When I was in India, I met the family of our guide, which included a super-intelligent eleven year old.  He has e-mailed me, and asked me for a list of British scientists.  My draft is below, bulked out with comments for the passing adult.

I found it an interesting exercise for a non-scientist, because you tend to know the names but not exactly what they did or found.  So, scope for an afternoon on the internet.  There are more than 80 British scientists who have won the Nobel Prize, but of course the Nobel Prizes were not around in the days of Newton and Darwin.  So how to choose – particularly difficult for the non-expert.  Why leave out Hooke or Boyle or Halley ?  What’s the criterion?  Originality ? Hard to justify, because a lot of discoveries were simultaneously made in different countries by different people (e.g. the controversy as to whether Newton or Leibniz first discovered calculus), or occurred to different scientists at the same time (Darwin published The Origin of Species after Alfred Wallace had sent him a version of a very similar theory) .   Importance for the modern world ?   If so, why put Fleming in – because the antibiotic potential of penicillin was really released by Ernst Chain, Howard Florey, and unnamed American chemical engineers who worked out how to mass-produce the stuff. You could put in  Babbage and Turing – because although they were first to invent computers, the modern digital world came from somewhere else (and in any case a German scientist was doing similar stuff in the 1930s).

Anyway, here’s my list, arranged like a Channel 5 list show without the Jimmy Carr voice-over.  Comments, criticisms and additions welcome

  1. Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) most famous for the theory of gravity, explaining planetary movements through the three laws of motion, but “he advanced every branch of science he worked in” – for example, optics. His later years were not very scientific at all.  He was appointed Master of The Mint, supervising the issue of coinage, he did endless research into biblical matters, and also dabbled in alchemy.  Though he was the second scientist to be knighted, it is said that he was actually knighted for political reasons.
  2. Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) published The Origin Of Species, showing how different plants and animals evolved through natural selection.
  3. Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) made many discoveries in the field of electromagnetism – his discoveries led to the development of electrical motors. But he was also a chemist, discovering benzene. Einstein kept a picture of Faraday on his study wall, and the SI unit of capacitance is called a farad in his honour.
  4. Ernest Rutherford (1871 – 1937) was a New Zealander who worked in Britain. He won the Nobel Prize for his research on radiation, and built on that work to develop modern atomic theory.  I’ve visited the laboratory in the University of Manchester where he first split the atom – it is like a school lab from the 1950s, all wooden benches and sash windows, and it is still radioactive. He had a way with words – “we haven’t got the money, so we’ve got to think”; “all science is physics, or it’s stamp collecting” – but famously called atomic power “moonshine”.
  5. Henry Cavendish (1731 – 1810) discovered hydrogen, measured the composition of the air we breathe, and the water we drink. He also calculated the density of the earth (very accurately) in 1797.  He lived in south London, very near where I used to work.  I once had a Polish visitor to my Clapham office who was keen to see where Cavendish worked: I weakly pointed him to an undistinguished stretch of road just off  the South Circular called Cavendish Road.
  6. William Thomson (1824-1907) – later ennobled to become Lord Kelvin – did important work in mathematical physics and created the laws of thermodynamics. He was also a very good electronic engineer, and made a lot of money from improving the electric telegraph.  I like theorists who make a packet – it seems to me that it gives a certain credibility to their ideas.  Example – John Maynard Keynes made himself a fortune whilst publishing his economic theories.  Kelvin also realised that there was an absolute zero that was as cold as it was possible to get – now named 0° Kelvin after him.
  7. James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879) brought all the theories of electricity, magnetism and light together. He worked on the behaviour of gases, researched the rings of Saturn and had time to create the first colour photograph !
  8. Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804) discovered oxygen, and wrote a book about electricity that was used by Volta (who made the first battery), Herschel (who discovered infra-red radiation) and
  9. Hans Krebs (1900 – 1981) came to England as a refugee from the Nazis in 1933. He became an eminent scientist, and Professor at the University of Sheffield.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the Krebs Cycle, which explains how life-giving energy is set free in cells by oxidation of glucose to carbon dioxide and water.
  10. Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955) discovered penicillin, which opened the way for all the antibiotic drugs that have helped modern medicine save millions of lives around the world. His discoveries – made at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, where my daughter trained – were the start of work by Ernst Chain, Howard Florey

Who are the runners- up who did not make my list ?  Well, that must include

  • Hooke, who got involved in everything from watch-making and astronomy to early ideas of evolution and town-planning, built microscopes and air-pumps and argued with almost everybody from Isaac Newton downwards. His first biographer described him as ‘despicable’.
  • William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood and the pumping action of the heart.
  • Robert Boyle, who showed the relation between the volume and pressure of a gas
  • Crick and Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA, allowing us to understand the building-blocks of life
  • Any one of a number of astronomers – Flamsteed, Halley, Ryle, Airy, and of course Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus, its moons, and the moons of Saturn.
  • Britons involved in the development of computing – starting with Charles Babbage and his mechanical computer of 1822, Alan Turing who designed the first electronic programmable computer to break German military codes in the Second World War, and Tim Berners- Lee was central in developing the internet.

Footnote – interesting how many scientists we revere as British were born elsewhere, and came to Britain either because it was the centre of the Empire (Rutherford, Florey, Wilkins, Klug), or a place to escape Nazism (Krebs, Chain, Bondi, Gabor, Perutz, Kroto).  Paul Dirac was born in Bristol to Swiss parents: Herschel came here when Hanover was under the British crown.  Kelvin, Bernal, Boole and Boyle were Irish.  I guess this is early evidence of the Mo Farah Syndrome – if you’re good enough, then you’re British enough.

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