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Here are the five greatest scientists in history, listed in no particular order. They are chosen here for their lasting influence on scientific progress and international culture.
1. No list of the greatest scientists would be complete without Albert Einstein. Einstein seems to have become a scientist without really planning on it. His father wanted him to work as an electrical engineer, but he got a job as a patent examiner instead.
It was while Einstein was working in the patent office that he developed an interest in the problems he is so famous for investigating. His work with the patent office required him to determine if a new invention was novel, but as he thought about the operation of each invention, he mentally explored the physical forces relied upon to make each invention work. It was this curiosity about mechanics that helped to give rise to his work on relativity.
Einstein was one of the most prolific scientists of the 20th century and wrote over 300 papers. What made him world-famous was not just his theory of general relativity, but confirmation of it. His theory of general relativity indicated that gravity could bend light, and that part of his theory was confirmed during the solar eclipse of 1911.
I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
Einstein was also a peace activist. His work on relativity helped engineers to create an atomic bomb during World War II. He knew full well the danger surrounding the eventuality of atomic weapons. He is famously quoted as saying "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."
2. Linus Pauling, chemist, biochemist, peace activist. He is one of only four people who have been awarded the Nobel Prize more than once - both the chemistry and peace prizes.
Pauling was awarded the Nobel in chemistry in 1954 for his work on the nature of the chemical bond. He was one of the first to apply quantum mechanics to the chemical bond as a set of rules that characterize chemical bonds and complex molecules better than any other tools in his time.
His book, "The Nature of the Chemical Bond," is one of the most influential chemistry books in history and has been cited more than 16,000 times and is still cited to this day.
Pauling was one of the first scientists to warn the public of the dangers of open air nuclear weapons testing. In 1946, he joined the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, chaired by fellow scientist, Einstein. Their mission was to warn the public of the dangers associated with the testing of nuclear weapons. In 1962, Pauling received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. He was also called "unpatriotic" and ousted from his job for his work as a peace activist.
3. Alan Turing is considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. He formalized the concept of the algorithm, a series of mathematical steps used to process numbers, or to calculate a function. To put this in perspective: All computers run software. All software is coded instructions consisting of discrete steps, and each instruction can be thought of as a function. Turing gave us the all of the basic programming concepts that we use in modern computing today.
Turing was instrumental in breaking the codes used for communicating in secret by the Germans during World War II. He worked at Blechley Park, Britain's codebreaking center, where he created several ciphers used to break the German codes. After the war, he created one of the first designs for a stored program computer known as the Autmatic Computing Engine.
Turing is best known for the Turing Test. The Turing Test is used to determine if a machine can think. A machine passes this test if a human conducting an interview with the machine cannot determine if the machine is human or not. A good example of a machine that uses artificial intelligence is the IBM Watson machine, a machine that was a competitor on Jeopardy and won!
4. Gallileo is considered the father of modern astronomy and the father of modern science. Galileo left us with the foundation for the modern scientific method. Like many scientists since his time, he developed methods of observation and documentation that made his findings available for peer review. He was also one of the first scientists to explain physics in terms of mathematics by comparing his observations to his calculations of the orbits of the planets.
Galileo is most famous for his discovery of four moons around Jupiter he observed with a telescope of his own design, and his observations that provided support of heliocentrism. Heliocentrism is an astronomical model that holds that the Earth revolves around the sun.
Galileo's support of heliocentrism met with widespread opposition, not just from other scientists but also from the Roman Catholic Church. His works on heliocentrism were investigated by the Roman Inquisition leading to censorship of his works and subsquent house arrest for the remainder of his life.
5. Charles Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution. He was a disciplined observer and put that discipline to use in many places. From the Galapagos Islands to the farm, he observed how species breed and evolved together according to natural selection.
While Darwin is usually remembered for the phrase "survival of the fittest," he also identified love as a key component of life. In fact, in his thesis, "The Descent of Man," the word "love" appears 95 times, but the phrase "survival of the fittest", appears only twice. Darwin noticed that cooperation plays a defining role in life, holding it as more important even than competition.
It is interesting to see the ways in which Darwin is remembered. For example, on an annual basis, the Darwin Award takes note of the forces of natural selection in modern times. Darwin's theories provide grist for countless debates, yet there is no better theory to explain the rise of man from the pimordial ooze.
Scott Dunn is an IT professional, teacher and writer living in Salt Lake City. He is also a passionate Linux enthusiast.