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← Those happy few: unsung heroes of reason, science and math

Those happy few: unsung heroes of reason, science and math - Comments

HughCaldwell's Avatar Comment 1 by HughCaldwell

The hero has been replaced by the celebrity. There are a fair number of celebrated atheists and scientists. Why maths has been brought into it, as a separate category, I don't know.

Sat, 01 Jan 2011 14:47:27 UTC | #571889

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 2 by AtheistEgbert

Max Stirner (1806-1856) - Otherwise known as Johann Kaspar Schmidt, who wrote the book The Ego And Its Own (1845), defending the individual against all manner of absurd beliefs and collectivist philosophies, in the most elegant but complex writing style of a genius. He was the arch-enemy of Marx, and Marx wrote a massive book personally attacking Stirner in an hysterical manner, yet happily took Stirner's thinking for his own use.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) - A more 'spiritual' version of Max Stirner, a mad poetic genius who used his great artistry and psychological insights to criticise modernity.

Patrick McGoohan (1955-2002) - An actor and creator of the TV Series The Prisoner(1967) which is a shockingly deep allegory of the individual's struggle against society. The TV series is full of metaphor, symbolism and absurdity, but underlying it all is a profound optimism for the power of individual reason and will over authority and irrationality. I choose McGoohan rather than George Orwell, because although Orwell was a greater writer, his work is ultimately pessimistic. Whereas McGoohan's work is far more optimistic and profound.

Sat, 01 Jan 2011 16:14:37 UTC | #571914

crookedshoes's Avatar Comment 3 by crookedshoes

I was educated at a few universities by many awesome teachers. I LEARNED science from a man named Gus. I am not going to list his last name, but he was/is the person i try to emulate when I lecture, when I research, when I approach the world with a question.

This man was literally from the bush of Africa. The pictures of family members displayed on his desk starred people in grass skirts and war paint. His brilliance took his from there to a major university where he earned a PhD in Immunology. He had too many teeth for his mouth and was always displaying them due to the ear to ear smile he wore everywhere.

His last name was not easily pronounced by Americans so at his urging, we called him Gus. He taught by standing next to me; not above me. His class was essentially him inviting you to stand with him and experience the world through his eyes. I'll never forget you, Gus. I'll also never stop emulating the enthusiasm and fervent love of biology that you helped instill in me.

I wish everyone could have this type of experience with someone of this kind man's caliber, intellect, and reason. It impacted me greatly while doing a Master's with him and it has impacted me to this day in so so many ways.

I nominate GUS.

Sat, 01 Jan 2011 17:24:42 UTC | #571934

ScottB's Avatar Comment 4 by ScottB

@ AtheistEgbert

No objections to your three but for the sake of completeness regarding what you said about Marx:

to be fair to Marx and Engels, the book you mention (The German Ideology) wasn't actually about Stirner but about several "Young Hegelians" and more importantly for both economics and politcal philosophy was the first attempt at Marx's Materialist Concept of History(though it does go on about Stirner a lot- I mean really; a lot!). And wasn't actually published at the time.


My own choices would be

Alfred Wegener His continetal drift theory, although wrong in detail, led to our modern understanding of plate techtonics. He was derided and mocked during his life for his ideas.

Rosalind Franklin

Who would have been joint winner of the Nobel Prize along with her colleagues Watson, Crick and Wilkins had the rules not forbade the prize being awarded posh-humously. She'd died a few years earlier.

Janet Lane-Claypon

To whom we owe thanks for the science of epidemiology and the case-study.

Sat, 01 Jan 2011 17:31:43 UTC | #571935

Zelig's Avatar Comment 5 by Zelig

Apologies, I think the OP is somewhat silly, but, i'm in a frivolous mood so I'll play along.

In no particular order:

Socrates, Galileo and Machiavelli.

I consider each of these individuals practically "unsung" for what should be obvious reasons i.e. society, in general, has never had any deep respect for critical thinking and the scientific method.

However, alternatively, one could argue that truth-telling where it most hurts (i.e. in the human "heart") is the most unwelcome of pursuits, and in that category my top three would be:

Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky.

Sat, 01 Jan 2011 18:55:41 UTC | #571961

LalenuAtheist's Avatar Comment 6 by LalenuAtheist

Perhaps instead of just 3 heros, I'd have just 1. The idea that an idea can be spread like a virus throughout society suggests that one person could question the tyrannical, dogmatic thinking of their society. So, in the general sense, whoever that person may have been, they truly are my hero.

Sat, 01 Jan 2011 19:53:00 UTC | #571988

Matt B's Avatar Comment 7 by Matt B

Nikola Tesla, who was an electrical engineer beyond genius. Many aspects of our technological society today were discovered by this great man.

Thomas Edison gets the recognition, but it was Tesla who did the greatest work in this field. In fact, Edison took advantage of Tesla several times throughout their relationship.

One famous example was their disagreement over how to route electricity to the public. Edison imagined the power grid running off DC (direct current) voltage; it was Tesla who fought for AC (alternating current). We know now that running DC through long lines would be very inefficient as a lot of power would be lost. By running AC, we can make use of transformers to step up the voltage to several thousand volts while stepping down the current, and step it back down at the destination (power in watts equals voltage times current). During this debate, Edison was said to have killed stray animals (once even an elephant from a circus) with AC in front of crowds to show the "dangers" of alternating current.

Tesla was also said to have been a humanist. He was saddened by third-world poverty and suffering. I've heard that he had ideas of how to provide almost free electricity to everyone (not just the technologically advanced countries). This idea was shot down by his investor, JP Morgan, for being a "bad" business move.

Despite his genius, his contributions to humankind, and care for his fellow people, he is largely unrecognized and under-appreciated (whereas Edison is a household name in our culture). He died alone and poor in a hotel, and his work was quickly gobbled up by the US government and kept secret.

I think the general public tended to dislike him while he was alive. One reason that has been said is because he made seemingly ridiculous claims, though he successfully followed through with more than a few of them. This struck me deeply, because one of his later claims was the possibility of transporting energy and perhaps even matter. Who knows what else he would have developed if given the proper funding and support.

Sat, 01 Jan 2011 22:31:42 UTC | #572044

ScottB's Avatar Comment 8 by ScottB

Excellent choice MattB! Not only that but he is the inventor of modern radio! Of course, much like with your example, he was robbed of the credit. Marconi's radio transmitter was useless until he used Tesla coils. In fact his patent applications were turned down because the were no grounds for a patent due to Tesla exiting patent. Marconi lied and claimed he'd never heard of Tesla Coils despite their existence being common knowledge. That decision was later overturned due to politics and money and Marconi went down in history as the pioneer of radio. When Marcoi's company tried to sue the US, the decision was reversed again and as it now stands, th patent is in Tesla's name once again.

I may not have got all the details right, but that's the gist.

Sat, 01 Jan 2011 23:26:25 UTC | #572081

mmurray's Avatar Comment 9 by mmurray

Comment 7 by Matt B :

We know now that running DC through long lines would be very inefficient as a lot of power would be lost.

I thought that it was better in some situations? For example wikipedia says

A high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) electric power transmission system uses direct current for the bulk transmission of electrical power, in contrast with the more common alternating current systems. For long-distance transmission, HVDC systems may be less expensive and suffer lower electrical losses. For shorter distances, the higher cost of DC conversion equipment compared to an AC system may be warranted where other benefits of direct current links are useful.


Sun, 02 Jan 2011 00:16:13 UTC | #572096

Matt B's Avatar Comment 10 by Matt B

Comment 9 by mmurray

I thought that it was better in some situations?

The link you provided indeed supports your inquiry. As in all fields, there are few absolute rules that are applicable to every situation. The form of electrical transmission is no different.

I was trying to keep my description in the context of Tesla's era (as well as trying to keep my point simple by not being overly technical). The technology to make HVDC transmission useful is only after many decades of research and development in the field. Tesla was helping to set the foundation that would allow, in the future, the development of HVDC transmission.

"Practical manipulation of DC voltages became possible with the development of high power electronic devices such as mercury arc valves and, more recently, semiconductor devices such as thyristors, insulated-gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs), high power MOSFETs and gate turn-off thyristors (GTOs)." (same link)

For educational purposes, I will give a simple description of an AC transformer if anyone is interested.

The beauty with AC transmission is that it is elegantly simple. A transformer is simply two coils of wire in close proximity, usually around a core of some sort (yes, this is a gross oversimplification of what you'd actually find in a transformer, but this is to illustrate the basic principles). An alternating electrical current through one coil creates an alternating magnetic field (this is a solenoid). This alternating magnetic field exerts a force on the electronics in the other coil, creating an electrical potential across it. Ideally, if the number of turns in the first coil equals the number in the second, then the second coil has the same voltage as the first. If the first coil has more turns than the second coil, then the second coil will have less voltage (but can handle more current) - this is a step down transformer. If the first coil has less turns than the second coil, then the second coil will have more voltage (but with less current) - this is a step up transformer. This relationship is (ideally) simply a ratio of the number of turns in both coils. This form of transmission does not work with direct current, as the magnetic field must alternate to exert the right force on the second coil.

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 01:30:28 UTC | #572120

Matt B's Avatar Comment 11 by Matt B

"This alternating magnetic field exerts a force on the electronics in the other coil..." - Should be "electrons," not "electronics." My apologies.

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 01:32:44 UTC | #572121

buybuydandavis's Avatar Comment 12 by buybuydandavis


to be fair to Marx and Engels, the book you mention (The German Ideology) wasn't actually about Stirner but about several "Young Hegelians" and more importantly for both economics and politcal philosophy was the first attempt at Marx's Materialist Concept of History(though it does go on about Stirner a lot- I mean really; a lot!).

Again, to be fair, the section on Stirner is probably 2/3 of the book, a commentary on Stirner's Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum (The Ego and It's Own) longer than Stirner's book. So the majority of the book is about Stirner.

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 02:40:14 UTC | #572146

WonderNerd's Avatar Comment 13 by WonderNerd

Judge E. Jones III- The Judge who ruled that Intelligent Design could not be taught in school in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. He did not let his conservative Christian background get the better of him, and he rationally and objectively examined the real evidence, and ruled in favor of it.

Only one I can come up with in less than a minute. I'd say Carl Sagan, but him and the others that come to mind are not exactly unsung.

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 03:21:21 UTC | #572158

Radesq's Avatar Comment 14 by Radesq

Bruce Banner -- Pioneer in Gamma Radiation research and hero to environmentalists because he was one of the "Greenest" scientists of his day.

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 03:25:11 UTC | #572161

sandman67's Avatar Comment 15 by sandman67

Im with Matt B one one choice - Nikolai Tesla is and always hase been one of my science heroes. Truly a man born well before his age....a modern Davinci.

Lets see....two more.

Ok....for his lifelong work in making the beauty and complexity of nature clear and bringing it into homes across the world via wonderful series such as Life On Earth I nominate Sir David Attenborough. Without him and the equally wonderful David Bellamy I would have grown up without the deep love and sense of wonder the world around me provides. His "scene" with the mountain gorillas is still carved deep on my mind after all these years.

Sticking with mass media Id then nominate John Romer, historian, Egyptologist and founder of the Theban Foundation, writer and presenter of such great documentary series as Romers Egypt and Byzantium. His passion and love of history makes his subjects come to life, and for an amateur like me his stuff is pure gold.

Id throw an honourable mention in for James Burke of Connections fame for again making the wonderful world of science and technology interesting and stimulating. Again hes a factor in why Im fascinated by such things. I was also a fan from an early age, and can never thank him enough for The Great Egg Race series as well.

Happy 2011 guys

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 03:47:33 UTC | #572170

ScottB's Avatar Comment 16 by ScottB

Comment 12 by buybuydandavis


to be fair to Marx and Engels, the book you mention (The German Ideology) wasn't actually about Stirner but about several "Young Hegelians" and more importantly for both economics and politcal philosophy was the first attempt at Marx's Materialist Concept of History(though it does go on about Stirner a lot- I mean really; a lot!).

Again, to be fair, the section on Stirner is probably 2/3 of the book, a commentary on Stirner's Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum (The Ego and It's Own) longer than Stirner's book. So the majority of the book is about Stirner.

May even be more than 2/3.One source, though I can't remember where I read this, says that Marx's criticisms of Stirner actually outnumber in words the whole of Stirners written output!

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 05:15:17 UTC | #572186

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 17 by Schrodinger's Cat

One needs one or two absurd nominations, like Albert Camus.

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 07:57:37 UTC | #572197

Michael Fisher's Avatar Comment 18 by Michael Fisher


Hi there RDFAN. I've taken your question - my "top three unsung heroes of reason, science, and math" & decided to concentrate on the design sphere because good design requires reason, science & mathematics (I'm not fond of 'math'). These guys are niche & in that sense they are unsung, although they are well known in design circles

They are individualistic thinkers who have added a bit of joy & wonder to the world. I've learned a lot from them & the links I've provided are worth a look - guaranteed !


1] Bruce Alonzo Goff (June 8, 1904 – August 4, 1982) - American Architect "Finding inspiration in sources as varied as Antoni Gaudi, Balinese music, Claude Debussy, Japanese ukiyo-e prints, and seashells, Goff's mature work had no precedent and he has few heirs...Goff's idiosyncratic floor plans, attention to spatial effect, and use of recycled and/or unconventional materials such as gilded zebrawood, cellophane strips, cake pans, glass cullet, Quonset Hut ribs, ashtrays, and white turkey feathers, challenge conventional distinctions between order and disorder"


2] Piet Hein (December 16, 1905 – April 17, 1996) - Danish scientist, mathematician, inventor, designer, author, and poet "He was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He studied at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen (later to become the Niels Bohr Institute), and Technical University of Denmark. Yale awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1972"


3] Christopher Alexander (born October 4, 1936 in Vienna, Austria) - Architect & Design Theorist "...propounds revolutionary architectural theory has stirred up the computer software industry...lays the foundation for developing "pattern languages"...a design should always concentrate on the "whole" and not on assembling parts. It also shows the power of distributed processing, if you will, as against centralized processing"


Peace'n'Love Michael

PS I hope the links paste correctly


Sun, 02 Jan 2011 10:19:13 UTC | #572218

Pete H's Avatar Comment 19 by Pete H

Interesting about Tesla. He had some kind of mental aberration that made him something of a sociopath.

I heard in a public presentation a few months ago that there are peculiar reasons why Tesla remains unsung. Many of his contributions remain unable to be publically attributed to him because biographical claims may or may not be subject to threats of expensive litigation by a foundation originally established from the legacy of Thomas Edison. Presumably related to some dispute about who really invented the light bulb or something.

Plus his photographic memory combined with patent intrigue and successive incidents of celebrities getting the credit for his ideas meant that he wouldn't document much of his work. Other reasons are that at least some of his stuff is just plain nuts. Though he died in obscurity his personal effects attracted great interest in some quarters. Various diagrams he produced resembled particle beam weapons technology and, lacking any other helpful explanation, remain classified by the US military even today.

But these kinds of lone geniuses might be the mythical rare exceptions. Heroes might more often be a team effort. Unsung heroes include the teachers, coaches, scout leaders, parents, grand-parents and other adult relatives, especially the dads, who enable the heroes.

There’s particular things they do (and don’t do) which nourishes a child’s curiosity and establishes their confidence to accumulate knowledge and skills to the point where they can draw from the wider community of similarly motivated adults with specialist expertise.

We pay attention to the obvious heroes, their autobiographies, and their opinions about the way things should be. But usually only if they combine scientific achievement with scintillating personalities. Perhaps if we want to cultivate more valuable ideas from heroes we should also focus on those who nutured heroes in their early years, particularly parents and grand-parents.

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 13:31:21 UTC | #572272

RDfan's Avatar Comment 20 by RDfan

Thanks for all the replies so far, guys! Keep em coming!

Sorry that you find the OP silly, david2 (comment 5). Glad that you like a little frivolity, too! I love all of your suggested writers; yay!

Hugh (comment 1), I put maths separately because I would especially like more suggestions from the maths field, a particular weakness of mine.

Keep em coming!!

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 16:07:06 UTC | #572324

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 21 by Alan4discussion

I can suggest two visionaries who are not as widely recognised as they should be. The DATES OF THEIR PREDICTIONS ARE THE KEY!

Sir Arthur C. Clarke has to be a contender: A great scientist, mathematician, author and futurist!

In the postwar years, Clarke became the Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society from 1946-1947.[17] and again from 1951-1953[18] Although he was not the originator of the concept of geostationary satellites, one of his most important contributions may be his idea that they would be ideal telecommunications relays. He advanced this idea in a paper privately circulated among the core technical members of the BIS in 1945

Baron Armstrong of Cragside world famous for his engineering innovations and vision of the future:

His new house was called Cragside, and over the years Armstrong added to the Cragside estate. Eventually the estate was 1,729 acres (7.00 km2) and had seven million trees planted, together with five artificial lakes and 31 miles (50 km) of carriage drives. The lakes were used to generate hydro-electricity, and the house was the first in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity, using incandescent lamps provided by the inventor Joseph Swan.

Armstrong was elected as the president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in December 1881 and served in that capacity for the next year

Armstrong advocated the use of renewable energy. Stating that coal "was used wastefully and extravagantly in all its applications", he predicted in 1863 that England would cease to produce coal within two centuries. As well as advocating the use of hydroelectricity, he also supported solar power, stating that the solar energy received by 1-acre (4,000 m2) in tropical areas would "exert the amazing power of 4000 horses acting for nearly nine hours every day"

He was also famous for armaments and much of the power of the British Navy.

Such was Armstrong's fame as a gun-maker that he is thought to be a possible model for George Bernard Shaw's arms magnate in Major Barbara.

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 19:57:08 UTC | #572423

fading away's Avatar Comment 22 by fading away

Unsung hero of reason

David Stove, philosopher of science who gave strong and sustained criticisms of Karl Popper's philosophy of science, which Stove viewed as a negative dogmatism. Instead Stove defended inductive reasoning and attempted to demonstrate its rational use via the logical interpretation of probability.

Unsung hero of science

Thomas Reid, 18th century philosopher of psychology. Reid anticipated the idea of non-euclidean geometry independently of mainstream mathematicians and anticipated (though only crudely it must be admitted) the idea that the human mind is modular.

Reid made his discoveries through disciplined introspection, combined with an adherence to the Newtonian method of doing science. Reid went on to use these discoveries to criticise (and in my opinion successfully refuted) the dogmatic theories of human psychology that were the mainstream philosophical views of his day (Bishop Berkley, David Hume etc )and previous generations (John Locke, Rene Descartes etc).

Unsung hero of math

Norman Wildberger. Canadian mathematician, currently residing in Australia. Wildberger discovered a new way to approach trigonometry that replaces the concepts of length and angle with notions that do not require non-rational numbers (rational numbers = fractions) in order to measure properties of triangles. He has named his new approach "Rational Trigonometry".

This allows one to do away with sine, cosine and tangent and replace them with completely algebraic ideas instead, which Wildberger calls "Quadrance" and "Spread". Moreover Wildberger's alternative measures are in many ways more natural and are far simpler to calculate. His achievement deserves to be more widely known.

Sun, 02 Jan 2011 20:26:45 UTC | #572430

booktalker's Avatar Comment 23 by booktalker

Can I have just one? Cesar Millan.

Mon, 03 Jan 2011 20:06:55 UTC | #572828

ShadowMind's Avatar Comment 24 by ShadowMind

I can't let this go without mentioning my favourite mathematician: Leonardo Pisano, aka Fibonacci. Among other things, he was instrumental in introducing Arabic numerals into Europe, which had been struggling along with Roman numerals until he came along. This allowed the rapid expansion of mathematical and scientific knowledge, that in turn gave us the Industrial Revolution etc.
Incidentally, the series that now bears his name was only briefly mentioned by him in one problem about rabbits (IIRC).

Wed, 02 Feb 2011 23:31:40 UTC | #587161