14 May 2006

Mount Rushmore of Science?

Ever wake up way too early on a Sunday morning (yeah, I'm calling my mom in a little bit) and realize that you can't get back to sleep? For me, it generally happens because I start thinking about something I read the other day and, as long as my mind is churning, I'm not going to be able to sleep.

So, the other day I read a blog post here at Uncertain Principles that was discussing a theoretical "Mount Rushmore of Science", i.e. the four scientists who deserve to have their faces emblazoned on a huge rock for their contributions to scientific knowledge.

The original post postulated that Newton, Einstein, and Darwin were shoo-ins, and asked for the fourth face to go along. Personally, I think that given the first three, the only other person who deserves to be named along with them was Mendeleev (and commented to that effect), but over the last few days I've become more and more dissatisfied with the concept. There are just so many scientists that did so much important work, that to claim that the whole of science is in some way honored along with those four seems shortsighted.

Personally, I figure that if we're going to do it, we should break down our Mount Rushmore by category, picking four scientists from each major discipline of science. So I'm going to name my picks for Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Medicine, and Physics, because that was what I was thinking about this morning.

Astronomy: This is a tough one, since so many great astronomers only did work on a very tiny slice of the field, or only made one big discovery in their lifetime. I'd argue that Galileo and Kepler are shoo-ins, with Hubble being a sort of modern equivalent in terms of influence, but who gets the fourth spot? Copernicus is an obvious answer, but would mean that Hubble was the only scientist in modern history, which seems wrong. On a personal level I'd like to include William Herschel (discovered Uranus, first planetary to be discovered in historical times) but he's a bit obscure. Edmund Halley is probably the best person for the fourth position, just because of name recognition. I'd like to name an astrophysicist, but the only one that really comes to mind is Chandrasekhar, and he seems a bit too "recent" for inclusion on this kind of list. I could be argued out of it, but my list would be Galileo, Kepler, Halley, and Hubble.

Biology: A little easier than astronomy. Linnaeus, Mendel, and Darwin are the Big Three here, with the fourth spot again being a difficult fit. Aristotle could be placed here through his early work in taxonomy, but given the prescientific and nonempirical nature of his work, I don't like that option. A very recent popular figure might be Stephen J. Gould, but he's more of a popularizer than a scientist -- punctuated equilibrium's an important concept, but not so important as to be placed with the others. No, I think I'd include Theodosius Dobzhansky, whose work on the Modern Synthesis put the final nails in the coffin for the objections to the Theory of Evolution.

Chemistry: I'm going to be a bit controversial here. Dalton and Mendeleev certainly deserve admission, but the other two spots are hard to fill. Most would consider him more of a physicist, but I like Neils Bohr for the third spot, due to his work generating the mostly-accurate model of atomic structure that paved the way for the electron cloud model. Linus Pauling is my pick for the fourth spot, due to the important work he did in basically founding modern biochemistry.

Medicine:: You were wondering where Pasteur was in the biology section? This was the ace up my sleeve -- now I can put Pasteur and Watson & Crick (two heads taking the place of one discovery) in their proper place. Da Vinci also deserves placement here through his early work on human anatomy, and Edward Jenner gets my fourth spot, for his work on the very first vaccine, giving cowpox to innoculate against smallpox.

Physics: Still a crowded field. Newton and Einstein are obvious choices. I'd put Maxwell, who worked out the equations governing electromagnetic fields, on the list, but who's a good fourth? On a whim, I'd put Heisenburg on the giant rock, because his Uncertainty Principle paved the way for modern quantum mechanics.

What, no category for Computer Science? Well, maybe we could add a special category for Mathematicians and Computer Scientists, by that standard Euler, Riemann, Turing, and von Neumann are the four most deserving.

I'd also like to add a quick mention of those scientists who, for whatever reason, never really got the credit they deserved for their discoveries.

Henry Moseley was a contemporary of Niels Bohr and the Curies (aside: how did I forget Madame Curie? I still like Heisenberg on the physics Rushmore, but I could be convinced that Marie Curie should take the honors instead) who did important work on the atomic nucleus that paved the way for atomic energy. He was killed fighting in WWI, else he certainly would have won a Nobel Prize for his efforts. Nearly forgotten today.

Robert Oppenheimer is well-remembered today for his work managing the atomic bomb project, but he too never received the Nobel Prize. Most historians of science today believe that he would have won one for his work on the theory of black holes, had he only lived long enough to see his theories confirmed by actual observations of the stellar objects.

Rosalind Franklin. Regardless of how one feels about her real input into the structure of DNA, or how Crick handled the whole affair, I think it's clear that she deserves place on this list of scientists who drew the short stick when it comes to recognition. Never won a Nobel, most probably because she was dead by the time the awards to Watson and Crick were given. Would she have been included in the Prize had she lived? I'd like to think so, but obviously politics played a cruel hand here.

Alfred Russell Wallace was a contemporary of Darwin, who basically independently worked out the Theory of Evolution at around the same time Darwin did. For whatever reason, Wallace deferred to Darwin's recognition and ended up being known to history primarily as "Darwin's Bulldog", steadfastly defending the Theory of Evolution from its critics in the early days. For my money, though, he deserves equal credit with Darwin for the discovery, and that places him as one of those on my list of "shoulda-beens".

Okay. Time to call my Mom now. Maybe get a bit of shuteye before I have to leave.

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