Not all scientists are created equal. Here we present the crème de la crème – men and women whose work revolutionised the world and continues to inspire the next generation.
We all have heroes. Here at Lateral Magazine, our biggest heroes are scientists ‒ those great thinkers and doers who spent their lives in pursuit of knowledge.
To celebrate our launch issue, we polled 22 Lateral contributors on their favourite scientists from history. Perhaps the greatest surprise was just how little agreement there was: the final ballot included everybody from ancient philosophers (Aristotle, Hypatia) to modern-day scientific renegades (Luca Turin).
Nevertheless, eventually a consensus began to emerge, and these 15 scientists stood tall above all others. Each, in their own way, has revolutionised the world for every single person reading this article.
15. ALEXANDER FLEMING (1881-1955)
Thank goodness Alexander Fleming was such an untidy scientist. His messy nature led to a discovery that made medical history and has since saved millions of lives. In 1928, after a month of well-earned holiday, Fleming returned to his laboratory to deal with a pile of petri dishes in which he had been culturing Staphylococcus bacteria.
As he began to sort through and toss away the old dishes, he noticed that some of them had begun to grow mould. Upon closer inspection, Fleming saw that the colonies of staphylococci had all been killed in the areas containing mould. And so he had discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic.
Fleming was no doubt a keen and devoted scientist, but his accidental discovery of penicillin should really be attributed to his untidy work habits. It’s proof that science isn’t always spick-and-span, providing a little bit of encouragement for those of us who haven’t quite got the clean gene. ― Ellie Michaelides
14. THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY (1825-1895)
Thomas Henry Huxley rarely backed down from a fight. Unlike his good friend Charles Darwin, who liked to keep a low public profile, Huxley would often go out swinging, with scientific evidence as his weapon of choice.
His 1860 Oxford debate with anti-evolutionist bishop Samuel Wilberforce is now the stuff of legend: in reply to a sarcastic barb about his ape ancestry, Huxley declared that he would be ashamed, not of having a monkey ancestor, but of being related to such a man who would use his gifts to obscure the truth.
Huxley’s energetic advocacy for evolution earned him the moniker “Darwin’s bulldog”, and yet he was largely agnostic (a term he coined himself) towards natural selection as its primary mechanism.
Above all else, Huxley was an astonishingly talented comparative anatomist. In the 1860s, he squared off against respected anatomist Richard Owen in the “Great Hippocampus Question” to prove that humans and apes share several important brain structures. By comparing fossils of Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus, he theorised that birds had evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs, a view that wasn’t vindicated for over a century. ― Andrew Katsis
13. GALILEO GALILEI (1564-1642)
Intelligent, stubborn and more than a little arrogant, Galileo Galilei was a self-made outcast from very early in his career. Studying medicine, but more fascinated by mathematics and physics, he spent two decades analysing objects in motion and found fame with his publication The Little Balance.
After developing the universal law of acceleration, Galileo eventually cast his eye to the heavens. He nutted out the phases of the moon and Venus, identified mountains and craters on the lunar surface, observed sunspots, and located the four "Galilean" moons of Jupiter.
Galileo openly challenged the teachings of Aristotle, instead supporting the Copernican theory that Earth and the planets revolve around the Sun. This earned him a teaching ban from the Catholic Church, which he obeyed for seven years. These restrictions loosened when the more sympathetic Pope Urban VIII was elected, allowing Galileo to continue his work in astronomy, not-so-subtly discounting Aristotelian theorists along the way.
Galileo once again overstepped his mark in 1632 when he published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, a cheeky dialogue between three people: a supporter of the Copernican theory, a supporter of Aristotle, and an (ostensibly) impartial third participant. By having the simple-minded Aristotelian spout arguments reminiscent of Pope Urban VIII, Galileo alienated his most powerful ally, was convicted of heresy, and spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest. ― Sara Nyhuis
12. ADA LOVELACE (1815-1852)
Ada Lovelace worked in a time when women were actively discouraged from pursuing careers in science and mathematics. Despite this, she worked closely with Charles Babbage – the “father of modern computing” – who designed the Analytical Engine, which, although never built, introduced many of the concepts of computer hardware seen today.
In 1843, Babbage asked Lovelace to translate an Italian description of the Analytical Engine into English. It is the appendages that Lovelace added to this translation, making the document three times longer than the original, which brought her fame. Seeing the possibilities of the machine, she wrote complex algorithms that could be performed on it – making this the first piece of computer code or "software". Thus in 1843, Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer. Eighteen-forty-fricken-three. The modern computer was not built for more than a century.
Ada Lovelace has also come to symbolise the struggle for women, both past and present, to be recognised and taken seriously in STEM fields. Many people have attempted to downplay or outright discredit Lovelace’s contributions to computing, by arguing that it was Babbage who wrote all the algorithms (despite much evidence to the contrary), or by suggesting that Lovelace simply suffered from womanly hysteria.
Nonetheless, “Ada Lovelace Day” is now celebrated annually to recognise and celebrate women’s achievements and contributions to science. ― Annika Victoria
11. LOUIS PASTEUR (1822-1895)
Pasteur did much more in his life than just lend his name to pasteurisation, the process of heat-treating milk to eliminate harmful microbes. His work on the germ theory of disease led to arguably the most important advance in preventative medicine: vaccines.
Without the germ theory, we would have no microbiology, no preventable diseases, and no understanding of how alcohol ferments. All our modern research into the many and varied microbial lifeforms, and genetically tweaking them to work to our advantage, simply wouldn't exist.
Aside from all of these wonderful things, I most admire Pasteur for his approach to problems rather than the solutions he came up with. He was the child of a poor tanner, yet went on to become one of the most eminent minds in history. He initially studied letters and mathematics, only pursuing science later. After failing his first attempt at the Bachelor of Science entrance exam, he came back the following year and nearly topped his class. Can you image what we would lack now, if he had let that initial failing be the end of his scientific endeavours?
Pasteur’s perseverance has improved the quality of our lives in such immeasurable ways. To me, that is the epitome of science. ― Natalie McKirdy
10. JONAS SALK (1914-1995)
In the early 1950s, the United States conducted one of the largest medical experiments in history, involving 20,000 physicians and nearly two million American children. These children, and millions more around the world, were at serious risk of paralysis and early death from poliomyelitis. On 12 April 1955, the study findings were announced to the world: the Salk vaccine works.
This vaccine was the fruit of eight years’ research by Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. Salk began his MD with no intention of ever practising medicine, as he was consumed by an ambition to “be of some help to humankind, so to speak, in a larger sense than just on a one-to-one basis.”
Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine was the first of its kind, and its success motivated US public health officials to mount a mass-immunisation campaign. By 1961, there were a trivial 161 cases of polio reported across all of the United States, down from 58,000 in 1952. For Salk, the knowledge that he had prevented the suffering of countless future polio victims was sufficient reward, and he refused to patent the vaccine. The eradication of polio from human civilisation is expected to be complete by 2018. ― Mark Richardson
9. STEPHEN HAWKING (1942-)
Stephen Hawking is one of the most recognisable personalities from the physics world, with multiple appearances in popular culture, including an episode of The Simpsons. While suffering from the degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Hawking was able to adapt and thrive, finding new ways to explore the tricky mathematical concepts he is known to tackle.
Some of Hawking’s most famous research looks into the mysterious mechanics of black holes. In the early 1970s, he began research into quantum gravity, a key element of the inner workings of black holes. Although it was long thought that nothing – not even light – could escape the singularity inside a black hole, Hawking posited that they actually emit a kind of radiation, later called Hawking radiation.
This was a controversial problem for physicists at the time, as quantum mechanics says that information must be conserved, but Hawking radiation would see the black hole evaporate over time, permanently destroying the information inside. This “information loss paradox” is still a conundrum for scientists even 40 years after his discovery, but Hawking believes it can be solved using a theory of multiple universes. ― Bryonie Scott
8. BARBARA MCCLINTOCK (1902-1992)
Barbara McClintock won the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physiology, some thirty years after first presenting her work on transposons (or “jumping genes”). In truth, McClintock’s achievements actually extend even farther. She obtained the first evidence that genes are physically positioned on chromosomes. She described the mechanism of “chromosomal crossover”, the exchange of genetic information during reproduction. According to some, McClintock was also the first scientist to hypothesise the basic principles of epigenetics, as well as the existence of telomeres.
McClintock’s achievements have led to her perception not only as a pioneering figure of genetics, but also as a feminist icon. Many of her biographers emphasise her struggles to be taken seriously as a woman in her field, and champion the “de-masculinisation” of science and academia. However, these narratives have been deconstructed, and accounts from those who knew her are contradictory. Historian N. C. Comfort claims that McClintock rarely experienced gender discrimination, and that the main reason for the late recognition of her work was her poor communication style.
We may never know the truth about McClintock’s personal experiences. We do know that, regardless of how she was treated during her lifetime, she was a truly great scientist. ― Chloe Warren
7. ISAAC NEWTON (1642-1726)
Isaac Newton first demonstrated the universality of physical laws by showing that the force of gravity, which caused apples to fall to the ground on Earth, was the same force responsible for the motion of the planets and all other heavenly bodies. This discovery revolutionised humanity’s view of the universe, and our place within it, by challenging the long held notion that there was some distinct difference between the workings of the Heavens and the Earth.
Newton’s law of universal gravitation and three laws of motion were presented in his masterpiece Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, arguably the most influential work in the history of the physical sciences. His lesser known achievements include inventing calculus by age 24 and his significant contributions to the field of optics, including development of the reflecting telescope.
Newton himself once proclaimed, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. It is a fitting legacy that Albert Einstein, perhaps the only scientist of comparable esteem to Newton, achieved his grand successes by standing on Newton’s shoulders and trying to see just that little bit further. ― Jesse Allen
6. ALFRED RUSSELL WALLACE (1823-1913)
Alfred Russel Wallace is the oft-forgotten co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin and Wallace developed the theory individually but presented it together in 1858, one year before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Far from mortal enemies, the two often shared ideas and advice. Darwin even noted that “very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me – that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals.”
Wallace’s work was not limited to natural selection. He was one of the most famous scientists of his day and a founder of evolutionary biogeography. Biogeography is a growing specialisation even today, focusing on species distributions and their origins. Wallace identified the importance of rivers and mountains as boundaries to species movement, and questioned previous assumptions that climate was primarily responsible for species presence or absence.
In particular, Wallace noticed a striking difference between the north-western and south-eastern Malay Archipelago: He recognised that the west harboured animals similar to those on the Asian mainland, while the east held animals similar to Australian fauna. The barrier between the two distinct ecological areas became known as “Wallace’s line”. ― Emily Gregg
5. NIKOLA TESLA (1856-1943)
Nikola Tesla was a prototypical scientist, if a little eccentric. He believed in the technological advancement of society and frequently surrendered control of his patents or published ideas at considerable financial loss to himself.
An engineer and a physicist, Tesla was well ahead of his time. He researched and reported on fanciful theories such as remote-control machinery, FM radio, fluorescent lights, and using radar to detect enemy aircraft. Famous for his advances in the field of electricity transmission, he invented the first alternating current (AC) motor and the Tesla coil (a wireless transmitter).
Yet for a scientist who laid the groundwork for many future technologies, Tesla was not infallible. He spent years listening to background radiation in space to decipher what those aliens on Mars were trying to say.
To those who knew him personally, Tesla had a number of bizarre traits. He could not abide the sight of pearl necklaces, and was terrified of touching human hair. While all this may have been the result of self-induced shock therapy, Tesla was also known to suffer from a number of nervous breakdowns, and frequently saw visions. A great man? Indeed. Even if he did fall in love with a pigeon. ― Tessa Evans
4. ROSALIND FRANKLIN (1920-1958)
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was no stranger to sexism in the science community, from fighting to convince her father that a woman should receive a university education, to having her research taken from her late into her career. Franklin began her degree in chemistry in 1938 at Newnham College, where she received a research scholarship that allowed her to complete her doctorate at Cambridge University. Franklin’s early career was mainly focused on the physical structure of coal and charcoal, and how they could be used more efficiently, publishing five papers before age 26.
Franklin’s most notable developments were in x-ray diffraction, where she advanced the techniques to produce extremely fine x-ray beams. Franklin used this to conclude that DNA had phosphates on the outside and was most likely a helical structure. Franklin’s colleague, Maurice Wilkins, later shared this discovery with James Watson and Francis Crick, who published the data in 1953. Five years later, aged 37, Rosalind Franklin died from cancer, the result of years of exposure to radiation while she was perfecting her x-ray diffraction techniques. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of DNA’s structure, but it was too late for Franklin. ― Grace Wemyss
3. ALBERT EINSTEIN (1879-1955)
On a train travelling at the speed of light sits a single passenger, a German-born patent clerk at the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property. He is strikingly handsome, academically gifted, and staring into a mirror held at arm’s length from his face. You might not be aware of it, but you are bearing witness to one of the most important experiments ever performed, occurring entirely in the imagination of the young Albert Einstein.
Einstein is perhaps the most recognised scientist to have ever lived. In 1905, he published four papers that fundamentally changed the way physicists think about space, time and matter. One of these papers, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” is the first description of the Special Theory of Relativity, which was borne from Einstein’s famous light-speed train thought experiment.
Although Einstein’s work on relativity is arguably his best known contribution to science, it was his article “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light” that ultimately earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 and gave birth to the field of quantum mechanics. The iconic energy-mass equivalence equation E = mc² first appeared in “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?” and, to the surprise of many, is in no way connected with his Nobel Prize-winning work.
These discoveries have profoundly altered the course of human history, providing the physical basis for technology that includes GPS navigation systems, solar cells and thermonuclear weapons. ― Mark Richardson
2. MARIE CURIE (1867-1934)
Not only was Marie Curie the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, but she won it twice in two different disciplines. Born in Warsaw in 1867, Curie was a naturalised French citizen and an enthusiastic learner. Unable to study at Krakow University in her home country because she was a woman, Curie spent some years learning physical science at the underground Flying University.
When she moved to France, Curie began studies in physics, chemistry and mathematics at the University of Paris, where she earned multiple degrees and met Pierre Curie, her future husband and scientific collaborator. Curie originally wanted to return to Warsaw, but, even as a well-regarded scientist, Krakow University had no place for women.
Curie’s discoveries are numerous, though she is best known for her work on radiation. Along with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, the discoverer of radiation, Curie won the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics for her “researches on the radiation phenomena.”
Curie was the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris when she was offered her husband’s position as chair of the physics department when he died in 1906. She won the Nobel Prize again in 1911 in the field of chemistry for her discovery of the elements polonium and radium, and for her isolation of radium. During the First World War, Curie was director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, and afterwards founded the Radium Institute in Warsaw. She died in 1934 from aplastic anaemia, likely caused by exposure to radiation. ― Rubee Dano
1. CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882)
Charles Darwin first trained to be a doctor, then a clergyman, before finally settling into the niche of gentleman naturalist. His five year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle opened his eyes to the remarkable diversity of life on earth, eroding his former belief that all species were unchanged since Creation.
While Darwin didn't invent the idea that species could change over time, he was the first to describe the mechanism driving these changes. According to evolution by natural selection, when some individuals in a population survive and reproduce better than others, then the frequency of inherited traits within the population will shift. It’s a simple idea, and yet it changed everything: it explained how new species were born.
Darwin first sketched out his theory in 1842, but delayed publication for 17 years – not because he feared social reprisal, as is popularly thought, but more likely to properly bolster his theory with evidence. On The Origin of Species was published to great success in 1859, making Darwin the unwitting champion of scientific empiricism and an enemy of the old religious guard.
Although plagued by illness, Darwin continued his work for another two decades. He wasn’t always vindicated by the evidence – in particular, his theory of pangenesis was a failed attempt to explain trait inheritance – but in everything he did he was thoughtful and methodical. Through a lifetime of careful observation, Darwin helped knock Man from his godly pedestal to sit amongst the plants and the animals, and the natural world has never seemed so beautiful. ― Andrew Katsis