My Top Ten Scientists
Timothy J. Gawne
SF author and neuroscientist
Timothy J. Gawne cites the scientists and engineers born
in the 20th Century who have influenced him
Carl Bosch (1874-1940)
Others have bent the rules a bit, so I feel entitled to also include this one even though he was not quite born in the 20th century. So this is my “zeroth” entry.
Carl Bosch was instrumental in helping to develop chemical fertilisers. Without this process, the human population of the Earth would be a lot less than it is today – and most of the survivors would not enjoy it. In many ways there have been only two truly paradigm-changing technological advances in human history: the invention of agriculture, and the development of chemical fertiliser. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1931, but I put him here because I don’t think that people realize just how earthshaking his work was. This invention should have ended hunger, but unfortunately continued population growth – all too often due to specific elite ‘pro-natalist’ policies – seems likely to end this possibility before too many more generations have passed.
Paul Lauterbur (1929-2007) and Peter Mansfield (1933-2017)
I co-list these two because I don’t know them well enough to be able to say which was really the smart one. They turned nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) – which had previously only been able to look at the bulk composition of what’s in a test tube – into an actual 2D imaging technique, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) for which they won the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2003. It’s not just the clinical and research importance of MRI, but the fact that this is one invention that I don’t think I could have come up with if I had lived to be a thousand. I’ve taken a course on this and I still don’t really get it – there is no lens, no pinhole, no array of detectors, just some big magnets and coils and an image comes out of nowhere. It still amazes me.
Paul Dirac (1902-1984)
OK there are always brilliant physicists winning Nobel prizes and such, but I have always thought him cool first because he was by all accounts a bit of a nut (no I never met him personally) but he came up with a theory that predicted the existence of antimatter. Something out of science fiction, but it’s real! We can actually make it and look at it! Theories are great, but theories that predict something totally weird and then it turns out to be real always catch my attention. All you string-theorists with your (apparently) untestable models take note…
Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)
Quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. Won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. Again, I am drawn to this one because the nature of his work is so counter-intuitive, it changes the entire way that we think of reality.
Alan Turing (1912-1954)
There is a lot of press on the “Turing Test” (and its spiritual descendent the “CAPTCHA” we see on web pages before we sign up for something), but I am mostly a fan because of the concept of a universal computer. The idea that ultimately it doesn’t matter how simple or complex a computer is, they can all perform exactly the same tasks – more or less quickly or efficiently, to be sure, but still, the same. That’s utterly fundamental and yet I think not initially obvious.
John Tukey (1915-2000)
A mathematician and statistician, I have a soft spot for him because his "exploratory data analysis" of statistics speaks to me, and his invention of the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) (along with James Cooley – hence the Cooley–Tukey FFT algorithm) has been so pivotal in so much of modern engineering. A flexible and wide-ranging mind, who could handle exotic math but was also capable of bringing it down to a practical and broadly understandable level.
Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997)
Yes, others have listed this one, if you grew up when I did (only three TV channels, no recording) you couldn't not be influenced by him. It was only later that I realised he was more than a TV personality, among other things he was heavily involved in perfecting modern SCUBA diving equipment. We tend to forget: science is not about figuring things out. Science is about figuring things out and telling the world: it is increasing the body of commonly held information. So yeah, kudos to those scientists that can explain clearly to the public.
Douglas Trumbull (1942 - )
OK, this is the guy that did special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and other films, but he’s really an optical engineer/perceptual psychophysicist. He’s dabbled in all sorts of related projects, with varying degrees of success. He never became a billionaire like George Lucas, but I have always been drawn to his versatile problem-solving attitude. As a big science fiction fan, of course I was inspired by the end-products of his work.
Edwin Land (1909-1991)
Invented affordable polarising filters, instant cameras (in the days before digital photography when this was actually very cool, if you younger people can believe that), and an interesting theory of colour vision that today I don’t think anyone accepts. I like him because he's sort of a 20th century Edison, an inventor with a broad ranging set of interests, a mix of at least OK commercial and managerial talents, with a perceptive and inquisitive mind and not a total jerk.
Bradley Efron (1938 - )
Statistician who invented the computationally intensive “bootstrap” statistic - my favourite statistical method by far! Love this guy!
Noam Chomsky (1928 - )
Scientifically he is mostly known for his contributions to linguistics. He proposed a theory of a “universal human grammar”, and even though most modern linguists currently dismiss it, I still think he was on to something: sure the young human mind is plastic, but I can’t imagine that it is a completely programmable blank slate either. We just can’t easily/morally do experiments raising kids using completely artificial grammars to find out. I am also a fan because of his hatred of neo-liberalism! Even though I don’t agree with all that he has said in the political arena, the fact that he is not mindlessly parroting the corporate-approved “left” or “right” dogmas and then preening about how morally superior he is, is refreshing. Chomsky actually thinks about things…
Timothy J. Gawne PhD, is a neuroscientist and science fiction writer. He is a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in the Department of Optometry and Vision Science. His research interests are how information is processed in the cerebral cortex, with a special emphasis on schizophrenia and psychosis, and how the developing eye uses visual cues to regulate its own growth to achieve good focus, a process called emmetropization. He is currently working on several optical approaches to try and prevent the development of myopia (nearsightedness) in children. He is the author of the “Old Guy” series of cybertank novels, and has published short stories in Nature Futures and Perihelion. One of his shorts was cited by SF² Concatenation as one of the best Nature “Futures” stories of 2019: ‘Infringement’. Shameless commercial plug follows below:
Amazon author page link
WARNING I am told that Amazon links can be flaky so you might need to search for “Gawne author page” or some such.
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