My Top Ten Scientists
SF author and astrophysicist
Alastair Reynolds cites the scientists and engineers born
in the 20th Century who have influenced him
Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)
A slight bending of the rules here, as she was not born in the 20th century, but I could not avoid mentioning her – let’s (in good physical tradition) make her the zeroth choice.
My doctoral work revolved around measurements of stellar masses in binary systems, observations for which accurate distance estimates were a prerequisite. Astronomers build their distance scales using “standard candles”- commonplace (or not too rare) astronomical objects with a predictable brightness. The first reliable standard candle was the class of objects known as Cepheid variable stars, and the astronomer who recognised their importance was Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Leavitt’s discovery of the period-luminosity relationship in Cepheids gave astronomers a means of bridging the vast gap in scales between stellar and intergalactic distances: a vital cosmological yardstick. Without Leavitt’s Cepheid law, Edwin Hubble could not have made the discovery that the universe was expanding. Hubble believed that Leavitt was worthy of the Nobel prize, but by the time there were steps to make this happen, Leavitt had already died.
Now on to my top ten scientists born in the 20th century…
Cecilia Helena Payne-Goposchkin (1906-1976)
Much of my work revolved around detailed examination of stellar spectra: fingerprints which reveal the chemistry, motion and physical conditions of stars. Our modern understanding of stellar spectra owes much to Cecilia Payne. Inspired to study astronomy by Eddington, Payne had to go to America to continue her education as Cambridge would not award degrees to women. At Harvard, Payne worked on a dissertation that advanced the controversial observation that the Sun’s chemistry (and by implication all stars) was dominated by hydrogen and helium. This was in contradiction to the prevailing idea that the ratios of elements in the stars ought to be similar to those found on Earth, and Payne was forced to downplay her conclusions. Not long after, though, Payne’s ideas were proved correct, even if the credit was slow to flow back to her. My family tree also includes Paynes.
Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997)
Tombaugh was the discoverer of Pluto, and his memoir (co-written with Patrick Moore) was one of the first scientific biographies I read. Tombaugh came from very humble origins and worked his way up the ladder at the Lowell observatory. Regarded as one of the last great observers of the classical age of astronomy, Tombaugh’s diligent work led to the discovery of what was then regarded as the ninth planet, and justly celebrated. The demotion of Pluto to “dwarf planet” is in my view deeply regrettable. Pluto should have been left as an honourable planet, in deference to the memory of Tombaugh. Two minor personal connections: Lowell and I share the same birthday, and the official announcement of Pluto’s discovery was made on the same date.
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995)
The Chandrasekhar limit for the maximum mass of a white dwarf is an important concept in physics and played a part in much of the research that I did after gaining my degree. The class of objects I studied, high-mass X-ray binaries (HMXBs), are a type of double star in which one star is quite a bit more massive than the Sun, and the other is (usually) a neutron star, manifesting as an X-ray pulsar. At the time I began my PhD, the masses of a few of these neutron stars had been determined by looking at the Doppler variations in the light coming from the other star, the one still raining matter onto the pulsar. Troublingly, some of the mass estimates were a bit wayward– either too high or too low relative to the Chandrasekhar limit, which (because of the evolutionary path by which these binaries have formed) should be a good approximation for the mass of the neutron star as well. My work involved making refined observations and recalculating the masses, and indeed of those we were able to re-measure, we found that our new results were in closer agreement with Chandrasekhar. More recently, the astronomical community’s interest has turned to HMXB’s as they are likely to be a progenitor of black hole binaries, the source of gravitational waves.
Richard Feynman (1918-1988)
Feynman was a notable public figure in my teens and my local library had his wildly entertaining autobiographies. I was inspired by his eclecticism, sense of play and far-ranging imagination. I doubt that there was an aspirant scientist who didn’t want to be like the jocular, safe-cracking, bongo-playing Feynman, faults and all. Quantum physics owes him a great debt for finding a brilliant, novel way to characterise (and simplify seemingly intractable) particle interactions, but Feynman will also be remembered for his work on the investigation into the Challenger disaster, where he pursued the truth with admirable tenacity.
Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
What to say about Carl Sagan that has not already been said? He came into my life at exactly the right point, when I was just old enough to begin thinking seriously about what direction I might want to follow with my education. His TV series Cosmos showed scientists doing science – a professional path that suddenly felt achievable. The book of the series explored the same ideas in greater depth, and was the first of many of Sagan’s non-fiction texts that I devoured through my teens and into my early twenties. Of particular resonance for me was The Dragons of Eden, with its bold (if now outmoded) ideas about the evolution of neural structures in the mammalian brain: perfect imaginative grist for science fiction.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-)
Bell-Burnell’s story has been well-documented elsewhere, so there’s no need to go over it again, but it seems to me a matter of uncontroversial fact that she was wrongly denied a Nobel prize for her involvement in the discovery of pulsars. Bell Burnell has borne this reprehensible sleight with admirable grace and humility, a lesson in non-bitterness for us all.
Fortunately, almost every account of modern astrophysics elevates her name to its rightful position.
Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)
The neurologist Oliver Sacks nearly cost me my degree, and I’ll be forever grateful. Somewhere in the last few days leading up to my finals, I began to read The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and found that I could barely tear myself away from these compelling accounts of the strange landscape of the altered mind. Thereafter, Sacks became one of my favourite authors of non-fiction and I read all his books, right until the end. His medical case histories were always the ones I found most engrossing, but Sacks was such a good writer, with such a wide-ranging and erudite set of interests, that he could turn to just about any subject and bring it alive – be it his fascination with chemistry, or his own painful and difficult recuperation from a leg injury.
Peter Medawar (1915-1987)
While it wouldn’t be true to say that I excelled at physics and mathematics at school, I certainly knew that these were the topics I wanted to be good at, and the essential stepping stones into a career in astronomy. Chemistry confused me (all those reagents) and biology left me uninterested and unmoved. It was only as an undergraduate that I began to have my eyes opened to the wonder and grandeur of the latter, just as Sacks later opened my eyes to chemistry. It was a popular paperback book by Peter Medawar that turned me: The Life Science (1978) which at the time I came upon it was still relatively up to date, and an extremely handy primer for the then-developing field of genetics. I read and realised that the biosciences could be just as deep and mysterious as any galactic panorama. Besides his science writing, which earned him praise from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, Medawar played an instrumental part in the deepening understanding of the immune response and graft rejection and tolerance, without which much modern medicine would not exist.
V. S. Ramachandran (1951 -)
Two late entries now follow, but since some of Ramachandran’s groundbreaking work on perception and neural plasticity was done in the nineties, I feel I may include him in this list. His work on the mechanisms and treatment of phantom limb pain has presumably been of benefit to many, but what is perhaps even more striking than his successes is the innovative, low-tech way he has made his discoveries and refined his treatments, such as the extremely effective use of mirrors. He is also an elegant and provocative writer and - one imagines - one of the thinkers standing the best chance of arriving at something like a grand unified theory of consciousness.
Lisa Randall (1962 -)
Aside from being one of the best science communicators now working, Randall is one of the architects of the class of superstring cosmology models known as “braneworlds”. Among other things these ideas attempt to explain the relative weakness of gravity in comparison with the other fundamental forces. The brane in question – everything we can see or measure - is a flat, lasagna-like sheet floating in a higher dimensional space. Unlike the other forces, which are constrained to stick to the brane, gravity leaks out into the space between adjoining branes, and so leaves only a ghostly, vastly weakened trace of itself, which is all we detect. Sneaking in under the wire in 1999, the Randall-Sundrum model just qualifies as a twentieth century discovery so I’m happy to mention it here. By the early two-thousands, articles on braneworld cosmology were beginning to appear in the popular scientific press, and one of these helped ground some of the weirder speculations in my fourth novel, Absolution Gap. Twenty years on, we’re really no nearer to a final theory of physics, so braneworlds – and superstring models – still seem as good a bet as any of their rivals.
Alastair Reynolds is a British astrophysicist who used to work for the European Space Agency at ESTEC before becoming a full-time writer. He is arguably best known for his sequence of standalone novels that began with Revelation Space and set in the Revelation Space universe. His second novel Chasm City won the 2001 British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel. His Blue Remembered Earth and its sequel On the Steel Breeze were cited by our SF² Concatenation team as being among the Best SF books published in Britain in 2012 and 2013 respectively, as was Elysium Fire and Terminal World in 2009 and 2018 respectively. He has been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award three times: for Revelation Space, Pushing Ice and House of Suns. Meanwhile, Revenger won the 2017 Locus Award in the Best Young Adult category. He can be found at alastairreynolds.com.
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