October 23, 2007

Who is the most famous living scientist?

I come up with Stephen Hawking and Jane Goodall at the top, with James D. Watson in the next tier down, maybe with Norman Borlaug (who has become famous for not being famous). Noam Chomsky is famous, and was a great scientist in his day, but his day was 1958. Lots of folks who had credible claim to being the world's most famous scientist -- e.g., Gould, Sagan, Feynman -- tended to drop dead at an early age. I think the last of the atomic bomb physicists are now dead (Hans Bethe died recently).

Who are your suggestions?

Of course, to be famous, it helps to be a public personality. Shy personalities like William D. Hamilton tend to be obscure, even though Hamilton's work was essential to better known figures like Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson. So, a second question: Who is the greatest living scientist?

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

45 comments:

Hans Gruber said...

Hawking, for sure, if we're talking about the general public (who else has appeared on the Simpsons?). Sagan would have beat him once, but the newer generation probably has no idea who he is. I wonder, though, if Hawking's fame is deserved.

I doubt even a quarter of the population knows Gould or his work. A better candidate as far as fame is concerned, imo, who also recently diseased, would be Edward Teller.

Fred said...

Murray Gell-Mann is arguably one of the greatest living physicists, if he still around, and in terms of fame among the lay people, he was sort of a poor man's Feynman for a while (neither, of course, were ever as well-known among laymen as Hawking or Sagan).

J. Craig Venter should be a candidate for greatest living scientist as well as second-tier most famous. It's fair to at least put him in the same ballpark with James D. Watson.

colin laney said...

I would say that the greatest living scientist is easily Roger Penrose, although wiki lists him as a 'mathematical physicist'. He has proposed a solution to what is now known as the "hard problem" of consciousness, and it is not a stretch to say that if proven correct, even partially, it would be of far greater world historical importance than even the work of Darwin or Einstein.

Anonymous said...

david deutsch

Robert said...

<< Gould, Sagan, Feynman -- tended to drop dead at an early age >>

So dying before age 70 is dying young?

Ryan said...

Craig Venter for decoding the human genome. Not exactly famous, but shouldn't his achievement place him beside Watson and Crick?

Kerri Mullis, the inventor of the PCR (polyamerase chain reaction) technique. All DNA testing is (or was) based on this.

Brian Greene of string theory fame. String theory hasn't affected my life yet with great vacations to alternative worlds, though I did borrow his book from the library and browsed through it.

Stephen Pinker, popularizer of the mind and linguistics.

scott said...

google "Noam Chomsky"
909,000 hits

google "James Watson"
753,000 hits

google "Stephen Hawking"
616,000 hits

google "Richard Dawkins"
483,000 hits

google "Brian Greene"
374,000 hits

google "Jane Goodall"
245,000 hits

google "E O Wilson"
228,000 hits

google "Norman Borlaug"
85,900 hits

Is "political science" a "science"? Chomsky's score should be adjusted. A random sample of links yields far more "politics" (i.e., Uncle-Sam-did-it, Uncle-Sam-made~them~do-it) than "science" (i.e., linguistics).

pleasechargemewiththoughtcrimeforreadingstevespage said...

I think if you were ask physcists who is the greatest physicist living, you would hear Edward Witten. Not as famous as Hawking of course, but more revered in the field (basically, he is the foremost superstring theorist, and superstring theory has taken over most physics departments).

scott said...

google "Paul Ehrlich"
450,000 hits
[Needs adjustment. More than one]

google "Michio Kaku"
329,000 hits

google "James Lovelock"
314,000 hits

google "Roger Penrose"
296,000 hits

google "Jared Diamond"
227,000 hits

google "Michael Behe"
135,000 hits
[Hmm.. . --Ed]

Half Sigma said...

Al Gore obviously. Not only did he win the Nobel Prize for Global Warming, he also won the Oscar and invented the internet.

Steve Sailer said...

Paul Ehrlich has a magnificent speaking voice. That's one reason he was on the Johnny Carson Show so many times.

RKU said...

My guess is that the most famous living scientist these days is probably down around third-string sitcom actor in terms of popular fame. Real scientists don't seem to get much media these days, compared to (say) the Hiroshima/Sputnik era.

I'd guess that Hawking used to be the most famous, but he's been pretty quiet for the last decade or two and memories are short.

But I'd agree with the commenter who suggested that Witten is generally considered the greatest living physicist, though I'm not sure that String Theory has really made much progress since the late 1980s. Witten's actually a pretty interesting fellow, since he began his career as a political journalist, and published some pieces in the Nation while still in college.

But Feynman was certainly the greatest living physicist at the time of his death.

As for Sagan, did he ever actually do any major science, or was a just a popularizer, a little like Asimov though higher end?

Mark Seecof said...

Honorable Mention? Freeman Dyson (307,000 Google hits)

Anonymous said...

"Noam Chomsky is famous, and was a great scientist in his day, but his day was 1958."


Firstly, no one alive is on Chomsky's level. It's not close or debatable.

And Chomsky was a dominant force in his field through (at least) the 90s. No one has ever suggested he just coasted through his career after doing his most important work.

LDS on LSD said...

Dr. Emmet Brown

Half Sigma said...

rku: "My guess is that the most famous living scientist these days is probably down around third-string sitcom actor in terms of popular fame."

I was going to say something like that, but rku said it better.

There hasn't been a rock star scientist since Einstein.

btw, my Al Gore comment above was a joke, in case people didn't get it.

Udolpho said...

The only reason anyone (other than his peers) has heard of Chomsky is because of his strident left-wing views. Few people who have heard of him could even name the general field he worked in (and probably half would assume he is Russian).

scott said...

google "Steven Pinker"
418,000 hits

google "Craig Venter"
368,000 hits

google "Paul Davies"
346,000 hits
[Needs adjustment. Common name]

google "Freeman Dyson"
219,000 hits

google "Howard Gardner"
181,000 hits
[Common name?]

google "PZ Myers"
178,000 hits

google "Francis Collins"
174,000 hits

google "Marvin Minsky"
161,000 hits

google "Martin Rees"
121,000 hits

google "Murray Gell-Mann"
118,000 hits

google "Neil deGrasse Tyson"
106,000 hits

google "David Deutsch"
94,300 hits.

google "Kerry Mullis"
69,200 hits

google "Edward Witten"
65,000 hits

google "Carl Djerassi"
64,800 hits

"Al Gore"
Not a scientist.

Sorry Al. You get the Booby .. er .. Peace Prize.

Non-chemists with a book from a big-name publishing house under their belt are much more likely to crack the 100,000 mark (unless your chemistry degree says "Margaret Thatcher" on it, in which case you get 608,000 hits. Hey, if it's fair for Chomsky... !)

Peter said...

If physicians count, Mehmet Oz.

Benoit Mandelbrot would be a second- or third-tier candidate.

Steve Sailer said...

So, Watson comes out ahead of everybody except Chomsky, even ahead of Hawking, in Google hits, plus you can add another 65,000 for "James D. Watson." (Or course, you should probably subtract some for the other James Watsons down through history, who probably show up a lot in on-line genealogical databases.)

Still, I'm not sure if Google hits are the final word on fame, since I doubt if one person in 100 could identify Watson by picture or by voice, while Hawking is used by stand-up comedians as a pop culture figure everybody knows.

I also think Jane Goodall is at least vaguely familiar to just about anybody who was a schoolchild from 1965 onward. I vividly remember reading about her in my National Geographic for Kids magazine around 1966.

I suspect a lot of the Google hits for Watson are just en passant mentions of him and Francis Crick (360,000 total) that pad out news articles mentioning DNA.

Of course, if somebody gets _really_ famous, people stop using your first name. There are 4.1 million hits for "Albert Einstein" but 11.5 million for "Einstein."

scott said...

"As for Sagan, did he ever actually do any major science[?]"

Yes, astronomy. Google "Sagan" and "Voyager".

Tom said...

Quite honestly science needs more popularizers, they do more good for science and probably get more people making more scientific discoveries than any of our lab happy friends. It is also not easy to quantify "famous" google aside. Very few people on the whole know or care about scientists, for the most part they care about the things they use every day. Who can name the guy who invented television? (not me, I dont watch that satan box anyway)

Hell, forget scientists, how many people actually know what science IS? More university professors than you would care for do not know what science is really about (mostly in non-scientific areas, but still). Division of labor within science and the rest of society in general does beg the question "who cares" since the people doing real ground breaking work (A. Fire comes to mind for some reason) arnt famous because they are doing what they do best: science. Being famous in todays world isnt exactly a good thing since it can often be a spontaneous event (Paris Hilton anyone?) where as being a good scientist doesnt just happen because you are a good scientist.

Peter said...

I doubt if one person in 100 could identify Watson by picture or by voice, while Hawking is used by stand-up comedians as a pop culture figure everybody knows

Due largely to Hawking's disability.

scott said...

Watson is clearly among the most notable.

Familiarity is a little more difficult to measure than notoriety. Perhaps a blog search?

Using 200,000 google hits or above as the cut-off, here are the Google blog search results

blog results "Stephen Hawking"
146,778 hits

blog results "Richard Dawkins"
97,379 hits

blog results "Jane Goodall"
35,622

blog results "Jared Diamond"
15,643

blog results "James Watson"
14,776 hits

blogs results "Craig Venter"
11,120 hits

blog results "James Lovelock"
9,598

blog results "Steven Pinker"
9,528

blog results "Brian Greene"
7,515

blog results "Paul Ehrlich"
6,325

blog results "Paul Davies"
5,670

blog results "Michio Kaku"
3,867

blog results "E O Wilson"
596

tommy said...

I'm tempted to third Witten. The public doesn't recognize him but those who follow cutting-edge physics will know him. Though whether his biggest theory, M-theory, will prove to be much of anything is still an open question.

As for Sagan, did he ever actually do any major science, or was a just a popularizer, a little like Asimov though higher end?

Ever heard of "nuclear winter?" Sagan was a significant figure in the field. Unfortunately, he also predicted disaster from the Kuwaiti oil fires after Iraq Attaq I. At least, he manned up to his mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Chomsky's an anti-american asshat. Feynman is clearly the 'nerd's choice'.


Pinker will be the coming star of the next generation. I just started "The Stuff of Thought' and am impressed.

Fred said...

"If physicians count, Mehmet Oz."

I dated a girl who worked as part of the surgical teams with Dr. Oz and others in the cardiac group at NY Presbyterian. I once asked her if she needed heart surgery, who would she want to perform it, having seen Oz and the other faculty surgeons work. Her choice wasn't Oz, but a young Asian surgeon on the faculty who's never been on Oprah.

Oz is pretty well-known these days though. He's a businessman and great at achieving publicity; I think he knocked out an MBA at Wharton while he was in medical school, and managed to fulfill some service requirement in the Turkish army during one summer. There was an NY Times Magazine article about him that covered some of this about 10 years ago, well before he was nationally known. That article said his colleagues were so impressed by his industriousness that they used the term "Mehmet Units" to describe his activity level. I don't think he's the best-known or the best-regarded physician in America though. And I don't think he's really a scientist.

"Benoit Mandelbrot would be a second- or third-tier candidate."

Mandelbrot is arguably one of the greatest living mathematicians, but I hadn't thought of him as a scientist, primarily. He is also the only living mathematician I can think of who has a song written about him: Mandelbrot Set

Anonymous said...

Has nobody mentioned Steven Weinberg???, I generally think he is regarded as being in the same class as Feynman as a physicist, and like Feynman but unlike a lot of other physicists he did not burn out after say the age of 35. He's made contributions not only to high-energy physics but cosmology as well. Furthermore, his work has been confirmed experimentally, unlike that of the string theorists. Gell-Mann would also make the short list, but I think Weinberg's contributions are broader. Sagan doesn't deserve any mention at all, unless it's for greatest self-promoter in science history. Sagan's only contribution to NASA is the gold phonograph record sent on Voyager, that's not exactly a staggering accomplishment.

Mark said...

Are you looking for people who happen to be famous AND scientists, or for serious, respected scientists who are also famous? If the latter then the best place would be the list of NAS members and Field's medal recipients, besides the Nobelists.

Would Arthur C Clarke count? Or Gordon Moore? Lots of people have heard of Moore's law, and on Google he gets about 700k links (for both "gordon moore" and "gordon e moore"). How about Larry Page and Sergey Brin? They were math PhD students. Or how about Freeman Dyson?

Ray Damadian, who made contributions to the MRI but possibly got snubbed by the Nobel Committee, is somewhat famous in Evangelical Christian circles.

And as for Sagan: does a scientist who never got into the National Academy of the Sciences really count? None of his major theories seemed to amount to much. At least Gould could say he made it in.

So dying before age 70 is dying young?

Gould died at 60, Sagan at 62. These days that's pretty young, though as pointed out elsewhere, most scientists do their best research before then.

At the end of the day, a serious scientist probably doesn't have too much time to spend making himself famous amongst the general public. The real question seems to be "How famous can you make yourself while still doing serious research?" I suppose Greene and Pinker come closest to that. And ain't it great that Pinker is no Gould?

Felix said...

The question refers to "greatest", not "most famous". In fact, I can't really answer either.

But let's at least consider Andrew Wiles, the mathematician who famously solved Fermat’s last theorem.

hey steve said...

"Who is the most famous living scientist?"

I dunno. But the most famous scientist of the near future will be the one who makes his bones by loudly debunking the global warming psychosis of the early 21st c.

Seriously, there's never been a better time to eviscerate the establishment. They have jumped the shark on global warming. It is a fiasco. CNN is now officially chicken little network. Funny how the solution to global warming is more socialism. And when hysterical global cooling hits in about 30 years you can bet that more socialism will be the prescription then also.

Steve Sailer said...

Physicist John Archibald Wheeler, born 1911, is still alive. Feynman was one of his students. He wasn't at Los Alamos, though. He served the Manhattan Project at Hanford, WA. Are any of the famous figures from Los Alamos still alive?

Hans Gruber said...

My earlier comment only addressed fame. After thinking about the second question, I don't feel equipped to name the greatest living scientist today, and all the guys who come to mind are dead. The leaps in science are smaller today, so fewer candidates can be credited with paradigm shifts or breakthroughts as they have been in the past.

I don't think the honor would go to a physicist, though. The field seems to have hit a wall, where the limitations of the human mind and engineering are being felt. A lot of the best and brightests are dallying in things like string theory, which is literally incomprehensible to those outside the field and is attacked by critical physicists as being untestable.

As far as impact on mankind and raw discovery, geneticists and biochemists seem to be the best candidates. A couple of commenters mention Venter and I guess he's a reasonable candidate (he was on a recent bloggingheads for those who would like to check him out). I'd be interested to hear what Greg Cochran or the guys over at Gene Expression think.

Anonymous said...

rku wrote:

But I'd agree with the commenter who suggested that Witten is generally considered the greatest living physicist, though I'm not sure that String Theory has really made much progress since the late 1980s.


It's come under increasing criticism for that reason, and for soaking up scarce resources.

If pure theory divorced from experiment is still considered physics, then Alain Connes is as much a contender as Witten.

But Feynman was certainly the greatest living physicist at the time of his death.

Among theorists, many would say John Bardeen was (still the only two-time winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics).

As for Sagan, did he ever actually do any major science, or was a just a popularizer, a little like Asimov though higher end?

He did very solid work in planetary atmospheres.

half sigma,

Can we please put the "Gore claimed to have invented the Internet" hoax to rest? I don't like Gore, but I like facts and fact-supported opinion, and that's what I come to Steve's blog for.

Half Sigma said...

google "Noam Chomsky"
909,000 hits


And then we Google "Britney Spears": 49,000,000 hits.

And for the fun of it, "Al Gore" who invented the internet and discovered global warming: 36,000,000.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think the honor would go to a physicist, though. The field seems to have hit a wall, where the limitations of the human mind and engineering are being felt. A lot of the best and brightests are dallying in things like string theory, which is literally incomprehensible to those outside the field and is attacked by critical physicists as being untestable."


The decline of physics is an interesting recent phenomenon of science. It's become pretty clear that if you want to do research that yields meaningful results, you should be in molecular biology, biochemistry, etc. No doubt many brilliant people go into physics -- but I think they sometimes find their talents aren't productive enough there.


Chomsky from a 1983 interview:



CHOMSKY: I don't see it as much of a reason to despair. In fact, I kind of like the conclusion. I'm not sure that I want free will to be understood.

QUESTION: Do you think that any other human abilities fall into the same mysterious category as free will?

CHOMSKY: In my opinion, all of them do.

QUESTION: All of them?

CHOMSKY: Take, for example, the aesthetic sense. We like and understand Beethoven because we are humans, with a particular, genetically determined mental constitution. But that same human nature also means there are other conceivable forms of aesthetic expression that will be totally meaningless to us. The same thing is as true for art as it is for science: the fact that we can understand and appreciate certain kinds of art has a flip side. There must be all kinds of domains of artistic achievement that are beyond our mind's capacities to understand.

QUESTION: Do you think genetic barriers to further progress are becoming obvious in some areas of art and science?

CHOMSKY: You could give an argument that something like this has happened in quite a few fields. It was possible in the late nineteenth century for an intelligent person of much leisure and wealth to be about as much at home as he wanted to be in the arts and sciences. But forty years later that goal had become hopeless. Much of the new work in art and science since then is meaningless to the ordinary person. Take modern music -- post-Schšnbergian music. Many artists say that if you don't understand modern music it's because you just haven't listened enough. But modern music wouldn't be accessible to me if I listened to it forever. Modern music is accessible to professionals, and maybe to people with a special bent, but it's not accessible to the ordinary person who doesn't have a particular quirk of mind that enables him to grasp modern music, let alone make him want to deal with it.

QUESTION: And you think that something similar has happened in some scientific fields?

CHOMSKY: I think it has happened in physics and mathematics, for example. There's this idea, which goes back to the French mathematicians known collectively as Bourbaki, that the development of mathematics was originally the exploration of everyday intuitions of space and number. That is probably somewhat true through the end of the nineteenth century. But I don't think it's true now. As for physics, in talking to students at MIT, I notice that many of the very brightest ones, who would have gone into physics twenty years ago, are now going into biology. I think part of the reason for this shift is that there are discoveries to be made in biology that are within the range of an intelligent human being. This may not be true in other areas.

QUESTION: You seem to be saying two things. First, that whatever defines our common human nature will turn out to be a shared set of intuitions that owe much of their strength and character to our common genetic heritage -- our species genotype. Second, that the exhaustion of these intuitions in many areas is producing a peculiar kind of artistic and scientific specialization. Further progress in music or mathematics, for example, requires a scientist or artist with an unusual heredity.

CHOMSKY: Well, it's a different mental constitution -- something like being a chess freak or a runner who can do a three-and-one-half minute mile. It's almost a matter of logic that this change is going to occur sooner or later. Has it happened already? That's a matter of judgment. It's a matter of looking at, say, the twentieth century and seeing whether there are signs of this change. Is it the case, for example, that contemporary work in the arts and sciences is no longer part of our common aesthetic and intellectual experience? Well, there are signs. But whether the signs are realistic or whether we are just going through a sort of sea change and something will develop, who knows? Maybe a thousand years from now we'll know.

Anonymous said...

This is bizarre. Have y'all heard of ....

BILL GATES?????

Of course he is a scientist.

Mark said...

But the most famous scientist of the near future will be the one who makes his bones by loudly debunking the global warming psychosis of the early 21st c.

Dream on. That guy's obit will be on page D37, right next to the ads for titty bars and the monster truck rally.

cantemir said...

Chomsky is more right about math than about music, because modern music is an emperor with no clothes. For every modernist composer who could "hear" hexachordal combinatoriality unfolding in six voices, there were 50,000 who couldn't.

dumb-dumb said...

To the guy known as "hey steve," Freeman Dyson has been poking at global warming recently because he's old enough not to care. He's looking for young scientists brave enough to carry the torch though.

"We are lucky that we can be heretics today without any danger of being burned at the stake. But unfortunately I am an old heretic. Old heretics do not cut much ice. When you hear an old heretic talking, you can always say, “Too bad he has lost his marbles”, and pass on. What the world needs is young heretics. I am hoping that one or two of the people who read this piece may fill that role."

From his great comments at the Edge.

Of course, his comments could also be applied to Watson's and Summers' issues as well, although he was discussing global warming.

Still, maybe we could put him in touch with Steve, who is still pretty young.

Mark said...

Google "Noam Chomsky": 909,000 hits. And then we Google "Britney Spears": 49,000,000 hits.

Well sure, but you know that at least half of those are related to this.

Mark said...

This is bizarre. Have y'all heard of....BILL GATES????? Of course he is a scientist.

And the fingerpainting I did on my bedroom wall when I was 5 makes me an artist. Gates is not a scientist - he is a businessman. He has said that he wouldn't hire himself as a tech guy. I doubt that's true, I'm sure he's technically very literate - but probably none of what Gates does or ever did can be called science. When's the last time he did any real research?

I think, however, that Brin and Page's initial work at Google was certainly science, though not of the earth shattering, "here's your teleporter, Captain Kirk" kind of way. Gordon Moore of Intel seems to fit tat bill, being both billionaire and former scientist. Earth shattering indeed.

Mthson said...

Rising star Nancy Hopkins.

Anonymous said...

Chomsky is still, by far, the most continually ground-breaking scientist in the fields of language and cognition. Everyone constantly positions themselves for or against his every new result. 1958? Try to read 2004's "Beyond Explanatory Adequacy" without your head exploding by page 12.

http://books.google.com/books?id=4fcEZYeV7UkC&printsec=frontcover#PPA104,M1

His influence (on computing, linguistics, biology, mathematics, psychology, philosophy, methodology, et cetera) is incalculable, with results that have been impossibly fruitful. It is impossible to imagine 20th or 21st century science without him. Pick up any book on the history of programming languages, for example, and the time-line is always divided into "before Chomsky" and "after Chomsky".

I haven't seen anyone else mentioned in this discussion who comes close.

As for his political histories: they are heavily footnoted, from mainstream and governmental sources, so you can draw your own conclusions, as with any scientific paper. It's lazy to criticize him without checking these ... and they are impeccable. This is academic work of the highest quality. He may make people angry, but that doesn't mean he's wrong.

strangedave said...

What about Stephen Wolfram? His first physics paper was published when he was 15. He's fairly famous for his software company and his book "A New Kind of Science." By the way, some crazy crackpot has posted some amusing ideas at http://www.wolframscience.com NKS forum Applied Science. Some physicists might get a chuckle out of it.
Top great living scientists are: James D. Watson, Sydney Brenner, Craig Venter, Kary Mullis, Andrew Fire, Murray Gell-Mann, Steven Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow, Philip W. Anderson, James Thomson, but ... comparisons are always unfair.