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Making an impact

Posted 02/02/2011 by KatieJ

The impact of chemists on the public consciousness has never been great and if pushed some might be able to dredge up Marie Curie or Antoine Lavoisier from a dimly remembered chemistry class. In contrast, few would struggle if asked to name a famous physicist or biologist, with Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein springing readily to mind. And an assessment of the cultural footprint of scientists by Science demonstrates that this poor name recognition continues to dog chemists.

The Science Hall of Fame uses Google’s nifty Ngram Viewer, which tells you how often a word or phrase appears in books published that year, to rank scientists. Each scientist has their public fame – based on name checks in books over the past two centuries – ranked in milliDarwins (mD), a new unit that uses Darwin’s name recognition as a benchmark. This makes Darwin the only scientist to have the honour of having two units of measurement named after him – the other Darwin unit being a gauge of evolutionary change.

Obviously there are a lot of scientists out there and it would be a Herculean task to catalogue them all, but a picture is starting to emerge of those scientists that have left an indelible impression down the years in all manner of books.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell tops the list at 1500mD, although a quick look shows that his star is waning and that his name is appearing less frequently in books than it once was. Darwin follows with 1000mD. Some rather less well known names can be found high up the list, such as Oliver Lodge (394mD), one of the developers of radio communication, and Claude Bernard (429mD), who proposed the idea of homeostasis.

The first chemist to put in appearance is Marie Curie (189mD). The next is Linus Pauling (146mD), recently voted the greatest chemist ever in a rather unscientific, straw poll conducted over Twitter by Nature Chemistry. The rest of the list is rather dominated by mathematicians, biologists and physicists.

It seems that often the list has very little to say about the importance of the scientist – after all Lewis Carroll scored 479mD and few people now know that he was a mathematician, as well as a writer of eccentric and esoteric children’s literature – but more about their ability to capture the public imagination, sometimes in spite of, rather than because of, their scientific work.

Patrick Walter – News Editor

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