My Top Ten Scientists
SF author and evolutionary biologist
Julie Novakova cites the scientists and engineers born
in the 20th Century who have influenced her
I must admit it hasn’t been easy to compile this list. The 20th century requirement is the catch. Looking sufficiently far back, one can better ascertain the importance of respective discoveries (at least those who’d made it to some currently accessible literature) and see the lives of scientists framed in the whole of their society. One would be tempted to mention Galileo, Darwin and Wallace, Einstein, Gregor Mendel, Jakob von Uexkull, Ernst Haeckel, Emanuel Rádl, Jan Evagelista Purkyne, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Henri Poincaré, Alfred Wegener and many others – alas, they have all been born too early to make this list.
But that would be too easy. The whole point is to attempt this within the previous century, in many cases too close for seeing the wider historical perspective.
Some of my influences have been previously mentioned here, and though there’s no law against repeating the names, I would rather offer the slots to new ones. But here are those previous authors have included in this article series I might have selected…
The Selfish Gene was one of the books that led me to pursue evolutionary biology, but Richard Dawkins has been already mentioned by Peter Watts, and Dawkins is plenty famous. Lynn Margulis (made two lists) has never reached that level of fame, but she was amazing; do read her work. Sagan (Margulis’) husband for some time, by the way), Feynman, von Neumann, Turing, and Hawking have been previously mentioned as well, and no need to introduce them. I originally wanted to open my list with Isaac Asimov – and damn, he’d been mentioned too!
Unless I’m mistaken, though, none of the names below (in no particular order) have appeared in this article series so far (April 2020). So here is my top ten:
Jocelyn Bell Burnell. The first scientist to detect radio pulsars! This discovery enabled a lot of new science and moved astronomy and astrophysics a great step further. Alas, Burnell was skipped in awarding the Nobel Prize to the team…
Aleksander Wolszczan. More pulsars! This time, pulsar planets. Why not use the maintenance time at Arecibo to observe the area one can at the time, and see what turns out… The first confirmed exoplanets did. The origin mechanisms of pulsar planets are still disputed, and it’s a question that fascinates me deeply.
Rosalind Franklin. Need I introduce her? Her work in X-ray crystallography was key to understanding the structure of (not only) DNA, a breakthrough discovery. As to the Nobel, sadly, she was skipped, just like Burnell.
Jan Oort. Without Oort, astronomy wouldn’t be there it is today. He overturned incorrect ideas about the structure and dynamics of our galaxy, pioneered radio astronomy, and hypothesized what we now know as the Oort Cloud.
Henrietta Lacks. Not actually a scientist, but crucial to modern biology and medicine. Also, the only immortal on the list. The HeLa cells, cultured from her tumor biopsy, serve medical research up to this day. However, the sample was taken without any consent and compensation, later raising ethical questions about such practice and hopefully ensuring better care both for patients’ health and medical research, but also their privacy and rights.
Thomas Samuel Kuhn. Speaking of not just ethics, but more broadly philosophy of science, Kuhn looms as the central figure to understanding scientific development. The phrase 'paradigm shift' devised by Kuhn has been coined by other areas as well. While I do like my Popper, Kuhn has shown how the modern scientific method gives rise to changes in science in practice.
Ernst Mayr. Darwin posited the theory of natural selection. Mendel (albeit his discoveries remained largely unknown for long) discovered the basic rules of heredity. But Mayr came to solve the question of how one species arises from another, and what a species is at all. He was brilliant in the field and also wrote very accessibly.
Carolyn Porco. Enceladus! Need I say any more? Porco started out with the Enceladus, which has a liquid water ocean underneath its icy shell and spews geysers after each apocronium. She’s also a brilliant and dedicated science communicator.
Freeman Dyson. While having made important discoveries in mathematics and astrophysics, Freeman Dyson is most inspirational in wilder speculations on the Dyson tree, Dyson sphere, space colonization and means to thoroughly research the universe. This is the “BIG stuff” most of us science fiction authors often dream about.
Antonín Holý. I pondered which recent or contemporary Czech figure in science to mention. One would be selfishly tempted to name one’s thesis advisor, but I chose the chemist whose work on antivirals helped treat AIDS and other severe diseases, and whose dedication to scientific work and personal humility can serve as an example to us all.
I must admit, however, that I’m mostly inspired – both in life and work as
an author and scientist – by discoveries themselves rather than the people
who made them. For instance, I remember sitting at the “Evolution of
Phenotype” class and devising a story idea while thinking about a zebra
finch gynandromorph (which resulted in “To See The Elephant”, Analog
5-6/17). Papers on planetary protection and attending the International
Astronautical Congress in 2016 made me come up with "Martian Fever" (Analog
11-12/19). At a history of science lecture about the Soviet suppression of
genetics as a “bourgeois pseudoscience”, years ago, I devised an ambitious
alternate history (well, more like an alternate universe) story yet to be
written. When just randomly pondering pulsar planets, I came up with both a
story and a paper, both in progress. The inspiration just keeps coming and
I can't keep up with it!
It’s mostly when I know the people personally or write about them when I can be truly, deeply and irrevocably inspired by them. The former is
for instance the case of my study advisor Jaroslav Flegr, my previous
advisor Jan Votýpka or the truly “renaissance-like” brilliant scientist
Daniel Frynta, or, in the field of geophysics and planetary science, Ondřej
Čadek and his team, without whom I would have been nowhere as active in
popular science with regard to these and related fields." Thank you.. As to the latter, the biologist and philosopher Emanuel Rádl figures as a character in a recently finished novel I’m polishing at the time, and so does Jakob von Uexkull and his Umwelt theory. Einstein and Meitner make a brief appearance. Many, many years ago, I started pondering an alternate history with Einstein, Curie and Poincaré as just some of its central characters. Another idea, rooted deeper in history, revolves around Laura Bassi, another around Kepler. And I would of course love to write a story featuring Charles Darwin, because he was not only a brilliant scientist, but a person to whom I feel I can relate easily.
Curiosity is what inspires me most. When either discoveries or the people behind them make me ask questions, ponder and fantasize, that’s when the fun begins – regardless of whether in science or writing.
Julie Novakova, an evolutionary biologist, is also an award-winning Czech author of science fiction and detective stories. So far she has had seven novels, one anthology, one story collection and over thirty short pieces published in Czech. Her work in English has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Analog and elsewhere, not to mention been reprinted, for example, in Rich Horton's The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 and translated into Chinese, Romanian, Estonian, Filipino, German and Portuguese. In turn she acts as a translator of Czech stories into English (for Tor.com, Strange Horizons, F&SF). She has received a Eurocon Encouragement Award as well as multiple Czech national genre awards. A PhD student in evolutionary biology at the Charles University in Prague, she is also active in science outreach, education and nonfiction writing, and leads the outreach working group of the European Astrobiology Institute. As such she writes popular science on topics ranging from behavioural science to planetary dynamics. These have appeared in Clarkesworld, Analog and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate in evolutionary biology at the Charles University in Prague. See can be found at www.julienovakova.com, on Twitter and Facebook.
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