"These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution."
Allow me the self-important task of listing some of the greatest achievements of humankind.
Charles Darwin. Albert Einstein. Isaac Newton. Galileo. Pasteur. Heisenberg. Planck. Bohr. Each of their achievements have, unquestionably, changed the human race forever. Each, individually, is based on so many others that unless you let me include all of science, I would hard time promoting any one to the “greatest”. If I had to pick, I’ll go with Isaac Newton and his three laws. There is simply no more useful theory in all of science. Still today, it forms the basis of virtually all physical calculations. Second place goes to the guy who discovered fire.
We may live to see other names join that list. We have dark energy and dark matter, we have the standard model, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll have the unification of physics. We may understand the human genome and begin the really dangerous meddling. We may find life on another planet.
The Great Pyramids, the Great Wall, and the various other buildings. Great, but not the greatest.
We’ve also split the atom. I think this is a terrifyingly giant step forward and certainly worth considering. I mean, we finally gained the ability to destroy ourselves. That’s not half bad. Even better, we haven’t done it. Yet. As good as that is, there is an obviously better one: we put a man on the moon. Look at the moon the next time you are out and think about the fact that for centuries human beings have looked at that same moon. Aristotle, Charlemagne, Hitler, and Babe Ruth. It looked identical to them all. And twelve of us have walked on it. Just twelve. The most elite fraternity there is.
I believe our generation has seen the emergence of the single greatest human construction of all time: the Internet. Before it’s all said and done, it will have as big an impact as anything ever has. Proximity, for the first time in human existence, is really not necessary. Physical space and distance become less important. It contracts and shrinks the world. As distance matters less, borders matter less.
Let’s say you wanted to learn about the twelve men who set foot on the moon, what would you do? What if you wanted to know when Newton devised his laws? What if you wanted to figure out the most prominent men who contributed to quantum theory? There’s exactly one place you should go: Wikipedia. In 100 years, I don’t know what Wikipedia will become, but I do believe it has a chance to be among the most important things humanity has ever done.
It’s certainly not there yet. It’s going to take some work. It is a singular collection of all human knowledge, written by us all. If our greatest legacy is our science and technology then Wikipedia is our historian. He’s been keeping accurate notes on everything of value that we’ve ever done. He has all of our most powerful ideas, an accurate account of our greatest structures, and a laundry list detailing our greatest discoveries and inventions.