My Top Ten Scientists Ė Ian Stewart

SF author and mathematician Ian Stewart
cites the scientists born in the 20th century that have inspired him.


Brian Hartley was my PhD supervisor. He did research in group theory, a fundamental area in abstract algebra and the basic mathematics of symmetry. He introduced me to Lie algebras, a closely related area, and set me on the path to a career as a research mathematician.

Christopher Zeeman was the founding professor at Warwick University, and he valued popularisation as well as academic activities. His lecture course on catastrophe theory inspired me to change fields. Catastrophe theory was the invention of the French topologist René Thom, who inspired Zeeman to look for applications. It is a geometric theory of sudden changes with continuous causes. It was controversial for a time, but itís had a lasting influence. Between them, they converted me from a pure mathematician to someone who plays in the cracks between theory and applications.

Another topologist, Steven Smale, is one of two key people who created the modern approach to dynamical systems, the other being Vladimir Arnold. They realised that chaos is entirely natural in deterministic dynamics. This inspired my first significant book: Does God Play Dice?, on chaos theory, and chaos is also important in my research.

Douglas Hofstadter wrote one of the great original cult science books, Gödel, Escher, Bach. It is still my favourite book. (Editor's note: Gödel, Escher, Bach was voted British SF fans' top non-fiction book in the SF² Concatenation's 1987 Eastercon attendee poll (The Concatenation Poll results: The Science Results, 1988, Issue No. 2., pp14-15.).  The book takes a deep and insightful look at self-referential systems, from logic to DNA, with clever use of puns and amusing Carrollian dialogues between Achilles and the Tortoise.

Marty Golubitsky is my long-term research collaborator. We started working together in 1983, on pattern formation and symmetry in dynamics. Today we are working on networks of dynamical systems, with applications to biology.

Jack Cohen FIBiol is well known to the SF community especially in Britain. We met in 1990, discovered that (some) biologists and mathematicians could have a lot in common, and wrote seven books together, four being the Science of Discworld books with Terry Pratchett. (I would have included Terry but he wasnít officially a scientist: he just thought like one!)

I am including Alan Turing, not for his code-breaking or computer work, but for his theory of the formation of animal markings by diffusion_system reaction-diffusion equations. Several of my interests come together in that area, and he was one of the first people to apply mathematics to biology. That combination is now really taking off, and I think it will become increasingly important.

Finally, Iíll end with Roger Penrose, for his mathematical versatility, ranging from the geometry of black holes to his wonderful tiles, which canít fit together in a periodic lattice but nevertheless tile the plane. Plus, he is a mathematical physicist who does not trot out the conventional wisdom about quantum theory, and he maintains an open mind.

Ian Stewart


Ian Stewart His best known popular books are the Science of Discworld series. His most prominent research text is Singularities and Groups in Bifurcation Theory Volume 2, which was written with Marty Golubitsky and David Schaeffer (Ian was not involved in Volume 1). His latest SF novel is The Living Labyrinth with Tim Poston. His next two popular science books due out are Infinity: A Very Short Introduction (March 2017) and Significant Figures (July 2017), consisting of short biographies of 25 pioneering mathematicians. Back on the fiction front, Ian and Tim have almost finished Rock Star, a sequel to The Living Labyrinth.

Much on Ian can be found at his website and there is also his old site: though still accessible is obsolete especially as Ian cannot get into it to edit it.

Reviews on this site of Ian's novels include: Wheelers and Heaven. Also on this site is a review of Evolving the Alien


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