October 23, 2007

Who is the most famous living scientist working outside the English-speaking world?

One of the features of the 21st Century is the growing parochialism of us native English-speakers. No educated man in 1907 making up a list of the most famous scientists or most famous writers would have included only people working in America and Britain, but it seems perfectly natural today. So, I'd like to hear from my more worldly readers about important scientists who are less well-known in our Fortress of Anglophonic Solitude than they deserve to be.

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


Anonymous said...

Others will do better, but this chemist likes Ryoji Noyori, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Asymmetric hydrogenation is key from gram scale to ton scale to pharmaceuticals.

Linus Torvald (inventor of Linux) will be popular.

agnostic said...

The NAS elects foreign associates:

Not knowing most of the fields, I don't know if I missed some big names, but I found two who are pretty big:

Jean-Pierre Serre, a French mathematician who wikipedia says is one of the most important of the century, and who won the Fields Medal.

Tomoko Ohta, a Japanese population geneticist who was important in developing the neutral theory of molecular evolution. More important was Motoo Kimura, also Japanese, but he died in 1994.

In fact, eyeballing the Japanese names in the NAS directory suggests that most, maybe all, of them stay in Japan. (You can be elected "foreign" even if you work at MIT.)

Anonymous said...

Just off the top of my head I'd nominate Svante Pääbo, for his work studying FOXP2 and the neanderthal genome, and David Lordkipanidze, who has been rooting around in an H georgicus site in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia for the last while.

Anonymous said...

Torvald isnt really a scientist though is he. And without Unix (product of English speakers) there would be no Linux.

Unknown said...

Speaking as a recently retired scientist who has thought about who the great scientists of the past were, I am non-plussed by my inability to come up with a good candidate right off the top of my head. Those suggested so far are not inspiring. Are we in decline?

Good question, Steve.

Anonymous said...

Is Luc Montagnier still on the go? You know, the chap who actually, ahem, pre-discovered what Robert Gallo post-discovered.

Anonymous said...

"Linus Torvald (inventor of Linux) will be popular."

From start to finish Linux was developed in English, the lingua franca of computer science.

I think Marie Curie's family remains fascinating to the French public:

"Dr. Hélène Langevin-Joliot (born 17 September 1927) is a French nuclear physicist. She was educated at the Institut de physique nucléaire (English: Institute of Nuclear Physics) at Orsay, a laboratory which was set up by her parents Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot. She is a member of the French government's advisory committee.[1] Currently, she is a professor of nuclear physics at the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the University of Paris and a Director of Research at the CNRS. She is also known for her work in actively encouraging women to pursue careers in scientific fields.[2][3] She is Chairman of the panel that awards the Marie Curie Excellence award, a prize given to outstanding European researchers.[4] She is President of the French Rationalist Union.[5]

[edit] Family

Her husband, Michel Langevin, is grandson of the famous physicist Paul Langevin and is also a nuclear physicist at the Institute, and her son, Yves, is an astrophysicist.[6][7]

Langevin-Joliot is from a family of well-known scientists. Her grandparents are Marie and Pierre Curie who are famous for their study of radioactivity, for which they won a Nobel Prize in physics with Henri Becquerel in 1903. Marie Curie is also the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, the second prize being for chemistry with her discovery of radium and polonium. Dr. Langevin-Joliot's parents also won a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935, for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. Pierre Joliot is her brother and a noted biophysicist who has made useful contributions to the study of photosynthesis. Due to her family's legacy, she regularly has interviews and gives talks about their history. [6][3] Her knowledge of her family history led to her writing the introduction for Radiation and Modern Life: Fulfilling Marie Curie's Dream in which she wrote a short history of the Curies"

Anonymous said...

I remember some Chinese physics grad students mentioning that Chen Ning Yang, who was in his 80s, had gotten married to a 28 year old. Being worthy of gossip in your 80s makes you pretty famous I suppose.

Chen Ning Yang won the Nobel prize in physics in 1957 for work on parity violation. He is also well known for his work on "Yang-Mills" theory. Both concepts are extremely important to fundamental physics. He actually did most of his scientific work in the US.

Colby Cosh said...

I would be tempted to argue that the "English-speaking world" now includes Scandinavia (and Finland), for all practical purposes.

Albert Hofmann, the 101-year-old discoverer of LSD, would be a good candidate if not for the Chomsky "working" criterion (but that is an awfully tough one if it's taken to mean that good original scientific work still has to be practically possible from the person).

Colby Cosh said...

The mathematician Alexander Grothendieck presents a different challenge if math's included: he's very important and quite famous, but no one knows what work he might be doing if any.

Anonymous said...

If only Europe hadn't disposed of 6 million or so Jews. I imagine they'd be leading the pack in most scientific fields if they hadn't lobotomized themselves.

Anonymous said...

Albert Hofmann, the 101-year-old discoverer of LSD, would be a good candidate if not for the Chomsky "working" criterion

He spends all his time listening to the color green and smelling a rectangle.

Antioco Dascalon said...

"Are we in decline?"

I am not sure that we are in decline so much as science has become much more collaborative. You can see it in the Nobel Prizes, when it can be difficult to award them because there are so many collaborators. Most good scientists in the cutting edge of biotech are working in secret, for private start-ups or research divisions of large firms. Science has gotten more complicated and competitive (because more lucrative).
One can also think about it backwards. What are the biggest scientific breakthroughs in the past 30 years? Why don't we remember who was responsible for them as we do earlier achievements? I think we all agree that it's not because scientific progress is slower than the past. In fact, I think it is because progress is so fast that one person can't dominiate it like Einstein did.