Apart from Muhammad Ali there aint no such thing as ‘The Greatest’

The American heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali had a big mouth when he was active and claimed in public loudly and clearly that he was The Greatest. Given Ali’s profession he was of course quite literally risking a punch on the mouth for his arrogance. In the ring over the years he more than proved his claim to the title and history has acknowledged his right to be called The Greatest.  However there are box fans and experts who think that Rocky Marciano was the greatest, other Jack Dempsey, still other Jack Johnson and so on. Put another way claims to being the greatest will always be disputed.

Larry Moran Canadian biochemist, blogger and militant atheist recently entered the ring of fame punching heavily for Darwin as the greatest scientist of all time against his supposed number one rival Newton. Although apparently intended to be humorous Larry’s post actually distinguish itself through a level of stupidity that one would not expect from a university professor. His starting point is the fact that the National Library of Israel following the lead of others has started to make its substantial part of the Newton papers freely available on the Internet. Great news indeed for historians of science, the early modern period, the seventeenth and eighteenth century and other sub-disciplines including religion and it is the latter that provides the good Dr Moran with his ammunition. Shock! Horror! Larry is appalled the papers reveal Newton to have been deeply religious. Who would have thought it? Now I don’t wish to be too cruel but Larry where have you been for the last three hundred or so years? Newton’s work on Bible chronology was published in his own lifetime. His extensive writings on the biblical prophecies were published shortly after his death. His nineteenth century biographers, in particular Brewster and De Morgan, bitterly disputed his religious beliefs, Brewster refusing to acknowledge Newton’s heterodoxy. A whole library of book and academic papers has been published in the last one hundred years discussing, debating and interpreting Newton’s religious beliefs and their relationship to his work and personality. Larry your discovery of Newton’s religiosity is on a par with all those popular authors who at regular intervals “discovery” that Newton was an alchemist. Larry, it’s common knowledge!

Far worse than Larry’s belated catching up with the rest of the world is how he choses to interpret his newly won knowledge. I quote, P.S. Some losers are going to argue that Newton was still the greatest scientist and we should ignore the fact that his religious beliefs made him write many stupid anti-science treatises. That’s like saying that Young Earth Creationists (like Newton) can be good scientists even though they believe the Earth is only 6000 years old.”

I do realise that Larry is just trying to wind people up but I have never thought that behaving like a crypto-fascist was very funny or very clever. Somebody’s abilities as a scientist can only be measured on their achievements as a scientist not on their religion or lack of it, their nationality, their politics, the colour of their underpants or any other personal traits or foibles their might or might not possess. To suggest otherwise even in so-called humour is to start down the slippery slope to fascism or some other form of totalitarianism. By the way none of Newton’s work outside of his science can be characterised as anti-scientific as all of his theological, historical and alchemical work was carried out with the same dedication to the high standards of objective inquiry that he applied to his scientific research. Some of his premises were, judged by today’s standards, wrong, as were indeed some of his scientific ones, but his methods of research in these areas were just as ‘scientific’ as that in his physics or his maths.

The second statement quoted above is particularly crass from my point of view as it displays a dangerous disregard or ignorance of the discipline of history. Newton was not and never could have been a young earth creationist. Young earth creationism is a theological viewpoint developed and propagated in the second half of the twentieth century. It is the rejections of the historical, chemical, geological, biological and physical evidence for the true age of the earth, the solar system and the universe in favour of a literal interpretation of the Old Testament. It is a contrarian view based on bigotry and blind faith. Newton’s position is totally different. Newton was a devout Christian, albeit a heterodox one, in a time when almost all educated people in Europe believed in the literal truth of the Bible. He was simply a man of his times. The evidence that is rejected by the young earth creationists did not exist then. In fact Newton played a very central role in developing the science that would lead to the discovery of that evidence so to call him a young earth creationist is not just ahistorical and wrong, it’s down right perverse.

I think that the whole thing of who is the greatest Darwin or Newton is best summed up in the comments by John K. who writes:

I realize this is all in humor, but I see little value in a “science penis” measuring contest, particularly in fields so different as physics and biology.

In fact as I pointed out in the first section of this post any attempt at a “science penis” measuring contest is at best fraught with difficulties and at worst a complete waste of time and effort. Larry link’s to a two lists of the top five dead scientists one at The HMS Beagle Project Blog and the other at The Guardian and what they reveal is that people confuse their personal favourite scientists with ‘top’ or ‘greatest’ or whatever. As a historian who enjoys busting myths it however pays to take a closer look at some of the suggestions and particularly at some of the justifications for the choices.

At HMS Beagle Karen James as well as including Darwin, Einstein and Newton goes for political correctness and chooses al-Haytham for ‘inventing the scientific method’ and Aryabhata for heliocentrism. All very nice but both statements are I’m afraid to say myths, al-Haytham definitively did not invent the scientific method and Aryabhata was not a heliocentrist. The claim about al-Haytham deserves a post of its own and will in the fullness of time receive one. Aryabhata speculated about a geocentric system with diurnal rotation i.e. the earth rotates on its own axis but is still the centre of the world as then known. Not the same thing as heliocentrism at all.

At the Guardian Renaissance Mathematicus reader and occasional commentator biological statistician (or should that be statistical biologist) Bob O’Hara demonstrates wonderfully the personal favourite theory by listing himself, Darwin, Newton and Einstein before naming R.A. Fisher as numero uno. For those not in the know Ronald Fisher is like the god of biological statistics. He’s probably also the only statistician to have a rock group name itself after one of his statistical functions, Fischer-Z; although they added a ‘s’ to his name.

Lucy Clara and faithlessgod both commit the sin of including Leonardo. Enough said.

Prepared moans quite correctly about the lack of Islamic scientists in other peoples’ choices then names al-Haytham (father of optics/scientific method) and Avicenna (father of medicine). We’ve already had al-Haytham and the scientific method and he twice commits the ‘father of’ sin. Although Avicenna is an imaginative and refreshing choice calling him the father of medicine is a bit much considering that his medical works were largely recycled Hippocrates and Galen.

Sipech thinks al-Khwarismi invented algebra; he didn’t but then goes on to include Mendeleev and Gauss, which at least displays imagination. I find it interesting the Gauss who towers above about 99.999% of all known thinkers in his intellectual achievements almost never features in such list. It would make for an interesting science studies project to investigate why people venerate a Galileo but ignore a Gauss. Interestingly Sipech only mentions Gauss’ achievements in mathematics completely ignoring his contributions to physics, astronomy, cartography, engineering, geodetics…

Nami is obviously a logic fan as he includes both Gödel and Turing an interesting leap from his starting point Democritus.

H420 obviously has a rather different definition of scientist as he starts his list with Giordano Bruno. People Bruno was not a scientist!

I think the choice that most irritates me is the inclusion of Carl Sagan by several people. Although Sagan was a working scientist and made some minor contributions to astrophysics to include him in any list of top or great scientists is simply a joke. He became famous as a science populariser and people are confusing his influence is interesting them in science with the achievements of real science. I will also add something, which has already called down the fires of hell on my head on another forum, as a populariser Sagan actually did a lot of harm to my discipline, the history of science. Like a lot of popularisers with a background in science and not in history he preferred to dish up a lot of crap myths about the history of science instead of doing the work and presenting the truth. The result is a lot of scientists who grew up on Cosmos (his TV documentary and book) who have a very warped and incorrect knowledge of the history of science but think they know the ‘truth’ because Carl Sagan said it.

The sort of crap that such popularisers propagate is nicely illustrated by a comment from SCL on Larry’s post, paraphrasing Neil Tyson he write:

As Neil Tyson relates, he invented the integral and differential calculus on a dare in order to answer a question posed to him as to why the orbits of the planets were ellipses.

Newton did not invent calculus on a dare. The question that was put to him was not why the orbits of the planets are ellipses but what form would those orbits be if one assumes an inverse squared law of gravity and he didn’t use calculus but Euclidian geometry to demonstrate that they would indeed be ellipses. Whether or not Neil Tyson related it I can’t say.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

43 responses to “Apart from Muhammad Ali there aint no such thing as ‘The Greatest’

  1. Pingback: Apart from Muhammad Ali there aint no such thing as ‘The Greatest’ | Whewell's Ghost

  2. I spotted your typo: for ‘Muhammad Ali’, read ‘Charles Darwin’, obviously.

  3. > people confuse their personal favourite scientists
    > with ‘top’ or ‘greatest’ or whatever

    Top = personal favourite, as far as I’m concerned. That’s certainly how I interpreted the Guardian and Beagle Project posts and comments (including my own).

    I used to have heated debates at school/college about who was the better, Davey Crockett or Alfred the Great. (I think I stole the original idea from a Peanuts cartoon.) Most people seemed to think it boiled down to a question of hats – although Alfred the Great is clearly the correct answer.

  4. I was getting alreadyto post a comment of the form “What about Gauss” but you then talked about him. Taking away my righteous fury…

    (Incidentally, regardless of how you list things, I think that there’s a pretty strong case at least that Gauss was the greatest mathematician.)

    • Eric Temple Bell thought that Archimedes, Newton and Gauss were the three greatest mathematicians of all times and argued that Archimedes was the greatest because he made his achievements with the least background knowledge.

  5. Bob O'H

    Ah, I see you didn’t argue against my nominations of either Fisher or myself. I guess you know when you’re beaten.

    Seriously, I think just about the only genuine greatest I can think of is Bradman.

  6. MikeFlynn

    The next question is whether mathematics is a natural science, or whether it only seems that way to us because since Descartes we have joined them at the hip or because it is sometimes used to understand questions about nature. Perhaps it should be “the greatest people who did sciency-like stuff.”

    Once we have perfected the magnifimeter, which is used to measure greatness… Or at least until we have determined that greatness is a single axis…

  7. At best, “greatness” is a figure of merit like the composite number engineers come up with to evaluate refrigerators. Or maybe somebody can do the dimensional analysis and let us know what units greatness is measured in the cgs system. Who knows? Years ago I read an article on the evolution of mimicry that defined the BJU (blue jay emetic unit) as a measure of how nauseating Monarch butterflies are to birds.

    That said, I’m always a little puzzled that lists of great scientist so seldom give much credit to Clark Maxwell.

  8. They seldom give credit to Clark Maxwell b/c James Clerk Maxwell discovered the laws related to electromagnetism.

  9. hck

    Averroes was and is right: The correct answer is: Aristotle.

    • Several of the blog suggestions I looked at list Aristotle as one of their choices, which I didn’t comment here as I consider it to be a fairly rational choice. However what was interesting other commentators attacked this choice with the argument “Aristotle was a philosopher and not a scientist”! This very peculiar claim definitely deserves comment in fact it deserves a complete post in its own right and is now on my very long list of potential future blog posts.

      • hck


        As it’s by Averroes: of course it is “a fairly rational choice”. [:-)]

        And as it’s based on Averroes’ interpretation of Aristotle, it should be irrefutable – at least if I understand Averroes correctly. (Averroes proofing that Aristotle was right about everything [except the region with the best climate], and Averroes siding with Aristotle [except when it comes to the region with the best climate] : means that Averroes was right about everything. [:-)] . )

  10. Hilarious post! Not one mention of Leibniz throughout, even though if anyone was still trying to use Newton’s fluxions today, Babbage’s dot-age pun would serve…

    • Physicists and engineers still use Newton’s dot notation for derivatives without problems and the rest of the world uses Lagrange’s ‘f’ notation 😉

      • So you think that the Cambridge’s Analytical Society’s overthrow of Newton’s dotty system was all wet then? Maybe you think that Herschel and Babbage were German agents? Why no answer to my query re Leibniz? I believe this type of pervasive and malicious envy is why we English speakers say “x-rays” instead of “Roentgen rays”…

      • Were you born without a sense of humour or did you work on it?

        If you had read my post on the subject you would know that the Analytical Society did not actually succeed in overthrowing Newton’s dotty system.

        X-rays was actually the name that Röntgen gave to his discovery and he explicitly stated that he did not wish for them to be named after himself. A wish that was ignored by the Germans after his death by which time his name for the phenomenon, X-rays, had established itself in the English language.

        You made no query re Leibniz you made a statement.

      • No sense of humor? I think that Newton’s prediction that the world will end in 2060 is a scream…In my book, all Cabalists such as Newton are quite risible! Leibniz’ joke that Newton thought that God is a mere clock winder is a good one also.

      • You appear to have a Leibniz obsession which can be dangerous leading as it will to the consumption of too many butter biscuits causing obesity and diabetes II.

  11. I’m so glad you brought up the pernicious side to Carl Sagan’s influence, because it’s a point that really deserves to be made, but is not nearly made enough. I vividly remember a conversation I had with an elderly and very renowned US-historian of astronomy at some conference: when I brought up Sagan’s name, he reacted with barely suppressed rage and disgust, basically accusing Sagan of sabotaging his life’s work by dishing out historical BS. Examples for this are not far to seek: Alejando Amenábar publically admitted that he made his ridiculous movie “Agora” after seeing Sagan’s “Cosmos”-episode on the Library of Alexandria and naturally concluding that we would now live on Mars if the evil Christians had not killed Hypatia. From watching the movie you can tell that he was forced to modify the most egregious strands of Sagan’s BS due to having done some actual background research, but – as with every religious person – that obviously wasn’t enough to convince him to disbelieve the “Cosmos”-version of HOS altogether.

  12. Pingback: Oh dear! More crap than you can shake a stick at. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  13. Pingback: Nobody invented the scientific method. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  14. Pingback: Nobody invented the scientific method | Whewell's Ghost

  15. Pingback: Gopnik on Galileo | Darin Hayton

  16. Pingback: He didn’t published and so he perished (historically). | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  17. Well if we leave everything aside and look at him from the boxing point of view than no doubt he was the most amazing and talented boxer ever existed.

  18. Pingback: How much can you get wrong in an eight hundred word biographical sketch of a very famous sixteenth and seventeenth-century mathematicus and philosophicus? – One helluva lot it seems? | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  19. Pingback: The problem with superlatives | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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