Five living scientists you really should know

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Science buff John Turnbull lists five outstanding living scientists that everyone should know about.

Here’s a little experiment for you: next time you’re having a conversation with a friend (or stranger, whatever takes your fancy) ask them to name three scientists.  If you’re lucky, you might hear the names Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein.  If you’re unlucky – and my small sample size suggests you might be – the response may include God, Doctor Strangelove or the Professor from Futurama.

This may be because educational standards around the world are dropping, or it might be that media coverage of scientific topics is rubbish, but fear not! Help is at hand. For your entertainment and education, here are five living scientists that you really should know.

5. Bill Nye

Better known by his full name: Bill Nye the Science Guy, Bill is a legend among science educators. From 1993 to 1998, Bill produced 100 episodes of his Bill Nye the Science Guy, a short form TV series that covered scientific topics aimed at a pre-teen audience. The show was so good that science teachers around the world started using the shows in the classroom throughout both junior and senior school.

Topics that Bill covered included gravity, evolution, the moon, momentum and space exploration, each presented with an over-the-top enthusiasm and love for science. His on screen persona is informed by Nye’s love for stand up comedy, sparked when he won a Steve Martin look-a-like contest in Seattle.

Not to be confused with English actor Bill Nighy (Love Actually), Bill Nye is a man with a mission:

 ‘to foster a scientifically literate society, to help people understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work’.

Sounds like a pretty good mission to me.

Bill’s Rocking Wig of Science:

4. Eugenie Scott

As director of the National Centre for Science Education, Eugenie Scott has spent more than 25 years fighting for the teaching of real science in the classrooms of America. Along the way she has battled Creationists, Intelligent Design proponents, Fundamentalist Christians and other assorted nutbags, all the while retaining a positive attitude and passion for science.

Originally raised as a Christian Scientist (not what it sounds like — they prefer prayer to modern medicine) Eugenie now describes herself as nonthiest, which might give you the tip on who she likes in her first book Evolution vs Creationism: An Introduction.

Eugenie is also the answer to a popular brainteaser — name a female scientist other than Marie Curie. Other possible answers include Dian Fossey, Rosalind Franklin and Hypatia. Google them.

Eugenie vs the Creationists:

3. Sir Tim Berners-Lee

The man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, which is widely regarded to be a good thing, particularly if you like pornography or cats. This achievement was recognised in 2004, when Berners-Lee was knighted by the Queen, who is known to be highly tech-savvy and one of the earliest web surfers (not really).

TimBL, as he is widely known by people who don’t like typing long names, spent much of his career working at CERN, now best known as the home of the Large Hadron Collider. He currently works at MIT and is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium, overseeing the Internet’s continued development.

Sir Tim on net neutrality:

2. Phil Plait

It takes a certain sense of humour to call yourself ‘The Bad Astronomer’, and Phil Plait has the personality to pull it off. A multi-talented educator, Phil has worked on the Hubble space telescope, blogged extensively, debunked pseudoscience, written books and even recorded a song about the odds of being killed by a meteor (Death From the Skies with George Hrab).

Host of the TV series Bad Universe and founder of the website, Phil has made it his life’s work to correct misconceptions of science promulgated by movies and TV.  The site features critical views of the science featured on popular movies and TV shows, presented not in a snarky tone but with the gleeful desire to show how much cooler reality is than fiction.

Top quote:

“The Universe is cool enough without making up crap about it.”

Does Phil believe in UFOs?

1. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist, cosmologist and all around nice guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the best speakers that modern science has to offer. He first started lecturing on astronomy at the age of 15, graduated from Harvard University and became a protégé of the great Carl Sagan. It was under Sagan that he learnt the value of having a media-friendly persona, which eventually led to appearances on TV programmes including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report and The Big Bang Theory.

As director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson was instrumental in the movement to reclassify Pluto from a proper planet to a dwarf planet.  He argued (rather sensibly) that there were bigger objects in our solar system and unless we wanted to come up with names for a new planet every couple of years then Pluto needed to be reclassified. For the record, other dwarf planets include Eris, Ceres and Haumea.

Tyson is a prolific writer, with his twelfth book about to be published.  He is also one of the few people worth following on Twitter, and was named one of Time Magazine’s Top Tweeters in 2011. Other awards include the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the Medal of Excellence from Columbia University and the Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive by People Magazine.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the man.

We are all connected:

2012 will not be the end of the world:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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