Five Scientists Who Made the Modern World

Posted on August 31, 2007  Comments (7)

Interesting post by John Hawks: Five scientists who made the modern world

If you were to make a list of the top five scientists who ever lived, who would you choose? People are asking the question (also, here, here). So far, it hasn’t been all that interesting. All the lists have two or three names in common, and throw in two or three unexpected names for balance…
But once your list includes Newton, Einstein, and Maxwell, and then you throw in Galileo, well there’s not much room for anything else. None at all if you take Darwin as a given.

So I decided to do something a little different: What five scientists have had the greatest impact on human life?

1. R. A. Fisher. His work in population genetics laid the foundations for the vast productivity increases of twentieth-century agriculture. He was far from alone in this, but he stood apart from his contemporaries by inventing many of the statistical methods that would come to define scientific hypothesis testing. Without Fisher’s innovations in statistics, large-scale medical research studies would be meaningless. All this after he established the basis for Mendelian inheritance of continuous characters.
2. Louis Pasteur…
3. Leo Szilárd…
4. John von Neumann…
5. This one is for you. Who else belongs on this list?

How about Norman Borlaug? Related: 20 Scientists Who Have Helped Shape Our World. I must admit I am biased – I am a big fan of Sir R.A. Fisher (this link has a number of resources with more information on his work). Partially because he did great stuff but also because I am somewhat connected to him. George Box was R.A. Fisher’s student and married Joan Box. My father was George Box’s student and then colleague. So seeing R.A. Fisher ranked #1 feels nice (even if actual ranking makes little sense… but it can be interesting).

Related: William G. Hunter: An innovator and Catalyst for Quality Improvement by George BoxR A Fisher: the Life of a Scientist by Joan Box

7 Responses to “Five Scientists Who Made the Modern World”

  1. Jos
    August 31st, 2007 @ 8:14 pm

    Hi John, I am glad you left a comment and a link on my “NoDirectOn (not: NoDirection)” blog.
    Otherwise I woudl have missed out on this fine blog of yours!
    Good stuff. (When asked “what do you want to be in 10 years”, I always answer: “curious”)

  2. Berci Meskó
    September 1st, 2007 @ 1:09 pm

    Two of them were from Hungary. 🙂

    The fifth one could be Rudolf Virchow. What do you think?

  3. What’s on the web? (2 September 2007) « ScienceRoll
    September 2nd, 2007 @ 1:18 pm

    […] Five Scientists Who Made the Modern World (Curious Cat): Actually 2 of them were from Hungary. […]

  4. Kim Iles
    March 14th, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

    Speaking of curious cats – R.A. Fisher’s cat was named Chi-square.

  5. Silki
    March 18th, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

    Thomas Elva Edison, from my side.

  6. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Norman Borlaug and Wheat Stem Rust
    April 27th, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    “By increasing the production of wheat it is said Norman Borlaug has saved more lives than anyone else who ever lived. John Pollock provides a new look at his work in Green Revolutionary…”

  7. Noel Vietmeyer
    June 14th, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    For a lively account of the unknown saga behind Norman Borlaug’s life see my new book: Borlaug, The Mild-Mannered Maverick who Fed a Billion People. It’s currently selling for half price ($10.00) as a way to get Borlaug better known to the public. It recounts the amazing drama in his young days and shows how he got his inspiration to feed the world. Readers from the general public to high-power professors love it. It’s also available on

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