Throughout History, scientists have been martyrs, unsung heroes, toilers in the shadows, and mystical figures. Often, their work has changed the way we think and affected society well beyond the laboratory. Other times, their work has been followed by technological advances which also carried a lasting legacy, be it good or bad. But despite all this, few of us outside the field can name more than a handful of famous scientists, and even fewer can name one or more living, working scientists today.
I’m inspired by many scientists whom I work with, whose work I read or hear about through their seminars, or those who have preceded my generation and paved the way through advancements in techniques, or by bringing novel and important ideas. These are the scientists that students today try to emulate, and who deserve a bit of public spotlight. They also tend to reach Rock-Star status among younger scientists.
Here are my top 5 Rock-Star Scientists, across all genres and eras:
1. Jonas Salk – for the vaccine that wasn’t patented, and the scientist who cared only about curing the sick, and not about selling a scientific fact in order to get rich.
For the first time in 1955, Salk’s polio vaccine successfully treated its first case of polio. Since then, polio has become one of the first eradicated diseases around the globe. Salk never directly benefited financially from this discovery, and never sought to patent the vaccine so that it needed to be commercially manufactured and sold in order to be used as treatment. Today, very few groundbreaking (or not as impactful) discoveries lack patents, or direct financial gain by their discoverers.
2. Charles Darwin – father of evolutionary science, who fought the naysayers and dared to think differently than his contemporaries, thereby paving the way for a greater understanding of human natural history.
Since his original theory (theory in the scientifically-proven sense, not to be confused with a hypothesis) in the mid 1800s, Darwin’s work has been proven time and time again as newer and more advanced technologies have arisen, such as the study of genetics. While the data supporting the theory have held up to scientific scrutiny, the peer-review process and the tenet of never having been disproved, this field of scientific research nonetheless faces constant public debate, making it a great example of science intersecting with society, public policy, and science education. Even in his time, Darwin’s ideas were controversial and against the (now disproved) Lamarckian beliefs of the time. This innovative thinking and daring to explore controversial topics are inspiring to scientists today, such as those in the fields of climate change or stem cell research.
3. Ramon y Cajal, largely regarded as the father of modern neuroscience.
Cajal’s work laid the foundation for our understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, but more importantly (in my view) he valued the importance of mentoring young scientists. His thin little book, Advice for a Young Investigator, from 1916, is a timeless work of science philosophy. I still keep a copy at my desk, because during times of struggle in the lab (and these times are plentiful), a paragraph of reading serves to inspire me for weeks. This is illustrative of how rarely science philosophy or proper mentorship intersect with scientists today.
In this photo, we see a self portrait of Cajal working in his makeshift laboratory in his kitchen (photo from NYU). Here he toiled using just a microscope for many years as he painstakingly dissected the nervous system. Through this work, he was able to shape his groundbreaking Neuronal Doctrine. Serving as a lesson to all scientists, his success was largely due to determination, clever ideas, and a bit of luck…all culminating in the Nobel Prize.
4. Nicola Tesla for daring to debate his contemporaries (namely Edison; a debate which he won), and for devoting his life to science despite dying poor and not being recognized for his achievements until well after his death.
Tesla and Edison’s AC/DC debate has been captured in many pop-culture accounts (including this Drunk History video) and Tesla’s work has resulted in many of today’s popular technologies including the radio, robotics, radar and lasers. Only one of Tesla’s several previous laboratories is left, in Long Island NY, where he worked on wireless telography under funding from J.P. Morgan (which begs the question – do these financial giants continue to fund such innovative scientists as Tesla?). Tesla was both a fascinatingly bizarre, and a controversial scientist for his time. These make the stories of his work seem both outdated and inspiring.
(Photo 51, showing the double-helix structure of DNA)
5. Rosamund Franklin for contributing the data that lead to one of the most famous scientific theories of all time (Watson and Crick’s theory of the structure of DNA), and for having never received the deserved recognition in her time due to being a female scientist working among mostly men.
In her short 38 years of life, Franklin was a very accomplished scientist, whose photograph 51 taken at King’s College London became the key piece of data for Watson and Crick, as it clearly shows the double-helix structure of DNA. This technique was painstakingly perfected by Franklin, in a process of protocol optimization which receives little public attention but is an invaluable part of the scientific process.
Albert Einstein is probably the scientist everyone on the street can name. His life’s work undoubtedly made huge impacts on both society and science. However for me, I find Einstein’s quotations are among the best (and most inspiring) I’ve ever read. A sampling of some of my personal favorites:
“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”
“The only real valuable thing is intuition.”
and the truest of them all:
“Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.”
Other Famous Scientists who Shaped World History: