My Top Ten Scientists
John. W. Armstrong
SF writer and physicist
J. W. Armstrong cites the scientists and engineers born
in the 20th Century who have influenced him
When I was invited to contribute “my top ten most inspiring scientists born in the Twentieth Century”, I thought it would be fun and easy.
It turned out to be fun.
The easy part was generating outstanding candidates. I came up with more than 100 quickly. The less-easy part was getting to 10. Several selection criteria suggested themselves: all scientists, all engineers, all born in the same decade, all Big Names, etc.
All of which were ultimately rejected in favour of arbitrary criteria. Unfortunately, my arbitrary criteria varied with time, resulting in slow convergence.
Reviewing my general list for commonalities: all, of course, were interesting and influential. Physical scientists, instrument builders, and electrical engineers were over-represented. Many worked at the intersection of science, engineering, and computation. Many are/were iconoclasts and several are/were eccentric (“characters” might be another word). Several subsets had the same thesis advisor. A surprising fraction once worked as lumberjacks.
In any case – and interpreting “inspiring” liberally (and inconsistently) -- here is my list:
Backus led the team at IBM that developed FORTRAN, the first widely-used high-level computer programming language. FORTRAN was top-ranked for “impact” by Nature readers in an informal 2021 poll. Although it has long been unfashionable to program in FORTRAN, the language has had enormous impact on engineering, science, and society as a whole. It may be the single most influential piece of software – scientific or otherwise – ever written.
Braginsky was a superb experimental and theoretical physicist perhaps best known for his talent for precision measurements and his contributions to the successful detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) instruments. He had a deep understanding of physical processes fundamentally limiting measurement and was adept at devising ways to reduce or eliminate them. A fascinating, in my view, interview with him for the Caltech Oral History Project gives a candid perspective of his work and his view of the early history of LIGO.
Hugh Everett III
Everett was a physicist and mathematician who formulated the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. In many-worlds the wavefunction never collapses, leading to a multiverse embodying all possible outcomes. Parallel universes are, of course, a staple of much SF (including some of mine). Many-worlds gets around problems of observer-participancy in the measurement process and over time has gained more acceptance, unfortunately much of that acceptance coming after Everett’s death.
Fermi, of course, was a towering figure in 20th century physics and the winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics for element transmutation. Additionally -- and relevant to a lot of SF (including some of mine) – he posed the “where is everybody?” Fermi Paradox – the disconnect between the absence of evidence for ETs (extraterrestrials) and (by some calculations) the high probability of their existence. A fascinating, in my view, series of letters from the participants recalling the original lunchtime discussion about the Fermi Paradox is online.
Gold may be best known to astronomers for realizing that magnetized rotating neutron stars explained pulsar radio emission. He was Director of Cornell’s Center for Radiophysics and Space Research and a member of the National Academy. He was also a world-class iconoclast, challenging cherished beliefs in disparate disciplines… and he was often correct. His off-consensus thinking included the origin of the universe, the origin of life on Earth, and the origin of petrochemicals. He is perhaps less well-known, however, for an amusing/insightful after-dinner speech “How Not to Do Science”. (Maybe it really is turtles all the way down.)
Edwin T. Jaynes
Jaynes worked at the intersection of physics, mathematics, and -- he might have disputed this – philosophy. He was a staunch proponent of Bayesian and maximum entropy techniques and wrote Probability Theory: The Logic of Science (2003). The book is billed as a textbook for a graduate-level course in data analysis. But, in my view, it is less a textbook than a ~700-page extended essay on Bayesian reasoning and “how to think” (Jaynes was too smart to phrase it that way).
William H. Press
Press, a theoretical physicist and computational biologist, is currently a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He has made influential contributions across a broad range of disciplines, including theoretical astrophysics, general relativity, and computer science. His distinctions include being a member of the National Academy, the JASON advisory group and former Deputy Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He also co-authored the influential Numerical Recipes series of books, widely used by students of physical science and engineering.
Shannon, an engineer and mathematician, is credited as the “father of information theory”. His insights underpin the theory and practice of modern telecommunications, with profound impact on science, engineering, and society. He also apparently was a character: he rode unicycles and is credited with inventing a scheme for walking on water (foam filled skis), a juggling machine, a wearable computer (to improve the odds of winning at roulette), and (it is said; the provenance on this one is less clear to me) a flame-throwing trumpet.
Tarter is an astronomer, noted for her work in and advocacy for searches for extraterrestrial intelligence. The 1972 Project Cyclops report, a design study for a system to detect extraterrestrial life, is said to have been an early influence. She held the Bernard Oliver Chair at the SETI Institute, was Project Scientist for NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey project (unfortunately cancelled due to budget cuts), and is the recipient of many scientific honours and awards. The Eleanor Arroway character in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact was patterned after Tarter.
John Archibald Wheeler
Wheeler was a theoretical physicist who made pivotal contributions to nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, and general relativity. His approach to science was “radical conservatism” – pushing known physics to the limits to see what would happen. He was adept at coining evocative phrases (“black hole”, “quantum foam”, “delayed choice”) and was famously successful at mentoring students, many of whom themselves became famous. He has authored influential textbooks (including, with Charles Misner and Kip Thorne, Gravitation (1973)) and also an autobiography: Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam (1998). The National Academy of Sciences has a biographical memoire here.
And, to cheat and add more: my friends, my colleagues, and the legions of graduate students and postdocs who have contributed so much to the advancement of science and technology.
John W. Armstrong
J. W. Armstrong used natural and spacecraft radio signals to study turbulence in astrophysical plasmas and to search for low-frequency gravitational waves. He was a radio science investigator on NASA’s Galileo, Mars Observer, Mars Global Surveyor and Cassini missions. With Massimo Tinto and F. B. Estabrook, he co-invented time-delay interferometry, a signal processing technique for space-borne gravitational wave detectors. He’s also published short SF 'Futures' in Nature and Daily Science Fiction, two of which have been reprinted in the SF² Concatenation's 'Best of Nature's Futures'.
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[Posted: 22.9.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]