10 Influential Scientists Of All Time
While technically, they may not be the greatest scientists that the world has ever seen, it’s perfectly possible for commonalty to exist in their work, since the contribution they have made to science or to mankind in general can be counted among the most important and rated among the best.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”
It is the theory of relativity and specifically his mass-energy equivalence, expressed by the famous equation E = mc2 that the German scientist Einstein is best known for. He made immense contribution in the field of Theoretical Physics, something that earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, especially for his invention of the law of the photoelectric effect. Among his most notable contribution to physics is his special theory of relativity that led to the convergence of mechanics and electromagnetism while his general theory of relativity, which can be seen as an extension of the principle of relativity to non-uniform motion also provides a whole new theory to explain gravitation. Among his other contributions, the primary are advances in the fields of relativistic cosmology, capillary action, critical opalescence, classical problems of statistical mechanics and their application to quantum theory, an explanation of the Brownian movement of molecules, atomic transition probabilities, the quantum theory of a monatomic gas, thermal properties of light with low radiation density that laid the foundation for the photon theory, a theory of radiation including stimulated emission, the conception of a unified field theory, and the geometrization of physics. With over 300 pieces of scientific works and over 150 non-scientific works to his credit, Einstein is revered by the physics community throughout the world. The Time magazine named him ‘Person of the Century’ in the year 1999. In wider culture the name “Einstein” has become synonymous with genius.
Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)
“To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.”
Newton, an English physicist, is widely regarded to be one of the most influential men in human history. Author of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, and considered to be the most influential book in the history of science, Newton is also known for his significant abilities as a mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian. The book deals with the topic of universal gravitation and describes the three laws of motion, which forms the foundation of classical mechanics; something that has gone on to dominate the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries and has become the basis for modern engineering. Newton was able to demonstrate the compatibility of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion with his theory of gravitation, thereby proving beyond doubt that the motions of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies are governed by the same set of natural laws. This cleared all doubts pertaining to heliocentrism and hence helped usher in the scientific revolution. In the field of mechanics, Newton formulated the principles of conservation of momentum and angular momentum while in optics, he developed the first reflecting telescope that can be termed as practical. He also devised a theory of color based on the observation of a prism decomposing white light into a visible spectrum. He also formulated an empirical law of cooling and did research on the speed of sound. In mathematics, Newton, along with Gottfried Leibniz, led to the development of differential and integral calculus. His other contributions include the generalized binomial theorem, the so-called “Newton’s method” for approximating the zeroes of a function, and study of the power series. Newton ranks at the very top among all other notable scientists, as is amply demonstrated in a poll conducted by Britain’s Royal Society in 2005 as to who among all famous scientists has a greater impact on the history of science. Newton was deemed much more influential than Albert Einstein.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
“Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.”
Leonardo da Vinci was a person of great and varied learning. An Italian by birth, he achieved expertise in several diverse fields. For instance, he was an expert mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician and a writer all at the same time. In fact, such was his prowess in all the above fields that he has often been referred to as the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’, someone with seemingly infinite curiosity that is perhaps matched only by his proficiency in inventing things. His imaginative contrivance and technological feats are awe inspiring. He had conceptualized a helicopter, a tank, concentrated solar power, a calculator, the double hull and outlined a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Not many of his designs were converted into reality or were even feasible during his time, though some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder or a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, entered actual manufacturing phase. He was the most diversely talented person ever to live on earth and was greatly advanced of his time. As a scientist, he was always pushing the limits of human knowledge in various fields like anatomy, civil engineering, optics, hydrodynamics and so on.
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)
“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”
Galileo made immense contributions in the field of observational astronomy, which includes the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, observation and analysis of sunspots and the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter, later named the Galilean moons in his honor. Born in Italy, Galileo was equally adept in the fields of philosophy, mathematics and physics. The motion of uniformly accelerated objects was studied by Galileo as the subject of kinematics and has now become an integral part of almost all high school curriculums. Galileo also contributed in the field of applied science and technology, the result of which was a greatly improved compass design. Galileo is also referred to as the ‘father of modern observational astronomy’, the ‘father of modern physics’, the ‘father of science’, and ‘the Father of Modern Science’ and is believed to be instrumental in the way science has shaped up the way it has now. He also made important improvements to the telescope and supported the Copernican school of thought, something that earned him the ire of the church. Copernicanism, which stands for heliocentrism, challenged the then dominant geocentric view that had been dominant since the time of Aristotle, and Galileo’s support for it led to the Catholic Church prohibiting his viewpoint since it was yet to be empirically proven at the time. In fact, Galileo was forced to retract his idea of heliocentrism and had to spend the last years of his life under house arrest on orders of the Holy Inquisition.
Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962)
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”
A Danish physicist, Neils Bohr’s work laid the foundation that led to better understanding of the atomic structure and quantum mechanics, a feat that fetched him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922. His work made it possible to solve many of the problems regarding the nuclear model of an atom that classical physics was unable to. He asserted that electrons move in fixed orbits around the atom’s nucleus and explained how they emit or absorb energy. At his institute in Copenhagen, Bohr mentored and collaborated with some of the top physicists of his time. He also featured in the team of physicists who were working on the Manhattan Project. One of his sons, Aage Niels Bohr too grew up to be a physicists of repute, and like his father, he also went on to receive the Nobel Prize in 1975. Bohr is recognized as one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century.
Max Planck (1858 – 1947)
“We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.”
Max Planck is credited to having laid the foundation of quantum theory and is considered to be one of the most important physicists of the twentieth century. A German physicist, Planck has made many contributions in the field of theoretical physics, but it is his work that led to the origin of the quantum theory that won him more accolades, something that revolutionized the way atomic and subatomic processes were previously understood. This is comparable to the way Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity went on to revolutionize the way we think of space and time. Both of these theories together form, what can be rightfully considered, as the fundamental theories of 20th-century physics. Many of his discoveries were later translated to industrial and military applications that went on to affect every aspect of modern life.
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)
“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”
Born in Poland, Marie Curie was a physicist and a chemist who did pioneering work in the field of radioactivity. Apart from being the first woman professor at the University of Paris, she also has the rare distinction of being the only person to have been honored with Nobel Prizes in two different streams of science. In fact, Nobel Prizes had become a family tradition of sort with her, as her husband Pierre Curie too was a Nobel laureate, as were her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie and son-in-law Frederic Joliot-Curie. Among her most notable achievements is the creation of the theory of radioactivity, a term used by her for the fist time, and techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes. Her work also led to the discovery of two new elements, radium and polonium. It was also under her personal direction that active research fist began to be done in the treatment of neoplasms or cancers using radioactive isotopes. Though she was a perfectly loyal French citizen, her naming of the first chemical element that she discovered in 1932 as polonium showed she was ever aware of her Polish identity. In the same year, she founded the Radium Institute in her hometown Warsaw, headed by her sister Bronisława, also a physicist. She also founded Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw.
Alan Turing (1912 – 1954)
“Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition.”
An English mathematician and logician of great repute, Turing is often rightfully considered as the father of modern computing. He is credited to having created an influential formalization of the concept of the algorithm and computation with the Turing machine. His Turing test added fuel to the raging debate regarding artificial intelligence as to whether it is at all possible to build a machine that will be intelligent enough to think and take decisions on its own. He later joined the National Physical Laboratory where he created the design of the world’s first computer based on the stored program concept, or ACE, though the design never got translated into a working model. The year 1948 saw him move to the University of Manchester where he made contributions to the Manchester Mark 1, then touted to be the world’s first true computer. During the World War II, he lent his services at the Bletchley Park, which served as the UK’s code breaking center and was the head for some time of Hut 8, the section tasked with German naval cryptanalysis. There he developed several methods for deciphering German ciphers. This included the method of the bombe, which was an electromechanical machine that could successfully find setting of the Enigma machine.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)
“I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.”
Charles Darwin is perhaps best known for his theory of natural selection that emphasized that all species of live have evolved over time from a common ancestor. An English naturalist and biologist, Darwin lived to see the scientific community as well as the general public being convinced of the fact that evolution does occur. This, while his theory of natural selection gained general acceptance as the primary explanation of the process of evolution in the 1930s, and which has now formed the basis of modern theory of evolution. In its modified form, it is Darwin’s theory that can be credited to having laid the foundation of modern biology, since it is his theory that provides a unifying and logical explanation for the diversity of life on this planet. In his landmark book On the Origin of Species published in 1859, Darwin explained the phenomenon of diversification in nature as something that is brought about primarily by evolution by common descent. In his other books like The Descent of Man or, Selection in Relation to Sex, followed by The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, it is the human evolution and sexual selection that formed the main topic. As a tribute to Darwin’s excellence and distinction, he happens to be in the exclusive group of five 19th century UK non-royal personages to be granted a state funeral.
Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943)
“The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.”
Tesla, a Serbian engineer and inventor, is known for his notable contributions in the field of electricity and magnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which can be termed as revolutionary at best. He is also sometimes referred to as the most important scientist of the modern age and some who literally ‘shed light on the face of Earth’. Tesla’s patents and extensive theoretical work laid the foundation of modern alternating current electric power (AC) systems, which includes the polyphase power distribution systems and the AC motor, all of which led to the commencement of the Second Industrial Revolution. Apart from his pioneering work on electromagnetism and electromechanical engineering, Tesla has also contributed in varying degrees in the fields of robotics, remote control, radar and computer science, and was instrumental in the expansion of ballistics, nuclear physics, and theoretical physics. The Supreme Court of the United States bestowed upon him the credit of being the inventor of the radio in year 1943. Many of his achievements have found application, with some controversy though, in various pseudosciences, UFO theories, and early New Age occultism. In fact, such is his contribution to science that he is also regarded as ‘The Father of Physics’, ‘The man who invented the twentieth century’ and ‘the patron saint of modern electricity.’