The problem with superlatives

I have on several occasions in the past written about the problems of the use of certain superlative terms in presentations of the history of science, in particular in popular ones, such as first, father of, founder of and the greatest, as they only lead to a distortion of what really happens in the historical evolution of the scientific disciplines.

The term the greatest reared its ugly head again last week in the form of a tweet by Professor Frank McDonough (@FXMC1957) (historian).

18 April 1955. Albert Einstein (aged 76) died. He was arguably the greatest scientist who ever lived.

If Einstein is arguably the greatest scientist who ever lived, it raises the question, who his competitors might possibly be for this obviously coveted accolade. A typical discussion would almost certainly immediately throw up the names Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and Archimedes, going backwards in time. This almost canonical list, including of course Einstein, throws up a whole series of problems.

For me personally the first problem is that the list almost never includes Johannes Kepler, although any serious and unbiased comparison of their achievements, and they were contemporaries, would show quite clearly that Kepler actually contributed significantly more to the evolution of the sciences than Galileo. However for various reasons Kepler lacks the historical nimbus that Galileo has acquired down the centuries.

The second problem is that one is not actually comparing like with like. The mathematician and maths historian Eric Temple bell, whose book Men of Mathematics ignited my interest in the history of mathematics as a teenager, asked the question, “who was the greatest mathematician of all times?” He came up with a list of three names Archimedes, Isaac Newton and Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss (Gauss was also an extraordinary polymath who made important and significant contributions to astronomy, geodesy, cartography, optics, mechanics and, and…, so why isn’t he ever on the greatest scientist lists?). Bell then argued that it was impossible to say, which of the three was the greatest in terms of their mathematical achievements but Archimedes was operating on a much smaller basis of pre-existing knowledge so his achievements should be judged as greater.

Bell’s argument has a certain historical validity and makes us very much aware of the problems and dangers of trying to compare the achievements of practitioners of science across the depths of time. Galileo’s achievements can only be judged against the background of the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth, Newton’s against the background of the late seventeenth, when the situation in physics and astronomy was very different to that at the beginning of the century. Both of them are separated by a vast gulf in time from Archimedes and although the gap between Newton and Einstein is smaller the difference in background situations is immense. In the end we can only really compare a given scientist with his contemporaries.

Another problem that the canonical list immediately calls to attention is that all four of our candidates are basically mathematical physicists, which displays a strong bias against all the other scientific disciplines. This bias has existed for a very long time and is one of the things that current historians of science try to combat. For a very long time the history of science was seen principally as the history of the exact sciences i.e. mathematics, astronomy and physics. All other disciplines tended to be treaded as somehow secondary. Also the philosophy of science tended to be defined as the philosophy of physics. Returning to our list and its built in bias, not a few life scientists on reading it would say, quite correctly, what about Charles Darwin? Is not the discovery of the principle of evolution equal or even superior to anything discovered by the physicists or the astronomers? Having opened that can of worms somebody might put in a vote for Watson and Crick, after all Matthew Cobb’s excellent book on the discovery of the structure of DNA is titled, Life’s Greatest Secret! Oh dear that nasty superlative has crept in again.

At this point the chemists, who always get left out of such discussions, could well chime in with claims for Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, Humphry Davy, Justus von Liebig and of course Marie Curie (after all she got two Nobels whereas Albert only got one!). Having brought up Humphry Davy a self taught, brilliant scientist, one should immediately think of his famous assistant and successor, the equally self taught, Michael Faraday; now there is a serious candidate for the greatest.

Another problem with this form of historical deification of scientists, the greatest, is that it fosters and perpetuates the myth of the lone genius. Returning to Einstein, undoubtedly an incredibly productive physicist, who contributed substantially to two of the biggest fields in twentieth century physics, his work built on the work of many, many others and contributions were made to the development of his own major discoveries, Relativity and Quantum Theory, by a fairly large group of other mathematicians, physicists and astronomers. No scientist exists in a vacuum but is part of a collective endeavour pushing forward the boundaries of their discipline. Historians of science should not concern themselves with the irrelevant and uninformative question, who’s the greatest, but should rather try to embed individuals into the context in which they did their work and the nexus of others who contributed to that work and those effected by it in their own efforts. Context is everything could well be the motto of this blog.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

14 responses to “The problem with superlatives

  1. Leibniz and Einstein: an Equation of Sorts
    To wit: Leibniz’ revolution was f=ma and he wrote the Theodicy. Einstein’s revolution was e=mc2 and he wrote that God doesn’t play dice.
    Thus does genius operate as a force upon history via hypothesis of the continuing order of creation with humanity at its summit.

  2. The problem with putting Charles Darwin on a pedestal is that it ignores the contribution of Alfred Russel Wallace to the theory of evolution. Darwin himself recognised this and their 1858 papers were published together. While Darwin has become famous as the father of evolution; Wallace is commemorated only by the Wallace line,

  3. Richard Rhodes writes about this in his works on the a bomb and h bomb. he repeats some wise words from Michael Polyani about the nature of science and how one is accepted as a scientist. Rhode also wrote about the role Nils Bohr paid in advancing the careers of emergent physicists by creating spaces where their voices could be heard, and he talks about the wonderful body of scientists who emerged from Hungary. Well worth reading. I love his comment that the hungarians were actually martians who had chosen the least human-like culture to hide behind. He also repeats a joke about John Von Neumann and problem-solving: all problems can be solved by Von Neumann so no problems exist unless they have been solved by Von Neumann. Lots of people say Erdös was the greatest mathematician but few say he was a well balanced individual. I know a guy who put him up for the day after a seminar in Melbourne (they played cards to keep him amused, so alas no Erdös number) and he said he was very hard work.

  4. The problem with superlatives might be more gnarly than you describe. What about the all the “no so great” scientists who were responsible for major discoveries. All the great biologists mentioned in this thread focused on evolution and inheritance. Other themes, such as cell and molecular biology are actually much more active areas of study today than evolution and inheritance. These other fields don’t necessarily have an elegant unifying theory like Darwinism but multiple underlying concepts and processes. That is why someone like Abbe Nollet might be more important to the modern practice of biology than either Darwin or Wallace. Nollet discovered osmosis. Understanding osmosis is key to the study of cell biology and medicine. Nollet might also be a better model for understanding how science works. He discovered osmosis in 1748, but the explanation for how it works had to wait until 1951, two centuries and many scientists later.

  5. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #37 | Whewell's Ghost

  6. Returning to Thony’s comment on Kepler; I am taking a course on Philosophy and History of Calculus at City Lit in London and the lecturer Rich Cochrane made the interesting comment today that he thought that Kepler’s achievement in determining that planetary orbits were ellipses rather than the circles of both Ptolemy and Copernicus particularly praiseworthy because he did not have calculus available to him as a tool. A good, although now quite old, popular book on the development of calculus is “The History of the Calculus and its Conceptual Development” by Carl B. Boyer (Dover 1959) and this covers the development of ideas in the centuries leading up to Newton and Leibniz in detail.

  7. Dub Dublin

    You’re right that those who had the most real influence on science are often not included. No list of possible greatest scientific mathematicians would be complete without Nathaniel Bowditch, James Clerk Maxwell, and Paul Dirac. The modern world would simply not be possible without the first two (Bowditch revolutionized both navigation and insurance), and based on recent advances in understanding of the quantum realm, the latter (Dirac) is looking to be far more influential in the future than Einstein – It turns out that only Dirac can fully explain the quantum realm, and Schroedinger cannot.

    (Not to minimize Einstein, but just to point out that some others did things that were arguably harder – Maxwell’s work arguably included both the hardest concepts and the most difficult mathematics fro his time, some of which were effectively insoluble in the era in which they were created. Dirac, is famously hard to understand as I’m not sure he *ever* used a graph or diagram to assist in explaining his extremely complex work, always preferring raw math instead.)

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