Friday, July 01, 2011

Who was the most important scientist of all time?

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the seven honored nominees. Charles Darwin. Louis Pasteur. Marie Curie. Thomas Alva Edison. Alexander Graham Bell. Galileo Galilei. Albert Einstein.

The nominating committee? Years ago, when I was involved as an Overseer with the Boston Museum of Science, these were the scientists the museum chose to represent different levels of contribution to their annual fund-raising campaign. I won't give the museum's ranking. Instead, I'll offer my own.

May I have the envelopes please.

In 7th place: Alexander Graham Bell. An exceedingly clever man, not a scientist by training, best known for inventing the telephone and making his name synonymous with voice communication. He was surely selected by the museum on the basis of name recognition by Americans. We are a practical people, more given to recognizing Yankee ingenuity than theoretical genius. Everyone has heard of Bell, but who has heard of Joseph Henry, the superb theoretical scientist who inspired and encouraged both Bell and Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph?

In 6th place: Marie Curie. Inevitable on any list, for her gender as for her remarkable achievements. A scientist of prodigious determination, she chemically isolated from tons of ore a tiny amount of a new element, radium, that glowed with its own mysterious light. That light would grow to fill the predawn desert sky over Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, and the sky above Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later in her life, Curie suffered the cruel agony of radiation poisoning, a first but not last victim of a discovery that seemed, in the first glow of success, to offer only promise.

In 5th place: Albert Einstein. The person above all others whose name means "scientist," an intellect of towering proportions, perhaps equaled only by Isaac Newton (conspicuously missing from our list). Three papers published by Einstein in the single year 1905 revolutionized physics. Later, he unraveled the equivalence of matter and energy, thereby making his own contribution to the dark miracle of Alamogordo. Still, for all of his contributions to our understanding of the universe, his direct influence on the way we live our lives and understand ourselves is minimal.

In 4th place: Louis Pasteur. A person of deep religious and philosophical convictions, who nevertheless considered experimentation the only reliable arbiter of truth. We know him for pasteurization, vaccination, and other contributions to public health. But most significant was his demonstration that all living things are biochemically related and that life invariably comes from life. In this sense, he demystified life and opened vital processes to scientific inquiry.

In 3rd place: Thomas Alva Edison. Like Bell, he is deified by our bent for the practical. Edison's more than 1,000 patented inventions include the incandescent bulb that turned night into day, but also many of the behind-the-scenes apparatus that makes our electrified civilization possible. As much as any person, Edison can stand in for Bell, Morse, Eli Whitney, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, and other inspired tinkerers who tinkered America to greatness.

In 2nd place: Galileo Galilei. The true father of modern science. Of all persons nominated, Galileo is the most completely original. It is hard to imagine anyone else of his time marshaling the same resources -- intellectual, moral, physical -- to single-handedly make obsolete a system of natural philosophy that for a millennia had held human knowledge hostage to Greek and Scriptural authority. He challenged an entrenched intellectual establishment by performing simple experiments and describing what he saw with audacious courage. His legacy: The Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics.

And, in 1st place, in a stunning upset, turning the museum's ranking on its ear: Charles Darwin. He did not invent or discover evolution. The idea was in the air. Alfred Russel Wallace proposed a theory of biological evolution by natural selection simultaneously with Darwin. However, Darwin not only stated a theory, he marshaled an irresistible display of evidence in its favor, gathered by decades of patient observation, and in so doing established the legitimacy of historical sciences. No other scientific idea has so radically altered our understanding of ourselves. This is the great Darwinian truth: We are not lords of the universe, plunked down into a garden established for our benefit, to be used or despoiled at our pleasure. We are flowers of the garden, inextricably part of the seamless web of life.