catch the attention of the broader scientific community or the public.

Dr. Alec Jeffreys’ invention of DNA fingerprinting in 1984 was a major breakthrough in genetics. However, the competition for attention and funding in the scientific community meant that this discovery did not receive immediate widespread attention, as more immediately lucrative or prestigious projects were favored​

Fingerprints on a paper

Technology’s Impact

Technological advancements in the ’80s, such as the development of personal computers and the internet, revolutionized how we access and share information. However, this also meant that the lifespan of news, including scientific discoveries, became much shorter. As newer technologies emerged, they quickly overshadowed the older ones, leading to a rapid cycle of obsolescence.

This phenomenon impacted scientific discoveries as well. Innovations that were groundbreaking in the ’80s quickly became outdated or were improved upon, leading to a natural but regrettable tendency to forget their original contributions.

Cultural Shifts

Cultural shifts also play a significant role in what gets remembered and what gets forgotten. In the ’80s, public interest was heavily influenced by pop culture, economic concerns, and political events. Scientific discoveries that didn’t directly align with the prevailing cultural interests often struggled to gain sustained public attention.

Moreover, the ’80s marked a shift towards a more consumerist society, with a growing emphasis on technologies and products that could be commercialized. Scientific discoveries that were not immediately applicable or profitable were less likely to be celebrated or remembered in the long term.

Sony’s introduction of the camcorder in 1983 was a significant cultural and technological milestone. However, cultural shifts towards more consumerist technology meant that scientific discoveries without immediate commercial application were often forgotten or undervalued

Education and Awareness

Educational systems also contribute to the collective memory of scientific discoveries. The curriculum in the ’80s, and indeed in decades since, often failed to incorporate recent scientific advancements comprehensively. This led to a generational gap in knowledge, with younger generations being less aware of the scientific milestones of the ’80s.

In addition, public awareness campaigns and educational outreach were not as prevalent or widespread in the ’80s as they are today. This lack of outreach meant that many groundbreaking discoveries didn’t receive the public education necessary for their long-term retention in collective memory. For example, discoveries in molecular biology and genetics, which laid the groundwork for future breakthroughs in medicine, received limited coverage in educational curriculums and public discourse.

Evolution Over Revolution

The very nature of scientific discovery often means that groundbreaking work is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Many of the ’80s discoveries were foundational, setting the stage for future breakthroughs that received more attention. 

For instance, the early work on climate change and environmental science in the ’80s paved the way for the more widely recognized and urgent discussions we have today. Similarly, early advancements in computer technology during the ’80s laid the groundwork for the digital revolution that would follow, but these initial steps were often overshadowed by later developments.

Microsoft Windows, launched in 1985, is an example of an evolutionary development that built upon previous computing technologies. Such incremental advancements, though crucial, often don’t receive the same attention as more revolutionary discoveries, leading to their underappreciation in the historical context. 

Final Words

The 1980s were full of amazing scientific discoveries, from Neptune’s rings to DNA fingerprinting. However, many of these discoveries were forgotten due to factors like the fast pace of new technology, media focusing on other stories, and changes in politics and economy. Also, competition in the science world, cultural shifts, and gaps in education played a role. These reasons show us how important and fragile scientific memory can be