Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Who's tops? Whose tops?


Who were the greatest scientists of all time? I've tackled this question before (I'll get to that in a minute), but for the moment let's consider a new book by Steven Skiena and Charles Ward, Who's Bigger: Where Historical Figures Really Rank, as discussed at length in the 1 December Boston Globe.

Skiena and Ward used Wikipedia as their criteria: the length of a person's entry, how often it's viewed, how often edited, and the number of links to that page from the pages of others of significance. That is to say: Who from the past is garnering the most attention at the present?

No. 1: Jesus. No. 2:Napoleon. No. 3: Mohammed. The first scientist pops in at No. 12: Charles Darwin, possibly helped along by being the bugbear of the religious right. Einstein enters at No. 19. And Newton at 21. That does it for scientists in the top 25. Not too shabby.

A few years ago I ranked here seven scientists initially chosen by Boston's Museum of Science. Unlike the Museum, I put Darwin in top place. I wrote:
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 Russell 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.
Newton wasn't among the Museum's seven, but I was happy to accept Galileo in his place. Einstein made the Museum's list, and didn’t do too bad on mine, although the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world was not dramatically changed by his work.

Earlier, I had hazarded a guess for the greatest American-born scientist. I wonder if Willard Gibbs showed up at all in Skiena and Ward's book? They used both "celebrity" and "gravitas" as criteria. Gibbs was/is all gravitas and no celebrity.

(I'll be away tomorrow.)