Category Archives: Heroes

Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827

Born in Normandy, France, four decades before the French Revolution, Laplace is sometimes referred to as the ‘French Newton’. His achievements echo loudly in the history of science, and some of his ideas are still in ascendancy today. Laplace personified and defined the late Enlightenment.

In the previous century, Newton had used geometry to formally derive Kepler’s laws of planetary motion from his own laws of motion and universal gravitation (although he did use invented calculus privately). Laplace worked with algebra, and was a true calculus genius. Any student of this branch of mathematics will find Laplace’s name everywhere. The Laplace operator represents the flux density of a changing function. It is useful in describing force fields, chemical dispersion, edge detection in image processing, and many other applications. Laplace’s equation is at the core of many disciplines such as electromagnetism, gravitation, thermodynamics, and fluid dynamics. The Laplace transform changes time functions to frequency functions. Most of its application is in electronic, mechanical, and optical systems that were developed long after Laplace.

By the 18th century, a wealth of astronomical (largely planetary) data had been amassed from Chinese, Greek, Arab, and other civilizations. Laplace’s masterpiece was the five-volume ‘Mécanique céleste’ – a detailed analysis of the workings of the solar system, which combined theory with these observations, and constructed the basic model of the solar system we have today.

One of Laplace’s greatest achievements went largely unused until the middle of the 20th century. He reinvented, formalized, and explored Bayesian probability (named for the enigmatic English theologian Thomas Bayes who first discovered it just before Laplace was born). Bayesian methods feature the explicit use of subjectivity, learning from experience/evidence, and the formalization of causality. They are proving invaluable in analyzing and synthesizing vast and deep complexity, both natural and artificial, in all of science from biology to neurology to computation.

Newton, Darwin, and Einstein may be more famous, but Laplace was equally responsible for shaping the modern (and future) world.

André-Marie Ampère 1775-1836

Born near Lyon, France in 1775, Ampère is generally acknowledged as one of the leading discoverers of electromagnetism, especially adept at giving this new branch of physics mathematical rigor. This is remarkable considering that he had no formal education. His father was, however, a wealthy businessman who amassed a considerable personal library of French and Latin literature. His father went to great lengths to educate and encourage his son until being executed by the forces of the French Revolution in 1793 (publicly, by guillotine).

Ampère is said to have had a truly photographic memory. Combined with his voracious curiosity and intrepid, though sometimes unwieldy, skills at experimental science, this enabled him to become a polymath in the full sense. His knowledge and original work spanned chemistry, physics, mathematics, poetry, astronomy, history, philosophy, and the natural sciences.

He graciously insisted that full credit for the discovery of electromagnetic induction should go to Michael Faraday, a kindred spirit. He was an early advocate of the wave theory of light. A lesser known interest of Ampère’s was the study of state governments, later to be known as a branch of cybernetics (strangely, he himself used that word which was not officially coined until over a century later).

A simultaneously simple yet brilliant man.

Norbert Wiener 1894 – 1964

Norbert Wiener was born in 1894 in the Missouri town of Columbia (hometown of the University of Missouri). He was one of the most enigmatic and brilliant American mathematicians of the twentieth century.
A true child prodigy, he achieved a BA degree at 14 and a PhD at 18 (Harvard). He described mathematics as a source of physical pain, the only relief for which was the pursuit and discovery of solutions to problems. He was also adamant that the initial conditions of a problem always be laid out fully and properly. He famously warned that “What most experimenters take for granted before they begin their experiments is infinitely more interesting than any results to which their experiments lead.”

Although he made contributions to several fields, mainly in pure and applied mathematics and molecular physics, he is best known as the founder of the field of cybernetics, which seeks to formalize control mechanisms. In fact, the term itself was invented by Wiener as no suitable term then existed for the study of feedback and control systems in machines and biology. The prefix ‘cyber’ has been used popularly to refer to artificially created reality. However, the origin of the term, as intended by Wiener, was the Greek word for ‘steersman’, the same root as for ‘governor’.

An engaging author, charming yet fiercely independent and even confrontational at times, he was greatly respected as demonstrated by the naming of several prizes and institutes after him.

Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis was born in 1938 in Chicago. She was the first wife of astronomer Carl Sagan. She was fascinated by genetics right from youth and looked at theories from the 19th century, based mostly on zoological arguments, in the light of modern microbiology. She was the originator of Endosymbiotic theory, which proposed that eukaryotic life (cells with a nucleus) evolved as gardens of simpler prokaryotic life (such as bacteria). This was indeed a fringe theory when it was proposed, but due in equal parts to her tenacity and subsequent microbiological evidence supporting it, it is mainstream today. She continues to argue radical theories to this day.

Her respect for others’ work that is many years, even many decades old is refreshing in the modern world. Margulis is also an example of how “even when spoken by a minority of one, the truth is still the truth”, an important principle of science.

Countess of Lovelace 1815 – 1852

Augusta Ada King, also known as Ada Lovelace, was born in 1815 in London, England. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, who called her Ada. Her mother pushed her hard in mathematics and science, hoping to avoid the flightiness of Lord Byron. In her short life, she made quite a splash, both socially and scientifically. She knew Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. She was a good friend of Charles Babbage, who is credited with designing the first programmable computer. Ada is credited with writing detailed instructions on how to use this machine to do some specific calculations, thus inventing computer software and becoming the world’s first computer programmer. All this over half a century before the invention of the vacuum tube.

Babbage referred to Ada as “The Enchantress of Numbers”.

Georges Lemaître 1894 – 1966

Georges H.J.E. Lemaître was born in 1894 in Charleroi, Belgium (the same town where Napoleon prepared for the battle of Waterloo). He applied Einstein’s newly minted General Theory of Relativity to cosmology, and, with remarkable insight, came up with what is known today as the ‘Big Bang Theory’ which describes the universe as starting from a single point and expanding to its present structure. Einstein himself disagreed with this theory until it was later supported by astronomical observation. Some have speculated that it was Lemaître’s religious nature that sparked this insight. He was also a Catholic priest, ordained in 1923. He studied at Cambridge under Arthur Eddington, also one of the originators of modern cosmology.

Lemaître stands as a shining example of how religion and science can coexist, even to their mutual benefit (even in the same mind).

George MacDonald

George F. MacDonald was born in 1938 in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. He was educated at the University of Toronto and Yale. He is a distinguished and brilliant anthropologist, expert on the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, and has guided several of the world’s great museums. He was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2006.

A staunch proponent of Canadian multiculturalism (and pluralism generally), he acknowledged the greatness of all humanity, at all times in history, including those cultures that achieved only limited technology. Perhaps ironically, he embraced technology wholeheartedly, and used it extensively and successfully as a tool to bring the past to life.

Francis Crick 1916 – 2004

Francis Crick was born in 1916 near Northampton, England. After showing early aptitude in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, he began a career as a researcher in the physical sciences. However, serendipity struck in the form of a German bomb in World War II which destroyed most of his work. He began studying biology instead, became deeply immersed in the stucture of cytoplasm and proteins, and co-discovered the helical structure and function of DNA, a major step in the development of modern genetics and molecular biology.

A devout advocate of evolutionary theory, he argued that what we call ‘the soul’ could be ultimately explained by neurology and biochemistry alone. His many publications (and co-publications) include “Towards a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness” and “The Scientific Search For The Soul”.

S. Chandrasekhar 1910-1995

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, or Chandra for short, was born in 1910 in the city of Lahore in British India. He came from a Hindu tradition but as an adult, he was quite non-religious. He came up with most of the modern theory about the end of a star’s life including neutron stars and black holes.

But that’s only half of why he’s a hero. He was also a kind and gentle man. He remained so all his life despite suffering a lot of professional jealousy and even some biggotry. He was a quiet man, but a natural leader. Someone once said that “Politicians see the world as it really is. Leaders see the world as it could be.” Imagine a world in which people help the other guy achieve his dream. This was the world Chandra saw. It was the life he lived.

To be truly kind and generous is rare. To be a profound genius is extremely rare. But to be both at the same time? That’s unique. It’s a combination that wasn’t achieved by Aristotle, Galileo, Newton or Einstein.