Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Who made America?

Atlantic Monthly Magazine asked 10 eminent historians to rank the 100 most influential Americans of all time. The list has been widely published and will feature in the December issue of the magazine.

Not surprisingly, the usual pantheon is at the top: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, Hamilton, Franklin, in that order. The first woman makes her appearance at 30th place -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- and women make only a modest showing after that. This will surely change dramatically on any list compiled 100 years from now. The abolitionist Lyman Beecher, at 91st place, is known best as the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, at number 41.

As for scientists and engineers...

The clever tinkerers figure strongly, a typical American forte: Thomas Edison (at 9), Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, Eli Whitney, Samuel Morse, Bill Gates, Cyrus McCormick, and George Eastman.

As for the pure scientists...

Benjamin Franklin at number 6 deserves a place for his scientific contributions, but that is surely not why he made the list. Europeans are likely to memember Franklin best as the author of the influential Experiments and Observations on Electricity, in which he first named positive and negative electric charge.

Albert Einstein tops the roll at 32, followed closely by Jonas Salk. Rachel Carson makes the top 50, although her influence was more as an environmental crusader than a biologist. Robert Oppenheimer checks in at 48, and james Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, at 68. Anthropologist Margaret Mead makes the list. The Italo-American Enrico Fermi is there. And Booker T. Washington squeaks in at 98.

It is perhaps a sad comment on the 20th century that the three physicists on the list -- Einstein, Oppenheimer and Fermi -- are all associated in the public mind with the construction of the most devastating weapon in human history. Do they bear a moral responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I will have more to say about this in next Sunday's Musing.