Darwin greatest of all scientists

Simple Science

Last updated 08:50 04/12/2012

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OPINION: A popular topic to debate is the choice of the top three scientists in history. These are my picks:

3. Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Galileo Galilei was arguably the most prominent scientist during the Renaissance - a period when an increased reliance was placed on observation in science.

Galileo's astronomical observations set the scene for someone with the intellectual power necessary to invent new mathematics and come up with a theory to explain these observations and from there to be in a position to make scientific predictions.

That intellectual giant, Isaac Newton, started life as an unloved, extremely frail baby, born a year after Galileo's death (1643, Gregorian calendar). Newton, using a branch of mathematics of his own invention (calculus) was able to predict when and where any celestial body, such as a comet or a planet, would be at any given time.

A giant intellectual step for humankind.

What made Newton all the more remarkable was that he did groundbreaking work in many different scientific areas.

He almost single-handedly invented the science of optics; he made significant contributions to mathematics; he invented the reflecting telescope and he wrote, arguably, the greatest scientific document ever written, his magnum opus: Philisophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (published in 1687).

Newton truly deserves his place in the pantheon of great scientists.

2. Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)

Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) spoke of only two dark clouds preventing our complete understanding of physics: relativity and quantum theory. Albert Einstein conquered relativity, but it was Werner Heisenberg who was one of the key scientists to take on quantum theory. In 1932 he was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Max Born and Pascual Jordan, for "creating quantum mechanics".

Heisenberg is something of a controversial figure because having refused to leave Germany at the dawn of the World War II, he is seen by some to have been too close to the Nazi regime. He was a principal scientist in the German nuclear power project, which the Allies considered to be a precursor to the Nazi nuclear bomb. However, he is best remembered for Heisenberg's uncertainty principal. In short, this demonstrates that there is a limit to the precision with which anything can be measured. More specifically, the closer a particle is to being measured, the more it shimmers, the less certain its location is.

There are several profound consequences to this and much of the science is still a mystery, but the uncertainty principle touches on some deep philosophical issues as well as being pivotal in the next really big industrial revolution: the quantum revolution.

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For these reasons, Heisenberg stands at No 2 in the list. (Note, the reason for Heisenberg in this slot and not Einstein, and it is a close call, is that quantum physics is more fundamental than relativity and opens the door to a state beyond space and time).

1. Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

When asked by radio interviewer Kim Hill who was the greatest scientist of all time, the late professor of physics at Victoria University, Sir Paul Callaghan, chose Charles Darwin because of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Ever since humankind has had the brain power to contemplate its own existence, there has been an enormous question mark over how we and all living organisms are constructed. Thanks to an interest in the natural world since boyhood and to some influential family contacts, in 1831 Darwin secured a place, as a self-funded addition to the crew, on the British Navy survey ship HMS Beagle. The mission was to undertake extensive surveys in South America, New Zealand, Sydney, Hobart and many places in between, before returning to England in 1836. It was (and still is) the greatest voyage of scientific discovery ever taken, because it provided the raw material for Darwin's masterpiece, the theory of evolution, documented in his book On the Origin of Species (published in 1859). Darwin proved that species changed and diversified and that life has a long history guided by the process of natural selection (in which the best adapted to their environment to survive and breed).

Evolution is fact: its science is beautiful, testable and robust. It explains how over billions of years the journey was made from single- celled organisms to the 100,000 billion-celled edifice we call a human being. Darwin's fabulous insight of evolution through natural selection qualifies him for the title "the greatest scientist of all time".

- © Fairfax NZ News


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