Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles, Larry Moran at Sandwalk and the Albino Aussie Anthropoid at Evolving Thoughts have all posted on the theme of The Velvet Underground of… The idea is that the Velvet Underground’s records sold really badly (if so how come I own all of them?) but they still had a massive influence on the development of pop and rock music, so one is required to name the scientist in ones area of speciality who can be considered as the Velvet Underground of his or her discipline; that is relatively unknown but hugely influential.
In Renaissance mathematics this is relatively easy, all of them except Copernicus; although one of Chad’s commentators actually named Copernicus. However I have chosen to name one for each of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries and briefly explain why.
My choice for the 15th century is the Viennese mathematician and poet Georg Aunpekh from Peuerbach who is usually referred to by his toponym Peuerbach. European astronomy was at a low ebb at the beginning of the 15th century and Peuerbach together with his most famous pupil Regiomontanus wrote the modern textbooks with which the new generations of European in the 16th century, including Copernicus, learnt the foundations of mathematical astronomy thereby setting the so-called astronomical revolution in motion.
My choice for the 16th century is the Louvain professor of medicine Gemma Frisius. Frisius introduced the art of modern mass produced globe making into the Netherland at the same time teaching the art to Geradus Mercator who would go on to become the most important cartographer in the 16th century. Frisius’ globe production was fairly small but his and Mercator’s globes were copied by the Dutch printing houses of Blaeu and Hondius who would go on to dominate the entire European market. Frisius was also the teacher of John Dee one of the founders of the so-called English school of mathematics. Frisius also invented triangulation, which he never put into practice but in the hands of others it would become the standard method of surveying for cartography and geodesy for the next four hundred years. In another work Frisius was the first to suggest using accurate clocks to determine longitude; impossible in his own time because the clocks were not accurate enough but now a legendary part of the history of science due to the story of John Harrison in the 18th century.
My choice for the 17th century (in my opinion the scientific Renaissance doesn’t end until about 1650) is one of the members of already mentioned English school of mathematics William Oughtred inventor of that status symbol of generations of maths and physics nerds in schools and universities the slide rule. Oughtred made no major mathematical discoveries but as a private tutor he was responsible for teaching many of the best English mathematicians of the 17th century at a time when English schools did not teach mathematics, including amongst other John Wallis. Newton called him along with Wallis and Christopher Wren, another of his pupils, one of the three greatest English mathematicians of the century.
Who are your scientific Velvet Undergrounds?