I’ve recently been asked to participate in a ‘cafe scientifique’ event looking at the relative achievements of Darwin and Galileo. For those who don’t know, 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and the 150th of the publication of ‘Origin of the Species’ (how very thoughtful it was of him to arrange that both occur together), so this year has been labelled ‘Darwin Year’. You may remember that 2005 was ‘Einstein’ year – 100 years after Einstein sprung into prominence, in the physics circles at least (Widespread public fame came a bit later).
Generally speaking, I think these kind of debates are rather meaningless. We often get subjected to them by ineffective sports commentators filling in time – ‘Would Roger Federer at his peak have beaten Pete Sampras / Bjorn Borg etc at their peaks?’ . It’s a non-question – we’ll never know.
Whatever your views, Darwin certainly changed the way the world is looked at. And so did Galileo, but in a different way. Can the two be compared along similar criteria? I’m not sure they can.
Anyway, the point of all this is to state the obvious – there have been many, many highly significant contributers to the field that we recognise as modern science. Some are household names, but most are not. Isaac Newton said that if he had seen further than anyone else, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. Now, it could have been a cheap shot at his contempary Robert Hooke (Newton and Hooke did not get on, and, by all accounts Hooke was a very short man), but he may have been referring to people like Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe.
These three (Brahe, Kepler, Newton) are a lovely example of how scientific understanding develops. In maybe oversimplistic terms, it was Brahe’s pain-staking observations of the positions of the planets in the night sky that allowed Kepler to formulate his laws of planetary motion. And it was Kepler’s laws that, much later, provided Newton ‘proof’ of his theory of gravitation. So one could argue that an almost unknown (outside the physics community) 16th century Danish astronomer (Brahe) was responsible for our understanding of gravity just as much as Newton was. So who is the greatest?
(A former maths teacher of mine, once said, with reference to Kepler, ‘Newton was a thicky’. A tad unfair, maybe, but his point was not to underestimate Kepler’s contribution to gravity)