My Top Ten Scientists
SF author and mathematician Sam Peters cites
the scientists born in the 20th century who have inspired him.
Iím going to start with a couple of mathematicians who probably arenít known outside the very specific field of digital signal processing but who make my employment possible: James Cooley and John Tukey. Why? Because of the Cooley-Tukey FFT algorithm. And what the hell is that? Basically a simplified implementation of the Fourier Transform that requires of the order of NlogN computations instead of N² and is the basis for modern digital communication. 3G, 4G, WiFi, if itís a through-the-air means of transmitting digital information, thereís a Fast Fourier Transform lying at the heart of it, which means some variant or derivative of Cooley-Tukey. (A brief shout out to 19th century born Ernst Mach who very possibly used the same technique to manually solve very large Fourier Transforms. Even trying to manually solve a large FFT is pretty badass, but sorry Ernst, youíre too old for a 20th century inspirational scientist).
As an SF author, itís hard not to get a bit excitable around the idea of anti-matter. Paul Dirac didnít invent it but it was his work that suggested antimatter should exist. It would be very easy for the rest of this list to be scientists whose main work involves the word 'quantum' because concepts like the unravelling of space-time and zero-point energy and vacuum decay and time being an emergent property of thermodynamics are all just far too much fun, but Iím going with Dirac for the breadth of his contributions, for being an engineer as well as a physicist and for being a bit nuts. If thereís a physicist Iíd like to introduce as a major character into some period SF story with mad science and portals to other dimensions and the like, it would be Dirac.
Back to someone more obscure: Chien-Shiung Wu. Yes, I know, who? Why? Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese woman who grew up in China at a time when it was almost unheard of for girls to go to school, moved to the US to study in her twenties and less than a decade later was working on the Manhattan Project. Her experiments after the war proved violation of conservation of parity, a discovery important enough that it promptly resulted in a Nobel prize for the theoreticians whose work she was proving. But itís more her whole story thatís amazing: from trainee teacher to student revolutionary to working on the atomic bomb and a deal more too. There should be a movie about Chien-Shiung Wu. There isnít but she did get to be the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her.
Staying with nuclear physics for a bit, what about Irene Joliet-Curie? You canít get a much more auspicious scientific pedigree than being the daughter of two Nobel laureates and Irene duly picked up one of her ownÖ for alchemy! Ok, for being able to transform one element into another in a controllable and repeatable way and she never managed lead into gold, but still Ö alchemy! ALCHEMY!! When I first heard of Irene, I had the impression that her basic methodology was to irradiate lots of different stuff with alpha particles to see what happened, and while the reality was probably a lot more controlled than I make it sound, Iíve always wondered whether she ever quietly thought about trying it on spiders and then getting them to bite someone to see what would happen. Actually, Irene and Paul Dirac might have to team up in that book I havenít written.
Iíll be brief for number six: Richard Feynmann. Heís cropped up before so Iím not going to say much except that Iím putting him in here mostly for his safe-cracking skills.
Going back a bit in terms of when I discovered them, Isaac Asimov isnít best known as a scientist but my list, my rules and it was his writing that first inspired me to investigate physics beyond what I was being taught in the classroom; not his fiction, but his two volume Guide to Science which was the most accessible and far-reaching guide to how the world works that teenage me ever read and which brought me to Ö
Heather Couper, who maybe wasnít quite in the same league as Carl Sagan but was somewhat more accessible for a Brit back in the days when there were exactly three channels of TV to choose from and no VCRs. l Why Heather Couper and not Sir Patrick Moore FRAS? Because I have a dim memory of attending a series of Heatherís lectures and coming away absolutely certain that I wanted to spend my entire life studying the stars and that everything else was a bit pointless, while Patrick I mostly remember for introducing me to The Prodigy.
Diving back into the sort of obscure whacked-out-sounding bits of physics that make me want to write stories (the bits where some scientist looks like maybe theyíve accidentally broken the universe), I give you Deborah Shiu-lan Jin, pioneer of polar molecular quantum chemistry who entirely on her own with a team of people behind her created a totally new form of matter. I repeat: Totally New. Form. Of matter. Also magnetic traps, lasers and stuff cooled to 100 billionths of a degree above zero: this is some badass SF shit right here.
As this list probably suggests, Iím inspired by the experimentalists who take the predictions of wild-assed theories and get out there and prove them. Also, as an SF writer, itís hard not drool a bit at the idea of Dark Matter Ė you know, stuff which means you can completely make up whatís going on in 90% of the universe and no one can say youíre wrong. So a shout-out to Fred Zwicky for coming up with the idea, but sadly Fred was born two years too early for this list and so my last nomination goes to Vera Rubin for largely proving Zwicky was right, and because I like experimentalists.
Sam Peters is a scientist by qualification and a freelance engineer in between writing books, mostly messing about with things that do things with electromagnetic waves. His science fiction novels From Darkest Skies, From Distant Stars and the forthcoming From Divergent Suns are conspiracy thrillers centred around emergent AI and incomprehensible aliens. He also writes as Stephen Deas (badass dragons), Nathan Hawke (badass vikingy types), S. J. Deas (English Civil War mysteries) and Gavin Deas (sarcastic spaceships) whose novels include Elite Dangerous: Wanted, all of which are published in the UK by Gollancz except for the ones that arenít.
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