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.