My Top Ten Scientists
SF author and biologist Andrew Bannister cites
the scientists born in the 20th century who have inspired him.
I had a lot of fun thinking about this list, and while I was doing it I seemed to have the late Ian Dury leaning over my shoulder, quietly singing ‘There ain’t half been some clever bastaτds’.
However, fun isn’t my only purpose. We live in an era where politicians, and especially US politicians, it seems, can win votes by disparaging science in favour of older certainties; when evolution is a ‘controversial theory promoted by some scientists’; when human-induced climate change, vaccines, stem cell research and more can all be set aside as dubious; when religious conservatives believe that vaccinating girls against HPV will ‘encourage promiscuity’ (so what?).
On what looks to me a bit like a journey back to the dark ages, we need those clever bastaτds more and more. Here are mine.
I’m cheating. This scientist wasn’t born in the twentieth century, but I wouldn’t be writing this without him, and there’s an even chance you couldn’t read it. (Editor's note: we allow a little leeway to our scientist authors so this is an extra in addition to Andrew's top ten.) He was a bit handy with the brain cells, was Ibn al-Haytham. To say he was active in the fields of optics, astronomy and mathematics is a bit like saying that Terry Pratchett wrote a couple of books. Even if his great Book of Optics (published in 1120) had been his only achievement it would still be enough, because it described how light impacted the human eye and paved the way for the production of lenses that could correct poor sight – and therefore added hundreds of millions of person-years to the productive potential of the human race by enabling people to read and write far into old age, instead of being condemned to inactivity by age-related long sight by the time they are, ahem, as old as me.
Now, on to the top ten proper…
A brief entry, this – Salk invented the vaccine against polio, and therefore kept millions of people out of wheelchairs or iron lungs. It’s easy to forget how fragile we are, us humans. When I, in around 1979, was given the famous sugar cube, infused with clear fluid from a syringe wielded by school Nurse Gladys The Impaler (to be honest I may not have remembered her name correctly) I didn’t even know what polio was – and that is the greatest measure of success you can have.
Another medical one. Francoise helped identify HIV as the cause of AIDS, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008 (shared with her mentor Luc Montagnier).
AIDS is worrying even today but in the early 1980s it was utterly terrifying. How it was caught – even, >if it was caught – from whom, and how it could be cured, were all unknown. Suddenly it seemed that sex could be fatal, and the backlash against gay men in particular was appalling. I still get chills just remembering it. Barre-Sinoussi was part of the fight back, and thank goodness for her and everyone like her.
Alan Dower Blumlein
Given that I have just a slight vinyl addiction issue, just a little one, I mean, how many records is too many anyway?… Yes, well, I have to name-check Alan Dower Blumlein. He was an engineer to his fingertips, an inventor and the holder of 128 patents. Among many other achievements he invented the low-distortion audio amplifier based on theories which are still used today; the modern disc-cutting head and, as a fanfare, stereo sound, cutting the world’s first stereo gramophone discs in the 1930s.
Blumlein was killed in an air accident in World War 2 while testing a secret radar system, which perhaps is not such a bad way to go, if you have to go at all.
Ed is probably one of the less-known members of my top ten. He was a marine biologist, ecologist and philosopher and a neighbour of John Steinbeck in Monterey, California. He’s known for a couple of things – he pioneered the study of intertidal ecology (check out Between Pacific Tides, 1939), he has sixteen species named after him, and he was the model for the character Doc, in Steinbeck’s novellas Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. He also turns up under other names in some of Steinbeck's other work. I spent a happy couple of years Ricketts-spotting when I was younger.
Ricketts was killed in a car accident in 1948, and Steinbeck mourned him deeply. So, it seems, did many other people. In addition to his species’, he also lives on through a Remote Operated Vehicle owned by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute – the ROV Doc Ricketts.
John Von Neumann
Here’s another character who consisted mostly of brain. Are you ready for this? By the time of his early death in 1957 he had made major contributions to mathematics (foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, representation theory, operator algebras, geometry, topology, and numerical analysis), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, and quantum statistical mechanics), economics (game theory), computing (Von Neumann architecture, linear programming, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing), and statistics.
Despite this roll call of achievement, it’s actually the self-replicating machines that get him on my list. Specifically, the Von Neumann Universal Constructor, or Von Neumann Machine – basically a self-replicating spacecraft. I joined the queue of science fiction authors using my take on this idea in Creation Machine, and I’m not done with it yet. It’s a good enough (and terrifying enough) concept for me to look the other way about his fundamental involvement in a far more questionable project, the hydrogen bomb.
And, just to help the medicine go down, he was apparently a terrible driver who liked loud music and bad jokes. I can get behind that.
I have no shame in putting Rachel Carson on this list even though she has already been on Paul McAuley’s. She was a leader – in the USA, pretty much the leader for a while – of the emerging understanding that environmental sciences were indeed sciences. In the 1950s she became deeply concerned at the way everyone was throwing pesticides and herbicides around with no thought for the consequences. Her Silent Spring, which begins with an evocation of environmental catastrophe in a hypothetical American Town, was one of the reasons I became involved with the environment. It sold widely and changed hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of minds. We have Carson, as much as anyone, to thank for our understanding that things like DDT don’t just disappear when the beetles are dead – they bioaccumulate, building up in the fatty tissues of living things and just staying there.
There’s a track on Crime of the Century by Supertramp. It’s called 'Bloody Well Right'. I like to think Fred Hoyle would have enjoyed it. He made his name by insisting that the carbon-12 nucleus must have a resonance at 7.7MeV if stellar nucleosynthesis was to work properly – if we were to have stars, basically. He went on insisting that he must be right, against major scepticism on the part of just about everyone else, until he finally wore down the resistance of a research group at Caltech to the point where they lent him a big analytical machine so he could disprove his own theory and, hopefully, shut up.
And of course, he was bloody right. That resonance is now called the Hoyle State.
He wasn’t right about everything; his later dismissal of the Big Bang theory (a term he coined, in fact, but he didn’t mean it kindly) was less creditable. But he branched out and wrote some pretty good science fiction to make up for it, starting with The Black Cloud and including A for Andromeda (first part of finale here). As well as the Hoyle State, he has an asteroid and a dual carriageway in Bingley named after him, and I find that oddly pleasing.
Now here’s someone I’d like as a dinner guest. I’d have many, many questions for Professor Legasov. He was a committed communist – his enemies even called him a zealot – in the last decade of the Soviet Union, and a senior academician. He was also the Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute, and these two things together made him look like the ideal man to investigate what had led to the catastrophic explosion of Reactor Number 3 at the Leonid Illych Brezhnev Power Station at Chernobyl in the Ukraine.
He investigated, and reported. Certainly, he found technical and management failings, but he couldn’t avoid the conclusion that the problem lay deep in the culture of secrecy and suppression that surrounded nuclear power in the Soviet Union in those days – and that led him by implication to the heart of the structure and culture of Soviet socialism.
That part of his report was suppressed by the authorities, and Legasov himself was sidelined with his career in ruins. And his health, too, because he had been exposed to damaging levels of radiation while doing his work.
He killed himself two years to the day after the explosion. Eight years later he was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union – but by that time there wasn’t really a Soviet Union any more.
I’m claiming Professor Laithwaite as a bit of a wild card, partly because I actually knew him slightly – he and I coincided, just, in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Imperial College in 1986. We students knew him for his wild enthusiasm for magnetic levitation – Maglev. He had made a test rig which was capable of taking out every fuse in the building, and never lost a chance to do so. But he was influential in the field, and was also an expert on gyroscopes. What I didn’t know at the time was that he believed gyroscopes could hold the key to perpetual motion and, would you believe it, he was a published expert on moths and butterflies. Bless the good English polymath, that’s what I say.
Simon Conway Morris
I have several reasons for including Simon Conway Morris on my list. He is a palaeontologist - something I am not good at despite having a degree in Geology. He is a communicator of science across several media and several decades. He is one of the small list of people you can send evolutionary sceptics to, safe in the knowledge that he will explain evolution beautifully, accurately and courteously and without annoying them; his work on the Burgess Shale alone is rather beautiful, and there is plenty more. And in one important way I don't agree with him: He is a theist, who is not ashamed to bring that into his science but, crucially, he doesn't let it get in the way of the facts and I still find his work fascinating. Quite a skill.
Honourable Mentions and Missing in Action…
Ten is never enough. Regardless of era, people I should have mentioned include non-20th century Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Marie Curie, John Snow, and Joseph Bazalgette. Together with the 20th century Patrick Moore – and all those yet unborn geniuses who might just pull us out of the mire one day.
I may have made factual errors here. I would point out that I am known as a writer of Science Fiction. And anyway, I still think I’m bloody right.
Andrew Bannister began as an electrical engineer but changed sides and got his degree in Geology. Apart from a brief spell in the North Sea, his first real job was as an environmental geologist and he has stayed mainly in the environmental sciences ever since, both in the construction and the automotive industries. He now work on large public sector construction projects with an emphasis on high environmental performance and social value. He also writes science fiction, very often when he should be doing something else. Reviewed on this site are Andrew's Creation Machine and Iron Gods.
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