Friday, August 24, 2007

Top Five Dead Scientists

 
Robin Ince lists his top five scientists in the video. It's obviously intended to be a farce since he doesn't mention Charles Darwin. Some bloggers have asked for serious submissions. For example Peter Mc at The Beagle Project Blog wants to know who you would name for the other four spots [Top five dead scientists: list 'em]. So does James Randerson at the Guardian [Top five dead scientists].

So who would I choose besides Charles Darwin at #1? How about Isaac Newton (#2) and Albert Einstein (#3). They seem pretty obvious. I'm tempted to go with Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039) for the #4 position although I don't know as much about him as I should. At #5 I'll pick Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866 - 1945) the first geneticist to win a Nobel Prize and the founder of modern genetics. (And because nobody else has named him yet.)

Honorable mentions to Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Francis Crick and Louis Pasteur. Some of those mentioned by others don't even make the top 100 on my list.



[Hat Tip: Coturnix]

22 comments :

  1. Aside from the obvious (Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein), Gregor Mendel anyone? I'd cast a vote for John Maynard Smith. Maybe JBS Haldane too mostly because of his personality and wit. Marie Curie? Too many to name really.
    Hey, how come these good folks all died and Pat Robertson just keeps going?

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  2. How about Galilei? He was the first one to use experiments after all. I agree to your #1 and #2 despite being a physicist -- other than that it is the usual thing with my top ten lists always having a hundred entries.

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  3. #1: Newton. Founded systematic science (theories) and physics.
    #2: Darwin. Founded systematic biology. (Well, close enough for my chosen pattern. :-P)
    #3: Euclid. Founded systematic math.
    #4: Eratosthenes. Singular genius who founded geography among other things. Invented map measures, measured Earth circumference, and found the distance to the Sun. The first real "large scale" thinker.
    #5: Dalton. Founded Atomic Theory and so (again, close enough) systematic chemistry.

    Hmm. I guess the originators gets a larger share of the cake in my eyes.

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  4. Gauss!

    And he didn't publish most of what he discovered, apparently...

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  5. anonymous - Aristotle? Surely you jest; just announce something as fact and it becomes so? That ain't science.

    I'd also be interested to know how highly Professor Moran would rate Mendel. And didn't Morgan get a lot of ideas from his students?

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  6. I am surprised no one has mentioned James Clerk Maxwell yet.

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  7. anonymous - Aristotle? Surely you jest; just announce something as fact and it becomes so? That ain't science.

    Certainly by today's standards he wasn't much of a scientist. But you have to consider him in his context and his period. There wasn't much around then. His detailed observations about nature and the physical world actually laid the groundwork for the modern study of biology. He influenced many other medieval and renaissance scientific thinkers.

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  8. ...and I should add that we're talking about "scientists", not the more generic "genius" category. (otherwise, I would add Archimedes, Da Vinci, Bach, Shakespeare, etc)

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  9. But my point was that Aristotle didn't approach problems in an empirical manner - he used reason to arrive at conclusions a priori, rather than going out and making observations.

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  10. My, I was blown away by that Wikipedia entry on Ibn al-Haytham, of whom I had never heard. What an amazing civilization flourished in the tolerant atmosphere of the early medieval Islamic world. And what a tragedy for the human race was the dark age brought about by the Mongol destruction of the Abbasid empire and the subsequent snuffing out of free thought by the fundamentalist clergy.

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  11. > My, I was blown away by that Wikipedia entry on Ibn al-Haytham...

    Me, too. It underlines how important communication is, to scientific progress as well, given that many centuries had to pass before many of his ideas were rediscovered.

    > What an amazing civilization flourished in the tolerant atmosphere of the early medieval Islamic world.

    I don't know that Islam at this time was tolerant in general--see below--but yes, quite possibly tolerant of intellectuals and of inquiries such as science.

    (From Wikipedia here: "The immediate cause of the First Crusade was Alexius I's appeal to Pope Urban II for mercenaries to help him resist Muslim advances into territory of the Byzantine Empire.")

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  12. Given the epoch it's all comparative of course. But good luck to you if you were a freethinking scientist in that 11-century Byzantine Empire.

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  13. My list in no particular order

    If Galileo, how about Aryabhata who worked over a 1000 years before Galileo?

    Largescale thinking and Eratosthenes? How about Kanaada (ca. 600 BCE) and the the many other unnamed Jaina philosophers for the idea of infinity and atomism?

    Panini ca.520 BCE for the first ever formal grammar; and for developing a method to derive words from lists of phonemes, morphemes, and roots.

    Newton isn't the first great scientist, he's the last great alchemist: Weinberg (quoting Chandra?)

    Al Khwarizmi quotes from Arybhata's Arybhatteeyam and Panini's Ashtadhyayi has served as a template for the grammars of a few other languages including Arabic (when Panini's work was already over 1000 years old)

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  14. Leaving out the obvious big three, I would put in Jules Henri Poincaré, Leonhard Euler, and whoever the ancient Indian it was that discovered the "zero", Heisenberg.

    Then I would add the person considered to be the first modern atheist, Baron d'Holbach

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  15. truti:

    Largescale thinking and Eratosthenes? How about Kanaada (ca. 600 BCE) and the the many other unnamed Jaina philosophers for the idea of infinity and atomism?

    Fair point. Of course these lists are subjective (and very short) so the names are only meant to be personal suggestions.

    One could also discuss if the list should go outside natural sciences (I think not, to make a fair comparison) and if we are interested in seminal scientists like Newton or great scientists like al-Haytham.

    I'm no historian of science, and haven't heard of Kanaada before. I've heard of Jaina philosophers though, and the same objection that goes against Aristotle goes against them - they were philosophers, not empiricists.

    (It is also, as for al-Haytham, difficult to assess what they did or the influence they really had, since popular accounts of their works often reads like apologetics, probably for nationalistic purposes.)

    And I have to nitpick here: Different concepts of infinity or atomism has IMO nothing to do with realizing what large scales in space and time the universe consists of and measuring them. Infinities are idealizations that we use formally to simplify theories (mostly math). Most physicists think that localized infinities means a theory has broken down. (Since otherwise you would have an indefinite physics.)

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  16. But my point was that Aristotle didn't approach problems in an empirical manner - he used reason to arrive at conclusions a priori, rather than going out and making observations

    But Aristotle was an empiricist! Some would say, at 350BC, he was the first empiricist (although confined mostly to biology). His methods left much to be desired by today's standards, but hey - he was the first and had nothing else to go on.

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  17. There does seem to be a clustering phenomenon: Copernicus-Kepler-Galileo-Newton are related. So are Faraday-Maxwell-Einstein. It’s a bit like discovering a mine: Someone discovers the seam, another opens it up, another finds incredible riches, many others work the seam with diminishing returns. The “I-was-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time” factor looms large. What if Newton discovered that he was actually a good farmer? Hence, aside from Newton, the greatest scientist of all time is “Lady Luck”; evolutionists will no doubt agree.

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  18. The Indian mathematician's name I didn't know is Brahmagupta. More here.

    http://www.answers.com/topic/brahmagupta?cat=technology

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  19. What about Francis Bacon? An empiricist through-and-through: he gave his life trying to invent the frozen chicken.

    Plus the whole helped-to-establish-the-scientific-method thing.

    And I'll also vote against Aristotle: saying he influenced many later thinkers glosses over the fact that those influences were rather negative - didn't the Church use Aristotle's ideas to bulwark their Geocentric opinions in the age of Galileo and Copernicus?

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  20. Top N lists always suffer from one problem: unclear measure. What are we measuring?

    If it's the top five dead "scientist's scientists," the great lab rats of history, it looks a little different: Darwin (yes, he was an incredible lab rat), Michael Faraday, Galileo Galilei, Ronald Fisher, and John Tukey. When Jay Sussman croaks, he might fight his way on here as well.

    If we're talking about folks who single handedly propogated a synthesis in the natural sciences, then sure, Darwin, Einstein, Newton, but then Lev Landau and Linus Pauling.

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