I was recently asked to make a list of my top ten favorite scientists, and after some deliberation, these are the people I chose:
- Richard Feynman: While Feynman made outstanding contributions to our understanding of quantum physics and to the Manhattan project, he is perhaps most remembered for his teaching as evidenced by the still-beloved Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman even rejected a job offer from the Institute for Advanced Study, a research center whose staff boasted luminaries like Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel, because there were no students there to teach.
- Marie Curie: Curie conducted pioneering experiments into the nature of radioactivity and also discovered radium and polonium, receiving Nobel Prizes in both chemistry and physics for her efforts. Upon observing radium’s destructive effects on her own healthy tissue, she reasoned that radium could also be used to destroy infected tissue, giving birth to the idea of radiation therapy.
- Isaac Newton: From his work on optics to his laws of motion and universal gravitation, Newton was a central figure in the scientific revolution. He developed the reflecting telescope as well as differential and integral calculus to explain the elliptical orbits of celestial bodies all before his 26th birthday.
- Rosalind Franklin: Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data was arguably the most important puzzle piece in the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure. She also contributed to our molecular knowledge of viruses, including tobacco mosaic virus and the poliovirus.
- Nikola Tesla: While Tesla is perhaps best known for developing the alternating current motor, the Serbian-American innovator also experimented with X-rays, performed short-range demonstrations of radio communication two years before Marconi, and invented the high-voltage transformer known as the Tesla coil.
- Clair Patterson: Not only did geochemist Clair Patterson calculate an extremely accurate estimate for the age of the Earth using lead dating, but he also served as an activist after discovering the toxic effects of lead on human health. His persistent campaigning eventually led to a ban on the use of lead in consumer products.
- Linus Pauling: Pauling made incredible insights into the nature of the chemical bond, including the prediction of secondary structures such as the alpha helix and the beta sheet. Pauling also developed the concepts of electronegativity and orbital hybridization and remains the only person to have received two unshared Nobel Prizes – for Chemistry in 1954 and for Peace in 1962.
- Michael Faraday: It has often been said that Michael Faraday was the greatest discovery of eminent chemist Humphry Davy. Faraday established the principle of electromagnetic induction, created the first electrical generator, and even initiated the first Christmas Lectures series in 1825 to teach science to children.
- Louis Pasteur: Best known for his namesake process to prevent bacterial contamination, Pasteur was instrumental in disproving the idea of spontaneous generation. His work on the germ theory of disease also led him to create vaccines for anthrax and rabies.
- Craig Venter: When the Human Genome Project began in 1990, progress initially got off to a very slow start. In 1998, Craig Venter dramatically sped up the process using a technique known as whole genome shotgun sequencing. As we now enter the era of genomic medicine, the variable uses of the sequenced human genome are steadily unfolding.
If I were to make a longer list, I would probably include a lot more notable physicists, including Albert Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, and Alan Guth. Copernicus, Galileo, Cecilia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt all helped advance our understanding of the cosmos. I would also have liked to acknowledge the many scientists who were involved in atomic theory, such as Democritus, James Dalton, Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, and J.J. Thomson. Mendeleev classified the elements periodically, and Carl Woese classified life on Earth. Gregor Mendel founded the field of genetics, and Meselson and Stahl performed an experiment that supported the hypothesis of semiconservative DNA replication. Along with Pasteur, both Robert Koch and Ferdinand Koch helped found bacteriology and establish the credibility of the germ theory of disease. Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the first antibiotic in the form of penicillin, and Jonas Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine. On the computer science front, Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, and Tim Berners-Lee made significant contributions, the latter of whom is responsible for having developed the algorithms on which the World Wide Web depends. Polymaths Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin advanced our knowledge of the sciences as well as other diverse fields.
This list is just one person’s opinion, so I invite you to share yours. Who would you include in your top ten favorite scientists? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!