August 30, 2007

Top 5 scientists ever?

Anthropologist John Hawks offers some good suggestions:


Don't get me wrong, I like physics as much as anybody. But once your list includes Newton, Einstein, and Maxwell, and then you throw in Galileo, well there's not much room for anything else. None at all if you take Darwin as a given.

So I decided to do something a little different: What five scientists have had the greatest impact on human life? Yes,
Newton was great, but gravity goes on without him.

Many later discoveries stood on his shoulders, but
Newton's achievements were far more intellectual than practical. I'm looking for people whose accomplishments saved lives, prevented wars, stopped hunger, or released people from endless drudgery. This isn't a list of inventors -- if it were, there would be a lot of ancient inventions like the moldboard plow that deserve more attention than anything modern. It's a list of scientists whose impact stretched across many fields, and without whom life today would likely be worse.

1. R. A. Fisher. His work in population genetics laid the foundations for the vast productivity increases of twentieth-century agriculture. He was far from alone in this, but he stood apart from his contemporaries by inventing many of the statistical methods that would come to define scientific hypothesis testing. Without Fisher's innovations in statistics, large-scale medical research studies would be meaningless. All this after he established the basis for Mendelian inheritance of continuous characters.


Fisher strikes me as the Newton of the 20th Century: the scientist / mathematical innovator.

For the rest of Hawks' list, click here.


My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

47 comments:

tommy said...

Tough to limit the list to just five.

In no particular order:

1. Darwin

2. Carl Sagan: I loved renting the Cosmos series from the video store as a kid and was perusing my old copy of The Demon-Haunted World just the other day.

3. Einstein

4. Linus Pauling: I learned more from his old basic chemistry textbook than I did from the one I was assigned when taking introductory chemistry courses.

5. Robert Boyle: being a chemistry student; I would be remiss in not including the father of our science on the list.

If ancient pre-scientific Greeks were allowed on the list, I would have to include Archimedes up there somewhere. He certainly takes the title of "Greatest Engineer" in my book.

Mathematicians/Logicians: besides Archimedes, that would be Gauss, Godel, Riemann, Hilbert, G.H. Hardy.

Luke said...

Feynman leads off one of his lectures of electricity and magnetism by saying that 10,000 years from now the only scientist from this era who will be remembered is Maxwell, from whose equations all of modern telecommunications is derived.

Anonymous said...

Jesus T-F'ing Christ, you people must not have heard of life before antibiotics.

1) Joseph Lister, for inventing sterile technique in the operating room.

2) Alexander Fleming, for "inventing" penicillin. Spend half a day doing any research in genealogy, or just walking through an older cemetery looking at all the children who died before the invention of antibiotics, and you'll realize that precious few discoveries [since the dawn of time] have changed our lives so dramatically.

Lister & Fleming probably saved more lives than any other men in the entire history of the species [with the possible exception of whichever Caesar or Consul it was who first demanded clean water aqueducts & covered sewers in Rome].

3) Whoever the dude was who realized that you could use "PV = nRT" to create refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners [and, of course, you gotta thank Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla for giving us electricity in the first place].

4) Shockley & everyone else involved in the creation of modern electronics, to include guys like Turing & Shannon for laying the theoretical foundations for the hardware/software interface.

5) Probably ought to throw a bone to the all the chemistry dudes & their work on plastics & other polymers, but let me also throw out one that will be a little unorthodox: Whomever it was who invented plywood [and similar building materials involving wood-glue bonding]. I don't think most people realize just how important plywood is to modern construction techniques, and how darned near impossible it would be to throw these housing developments together lickety-split without it.

Plywood is [quite literally] what holds the modern home erect and prevents the thing from collapsing on itself.

And the glues that make plywood work are usually in the polyurethane family, so that gets you back to the chemists.

Chris said...

I'm a scientist (virology), and the 2 most important thinkers for me have been Darwin and Wittgenstein. The latter of course isn't technically a scientist, but I couldn't leave him out.

Anonymous said...

Hands down, no question, Dr. John Snow:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Snow_(physician)

Not only a pioneer in Anaesthesia, but the FOUNDER of Epidemiology. A man able to see the statistical patterns and "ignore" the theories of "miasma" before the discovery of bacterial diseases. Astonishing.

I agree with Lister and Fleming.

If we are talking non-scientists who nevertheless did pioneering work in science I would include:

The Wright brothers (who tested, found deficient the German theories of aerodynamics, developed their own empirically tested theories).

tommy said...

Whoever the dude was who realized that you could use "PV = nRT" to create refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners [and, of course, you gotta thank Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla for giving us electricity in the first place].

The ideal gas law itself was developed in pieces. Robert Boyle contributed a portion: Boyle's law. Clapeyron was the first to state the entire law, but he was merely combined three previously discovered laws about gases: Boyle's, Charles', and Gay-Lussac's. I'm not sure who developed the first refrigerators or air conditioners, but I would argue that the law is more important than its individual applications since you can't have those applications without the law.

If I had to throw another chemist up there, it would be Dalton. He blundered on a point or two, but his theories about the nature of atoms were essential to any progress in the science.

Fred said...

Using John Hawks's criteria, I think you'd have to go with Norman Borlaug to round out his top-five.

daveg said...

Claude Shannon was the father of modern digital communications. Any type of digital communications was built on top of the work he did at Harvard and Bell Labs.

He was raised in the mid-west, were it seems a lot of the early pioneers in the area were from.

Chaude Shanon

"Robert Gallager has called Shannon the greatest scientist of the 20th century. According to Neil Sloane, an AT&T Fellow who co-edited Shannon's large collection of papers in 1993, the perspective introduced by Shannon's communication theory (now called information theory) is the foundation of the digital revolution and every device containing a microprocessor or microcontroller is a conceptual descendant of Shannon's 1948 publication[6]: "He's one of the great men of the century. Without him, none of the things we know today would exist. The whole digital revolution started with him."[7]"

daveg said...

Sorry, that was MIT, not Harvard.

Ali said...

John van Neumann.

RobertHume said...

No one knows J. Willard Gibbs. Together with Pauling the greatest chemists of all time, probably. The greatest two American-born scientists.

Gibbs basically is the theoretician of industrial process chemistry. All those oil refineries, plastics factories, etc., etc. He's the scientist who really invented chemistry from the energy-entropy point of view.

Pauling, of course, created the foundation of modern chemistry by integrating quantum mechanics into it.

Anonymous said...

A profusion of "Top Lists" in the media is a leading indicator of civilizational decline.

Anonymous said...

Why is Szilard on the list?

He, like Einstein, was NOT a key player in the development of Nuclear science. Rutherford, Bohr and Chadwick more or less mapped the atom. Men like Fermi,Bohr, and Hahn discovered Fission. Oppenhemier lead the Manhattan project, and Teller was the father of the H-bomb. Groves considered Szilard a security risk, and tried to get him thrown off the Manhattan project.

Szilard did a good job trying to get the USA interested in A-bomb research but others were doing the same thing. In any case, the real driving force behind the Manhattan project was our entry into WWII and the advice of the British scientist, who had been engaged in A-bomb research since Hahn discovered fission.

Finally, its doubtful either Einstein or Szilard would have cared about the USA getting the A-bomb if Hitler had been a communist instead of a Nazi.

Anonymous said...

J Willard Gibbs
thermodynamic principles governing the behavior of mixtures (in effect all 'real world" systems: steam engines to chemical reactors to understanding the chemical behavior of biological cells

Anonymous said...

Szilard did a good job trying to get the USA interested in A-bomb research but others were doing the same thing. In any case, the real driving force behind the Manhattan project was our entry into WWII and the advice of the British scientist, who had been engaged in A-bomb research since Hahn discovered fission.

Finally, its doubtful either Einstein or Szilard would have cared about the USA getting the A-bomb if Hitler had been a communist instead of a Nazi.

The more I learn about the Manhattan Project, the more I wonder if it wasn't just a grand scheme on the part of Joseph Stalin to fool FDR into building the bomb for him.

PS: While they at least had the good sense to keep Einstein out of the inner working group at the Manhattan project, the extent of Einstein's perfidy is absolutely staggering:

http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/einstein.htm

http://archive.southcoasttoday.com/daily/06-98/06-02-98/a08wn046.htm

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5168002.stm

http://www.citypaper.com/arts/review.asp?rid=12022

The guy was a real monster - almost like a caricature of an Ian Fleming super-genius super-villain.

Anonymous said...

We should add Robert Koch, who helped establish the germ theory of disease.

And also all the Agricultural scientists who made the present modern day world possible.

I forgot exact stats but in 1800, one farmer could feed 3 people and by 1950 it was up 100-1.

Anonymous said...

Jonas Salk

tommy said...

The guy was a real monster - almost like a caricature of an Ian Fleming super-genius super-villain.

Yes, Einstein was personally a creep. I recall reading a biography of his life years ago. One memorable incident had Einstein and another physicist working on a paper at Einstein's residence. Einstein's second wife was terminally ill and in great pain. The constant crying and moaning coming from the nearby bedroom greatly disturbed the visiting physicist who found it difficult to work. He wondered how Einstein could possibly ignore it and why he didn't do something for his wife. Somehow, Einstein wasn't perturbed by the woman's suffering and tuned her out entirely. He just didn't seem to care.

The biographer also described how Einstein's family has went to some lengths over the years to protect the public image of "St. Einstein."

Vladimir Jabotinsky said...

Interesting how little time it took for a comment thread about the top five scientists to turn into an attack on a Jew or two. What is the average number of comments on iSteve before a Jew gets thrown under the bus? Anyone digging up dirt on Salk, Waksman, Feynman, and the rest now?

Anonymous said...

No one alive can be compared to Chomsky.

He essentially invented a scientific field (and continued to dominate it for four decades) with a deeply mathematical theory of enormously broad and deep influence; he is also an important philsopher. The leading figure of the cognitive revolution.

Anonymous said...

Interesting how little time it took for a comment thread about the top five scientists to turn into an attack on a Jew or two.

Well, obviously whites are as evil as ever, right, Vladimir?

I mean, there's the thing about Einstein being turned into a household name in half a century while a Fisher or a Shannon is barely known, but why bother with such facts, right? All that mattered when Einstein got involved with communism directly (as the FBI site documents) was his bleeding heart to help humanity, naturally. And whites, as usual, are trying their best to destroy such honorable men.

Now, if you don't mind, maybe I should ask in return how long it will take for Jews to perceive their unmatched ethno-narcissism -- which the rest of us cannot NOT see since you can almost drive a knife into its presence in the air, and failure to notice can result in losing careers, even being jailed.

Normally, in any discussion like this on a site maintained by someone of Jewish descent or liberal conviction, it takes barely a few comments on the thread before a whole bunch of white scientists gets blamed for being horrible anti-Semites, while a Jewish cavalcade of large-brained communism junkies are praised to the stratosphere -- as usual.

Any idea how that happens, Vladimir?


JD

tommy said...

Interesting how little time it took for a comment thread about the top five scientists to turn into an attack on a Jew or two. What is the average number of comments on iSteve before a Jew gets thrown under the bus? Anyone digging up dirt on Salk, Waksman, Feynman, and the rest now?f

Nowhere did I refer to Einstein's Jewishness. If it makes you feel any better, Carl Sagan was Jewish and always struck me as a nice guy. As far as I know, Feynman was a very likable fellow also. Fermi was half-Jewish (I think) and seemed affable enough. It is just that Einstein has gotten this undeserved reputation as an eccentric but otherwise swell guy and he simply wasn't; he was a great theorist but also a contemptible asshole.

Anonymous said...

"Interesting how little time it took for a comment thread about the top five scientists to turn into an attack on a Jew or two. What is the average number of comments on iSteve before a Jew gets thrown under the bus? Anyone digging up dirt on Salk, Waksman, Feynman, and the rest now?"

In other words, anyone who says anything bad about St. Einstein is a jew hater.

Party's over folks. Time for the anti-semites and the Jews to threadjack another interesting iSteve discussion.

The Jews, angels or devils? Discussion number 5,433,421.

David said...

"The Jews, angels or devils?"

If you have to ask, don't you already know?

Aside from all that:

Carl Sagan as someone's "top five" choice? Whaaaa? He was not a major scientist. He was a famous author and TV personality.

By that standard, Mr. Peepers was the most brilliant mind of our time.

(I lapped up "Cosmos" and bought the coffee table book, btw.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting that these things change over time.

In the 60s I bet large numbers of people would have mentioned Freud or Jung as one of the greatest scientists, since he developed the basis for modern psychology and the cure for mental illness.

Of course, modern science and time has shown Freud and Jung to be obsolete.

Vladimir Jabotinsky said...

"In other words, anyone who says anything bad about St. Einstein is a jew hater."

I didn't call anyone a Jew hater, anonymous. Name calling calling doesn't interest me. What does interest me is how quickly unrelated comment threads here turn to negative comments about Jews. I call this number of posts the j factor.

For this comment thread,

j=13

Steve Sailer said...

The English covered up just how weird Isaac Newton was for over two hundred years -- his obsession with alchemy and decoding the secret messages in the Bible weren't at all widely understood until John Maynard Keynes bought a trunk full of Newton's private papers and published an essay about what he found in the 1940s. Various worthies had looked in the trunk in the intervening centuries and sealed it up again as too scandalous to mention.

Steve Sailer said...

Feynman was quite a guy but you wouldn't have wanted to leave him alone with your wife. Einstein was a horndog, too. A lot of heroes are better admired in the pages of a book than up close and personal.

At minimum, a lot of geniuses are selfish, partly for good reason. Their time is more valuable than your time.

But, in the end, Einstein worked out the Special _and_ General Theories of Relativity.

Ron Guhname said...

I don't care that Newton was so odd: it just makes him more fascinating. "Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night/ God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light" still works for me.

I have my own odd theory that Newton was planted here by a superior alien race to give us a lift up. All the people I know (including myself) are way too stupid to be of the same species.

Steve Sailer said...

This is mostly speculation on my part, but my guess would be that Newton saw himself as the new, improved Jesus, the true favorite son of the Father. They were both born on December 25th and their real fathers weren't around. Newton believed that the Bible was full of coded messages that only he would ever be able to read, that he would someday read the Book of Scriptures as he had read the Book of Nature.

Anonymous said...

I think the most profoundly pathetic thing I've read about Einstein was something from his grandson (a minor physicist, I believe) who reported that his grandfather wanted to talk about relativity with him but immediately lost interest in him as person when he realized that he lacked Albert's genius.

And yes, Einstein is an enormously important scientist but it's obviously not entirely rational that he's considered the apotheosis of genius while people like Turing and Godel (unquestionably smarter mathematicians) are relatively unknown. Just one of those quirks of popular culture I assume, though Chomsky has drawn a political point from this fact (I'll spare the readers details since I've already posted one comment about my friend Noam).

Ron Guhname said...

Steve: Well, sign me up for the Church of Newton. He can pick 12 of these guys listed above, and I will sell all I have and follow them. Especially the Jewish ones.

Anonymous said...

I think the interesting point - is the one Hawkins asked - what scientists have had the most impact on human life for the good?

He dismisses Newton as being mostly interested in theory. So, what practical effect has Einstein and his theory of Relativity had on human life?.

I've asked several Einstein fans the same thing and I've have never gotten a clear answer.

Just a lot of blah blah about space travel and what a genius he was. So is anyone does have an answer, please give it.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

I think a lot of acknowledged geniuses are selfish, because being an acknowledge massive genius on the scale of Einstein means not only being brilliant, but also being enormously focused. If he had been the kind of guy who backed off the physics and took care of a sick wife, or nursed along a failing relationship, or played with the kids, he probably wouldn't have accomplished so much.

tommy said...

Steve,

Feynman was quite a guy but you wouldn't have wanted to leave him alone with your wife. Einstein was a horndog, too. A lot of heroes are better admired in the pages of a book than up close and personal.

Being a bit of a cad or a womanizer is one thing; being inhumane is another. I can't see Feynman behaving as sickeningly as Einstein sometimes was.

But, in the end, Einstein worked out the Special _and_ General Theories of Relativity

Yes, that is why I put him in my top five.

David,

Carl Sagan as someone's "top five" choice? Whaaaa? He was not a major scientist. He was a famous author and TV personality.

No, those are just my personal favorites - people who have been personally influential. Those would not be my choices for the five most important scientists of the twentieth century. I should have clarified that. Sagan likely wouldn't make the top several thousand in the category of scientific achievements. As a popularizer, he was brilliant.

If I had to pick top scientist of all time it would be Newton hands down. Nobody founded more fields than Newton: calculus, physics, astronomy, optics, etc. Maxwell would probably rank number two. Dalton, Darwin, and Einstein (in no particular order) would probably round out the top five.

Roger said...

Szilard didn't just help the USA get interested in the A-bomb; he invented the A-bomb.

Special relativity was discovered by Lorentz and Poincare before Einstein.

tommy said...

Special relativity was discovered by Lorentz and Poincare before Einstein.

Poincare formulated what is called the principle of relativity, but I don't think he devised special relativity before Einstein. (But maybe you know something I haven't heard about.) Lorentz came damn close and predicted many of the effects of special relativity. Unfortunately his theory did not discard the idea of ether and didn't quite pan out experimentally.

Riemann very much anticipated the development of relativity and relativity owes a tremendous debt to his work in geometry, but since the results of individuals like Maxwell weren't known to him, he couldn't make the connection. Still, the mathematicians don't get nearly the credit they deserve.

Concerning my last post: I meant to say that Newton contributed to astronomy (mostly through his work on gravity), not that he invented it. He invented (or co-invented in the case of calculus) the other fields I mentioned.

Anonymous said...

John Hawks' stupid comment "Yes, Newton was great, but gravity goes on without him. Many later discoveries stood on his shoulders, but Newton's achievements were far more intellectual than practical." shows how limited the brains of anthropologists are.

He pontificates with little knowledge of the history of science (or the underlying subject matter). Are his anthro posts as sloppy?

Anonymous said...

Szilard did NOT invent the atomic bomb, whatever that means.

Read "The Making of the A-bomb" by Rhodes.

Szilard took out a patent on nuclear energy before Hahn even discovered fission.

Most nuclear physists understood that nuclear
energy was a possiblity after Chadwick's discovery but only Szilard took out a patent.

Roger said...

Tommy, Poincare said in 1902 that the aether was no observable, and in 1904 his principle of relativity said that we can have no means of measuring movement relative to the aether. In constrast, Einstein wrote several papers around 1920 arguing for existence of the aether. Poincare had a better understanding of special relativity than Einstein, and Poincare published it first.

tommy said...

Tommy, Poincare said in 1902 that the aether was no observable, and in 1904 his principle of relativity said that we can have no means of measuring movement relative to the aether. In constrast, Einstein wrote several papers around 1920 arguing for existence of the aether. Poincare had a better understanding of special relativity than Einstein, and Poincare published it first.

Looking into the matter, it sounds complicated.

Fred said...

Since we're venturing to matters of character here, might as well mention that there allegations that Newton could be something of a jerk. For example, it's been said that his seemingly humble line about "standing on the shoulders of giants" was actually a dig at another scientist who was hunchback (Hooke?). Also, he refused to correspond directly Leibniz. Leibniz had some fascinating metaphysical questions about the "action at a distance" implicit in Newton's theories of gravity and celestial mechanics. Action at a distance remains a metaphysical question today.

Then, of course, there's the matter of the men Newton had hung for counterfeiting when he was head of the mint later in his life. He wasn't a womanizer though, since he allegedly died a virgin.

Regarding the mid-20th Century physicists: I read in a biography of Feynam that, Oppenheimer's leadership of the Manhattan Project may have prevented him from getting the recognition he deserved for his work in theoretical physics. According to the book, Oppenheimer is one of the underrated physicists of the middle of the last century.

Anonymous said...

Since the thread has already wandered far afield, here goes:

We know how Feynman would have behaved in the presence of a dying wife, because he married Arline after her tuberculosis diagnosis, moved her to a hospital in New Mexico so he could visit her on weekends while he was working on the Manhattan project (atomic spy Klaus Fuchs used to loan Feynman his car so he could go see her), and apparently never really got over her death. Feynman talked a good game about womanizing, but was intensely devoted to the women he married over the course of his life. A mensch as well as a genius. Here's the letter he wrote to Arline a year after he death, periodically re-reading it over the course of his life:

D'Arline,

I adore you, sweetheart ... It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you'll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing. But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and what I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector.

Can't I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the "idea-woman" and general instigator of all our wild adventures. When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn't have worried.

Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want to stand there.

I'll bet that you are surprised that I don't even have a girlfriend after two years. But you can't help it, darling, nor can I — I don't understand it, for I have met many girls ... and I don't want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead,

PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don't know your new address.

David said...

No - the real j-factor is how long before a Jew shows up and attempts to shame us for having the temerity to discuss Jews at all. "Negatively" or "positively" is irrelevant to free discussion (only "true" or "false" is), but it is relevant to censorship.

Jabotinsky's implication is that comments sections with a "j-factor" are corrupted. Corrupted comments sections are of course to be dismissed - as are all "negative comments about Jews."

Isn't is curious that in relation to this subject, "negative" is frequently subjective? In a different post, J'sky deemed as "a negative comment about Jews" a comment that linked to a Christopher Buckley article criticizing Israeli politics. How criticism of Israeli policies is "a negative comment about Jews" is less explicable in our world than it is in J'sky's.

By the real j-factor - mine - this comments section is 19.

j = 19

Ben Capoeman said...

Back to Dr. Hawk's question...

Semmelweiss? Most of the men's washrooms here at Simon Fraser University (Marxism on the Mountain) have those air dry things, with no "eco unfriendly" paper towels. In fact there are self congratulatory signs giving this as the explanation for the lack of paper towels. So guys just don't wash their hands after using the lavatory. (I have no information of personal hygiene patterns in the womens washrooms.)

But for the rest of the planet with running water, I'd say Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss.

Anonymous said...

"In fact there are self congratulatory signs giving this as the explanation for the lack of paper towels. So guys just don't wash their hands after using the lavatory."

I hate to tell you, ben, it's the rare that the male of the species ever washes his hands after using the lavatory. You were obviously raised well. I'd actually shake your hand if we ever met. Bless you, ben, bless you.

Anonymous said...

Nikola Tesla is my greatest scientist