We celebrate the great names in science much the same way we laud our celebrity actors, politicians, and sports stars. The Carl Sagans,The Kepplers, and the Newtons are all part of the canon of human history, and we respect the great men and women of science both for their sheer intellect and brilliance, and also for all they contributed to society. Unlike the famous luminaries of science, though, brilliant scientists who don’t achieve fame are about as well-known as that squirrel who lives in your backyard (no, the other one… that’s not even the right squirrel, for god’s sake!).
But no more! Today we are going to pluck five science-types from obscurity and elevate them up to the status of someone you will remember for the next 10 or 15 minutes! These five folks may not have achieved the acclaim of Copernicus or Planck, but they contributed something nonetheless, and thus they deserve those 15 minutes. Or 10. Or at least 7, I think, would be fair.
5 Leo Szilard
Leo Szilard is the lesser-known father of the Atomic Bomb. While he was outshined by Einstein and Oppenheimer, it was indeed Szilard who first conceived of and designed a controlled nuclear chain reaction process that would lead to the Atomic Age. He studied under Einstein and Planck and, due to obvious reasons relating to his Jewish heritage, left continental Europe in the late 30s. It was his letter to FDR that secured the funding and motivation for the U.S. to go ahead with the Manhattan Project and, ultimately, to create nuclear weapons.
4 Dmitri Mendeleev
Dmitri Mendeleev was a Russian chemist, inventor, and generally science-minded fellow who lived through most of the 19th century and into the 20th. He is credited with creating the first “modern” Periodic Table of Elements (meaning the forbearer of the one in use today – other lists and charts existed, but none so comprehensive and adaptable had been created). He also apparently predicted that, in the long run, using oil (and any refined petroleum products) would end up being costly to the point of foolishness, due to its intrinsically finite nature. Oh well.
3 Smithson Tennant
You can thank Smithson Tennant the next time you use a compass or wear anything made of Rayon, because had it not been for this British chemist, who died in 1815, we may never have isolated the metals iridium and osmium. These metals, particularly the former, have such high melting points and are so resistant to corrosion, that they are perfectly suited for use as molds used for extruding fibers after melting, like Rayon, or in mechanisms with constantly moving parts that will not work properly if they wear down. Thanks, Smithson Tennant!
2 Omar Khayyam
Omar Khayyam, was an astronomer and mathematician who lived in what is now Iran in the 11th and early 12th centuries. His careful calculations and measurements produced a calendar that is only a second or two less accurate than the modern standards we use today (this is to say a solar year based calendar, for the record), and was much more accurate than the Gregorian Calendar that was adopted in 1582.
Meton is perhaps the greatest astronomer who we’ve basically forgotten, or perhaps his wisest move was leaving no verifiable records behind. We believe he lived in Athens in the 5th century BC, but none of his primary source materials remain, so he was either an astronomer who isolated the dates of the seasonal equinoxes and solstices, thereby helping lock in a reliable calendar and serving as one of the pillars of astronomy upon which others would build, or he wasn’t. And that’s where the sun sets on him, if you will.
Since time immemorial, great minds have conceived of and created great experiments and learned much about the universe in which we live, and then been totally forgotten in way of thanks. Think about the next time you debate the relative merits of the study of astrophysics versus watching Reality TV.