Afternoon Inquisition

2.25.09 Afternoon Inquisition

I’m pleased to announce a brand new feature on Skepchick: starting next week, every Wednesday Afternoon Inquisition question will be determined by the winner of the previous Comment o’ the Week! Sweet, eh?

As for today’s AI, how about this:

Who is your favorite obscure scientist or critical thinker?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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85 Comments

  1. Karl Popper. Without a doubt. He invented the notions of “falsification” and “incompletness” in science, which are without a doubt the foundations of critical thinking and the scientific method.

    However, the book inwhich he outlines this “Logik der Forschung” is without question the hardest book i have ever read. It’s the Everest unaided without Oxygen of Philosophy of Science books

  2. Paula Poundstone. Yeah she has no formal scientific training or education to speak of, but if you listen to her she has an awesome way of cutting through the crap and getting to the root of things.

  3. While I can’t say he’s obsure, per se, he is vastly underrated: Nicholi Tesla. While you make note his name in the Tesla Coil, he also, IMHO, invented all the inventions the 20/21st century are based on, from the remote control to the flourescent light bulb. He was a mad scientist before mad science was cool. If I can’t have him, can I have excentric m(b)illionaire Howard Hughes. While most people know of him because of his OCD and aviation, he also was a pioneer in the space age. I think the most overrated was Einstein, all he did was think. These guys did.

  4. I have a few favorites, mainly folks who accidentally discovered important stuff…

    Arno Penzias – Tried to eliminate noise in a microwave receiver and discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation.
    Hans Oersted – Was messing with electricity too close to his compass and discovered electromagnetism.
    James Wright – Tried to invent a substitute for rubber and invented Silly Putty instead.
    Bette Nesmith – Tried to make something to cover up typos and succeeded.

  5. @infinitemonkey: Yeah, not like the Einstein’s thinking ever accomplished anything, you know like overturning 400 years of established science, revolutionizing physics, paving the way to nuclear energy, and having as much of an impact on the space race as you claim Tesla had. All things considered, it was the German Scientists and engineers that did most of the pioneering, by the time of the Space Age, Hughes was deeply OCD and far to gone to make any really significant contributions. Most of his major contributions were more towards aviation in general as well as aerodynamic design of planes and control schemes.

  6. A bit silly, but I guess I’ll go with Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes. I can’t be sure, but I think reading that comic did more to foster my critical thinking skills than anything else.

  7. Someone who is well known amongst archaeologists, but not the general public – Kent Flannery. Aside from the fact that the man is a brilliant and hilarious writer, he also understands quite well both the promise and the limitations of applying “hard science” methods to the social sciences – he uses many of these methods, but is critical when they are used incorrectly as well as when other anthropologists eschew them in favor of what is little more than story telling.

    Grad school was made a little brighter by having his stuff to read.

  8. Dr. Kevin Grazier. He is an investigative scientist on the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn… AND he’s the science advisor for Battlestar Galactica.

    I want his job. Or the closest I can have without actually having to go back to school to become a scientist.

  9. Claude Elwood Shannon.

    The man deserves a Badass of the Week article, he was so awesome. His master’s thesis established the technique of analyzing switching circuits using Boolean algebra and binary arithmetic. This is literally the entire basis of digital microchip design, the thing that allows us to both design a chip to perform any arbitrary function that can be expressed as a Boolean equation and also to simplify the resulting design through discoveries made by others.

    And he wasn’t done yet, because later on when he was working for Bell labs he invented modern information theory with a paper called “A Mathematical Theory of Communications”, which described how to characterise the data content of a message and the noise of the channel the message is transmitted over, as well as how to encode messages for maximum efficiency. (He didn’t coin the word “bit”, as far as I know, but this paper helped establish it as the primary measure of information content.) He also made major contributions to cryptography and dabbled in cellular automata and population genetics.

    And as if that weren’t badass enough, he also invented a robotic mouse that ran mazes, a chess playing computer program, and apparently co-invented a wearable computer for cheating at roulette.

    Also: he was a unicyclist. Awesome.

  10. Sir Alexander Fleming – discovered Penicillin through pure science.

    William Morton – first demonstration of anesthesia

    Bernard Roizman – first genetic splicing of a gene from a eukaroyote to a virus (ovalbumin to Herpes Simplex)

  11. Will Cuppy. He’s best known for his book “The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody”. But his other books on natural history are fabulous also. His footnotes make you laugh, but they are all well researched. He would spend months and months looking up ever known obscure work on say, the wombat, and then write a wonderful article that was funny and educational.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=NMRLAAAAIAAJ&dq=Will+Cuppy&source=an&hl=en&ei=w8-lSd_1AZDZnQeI6NGdBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=6&ct=result&pgis=1

    He’s a real inspiration for me. Combining humor with science is possible.

  12. so many choices and so many favourites so I will arbitrarily choose David Tennant.

    Aside from playing The Doctor, he also came out publicly stating he doesn’t buy into astrology and he was the first actor to not be scared by superstition and used a the skull of Andrei Tchaikowsky (donated to the Royal Shakespeare Company for this purpose in his will in 1982) in the famous Yorick scene in his recent portrayal of Hamlet.

  13. @killyosaur42: While Einstein did contribute to the overall understanding of the universe and its working, he didn’t have too much of an impact on nuclear fission or the atomic bomb. He may have predicted the amount of engergy expected, but he played only a minor role in this.

    While overturning the established beliefs is noteworthy, to say the least, it wasn’t the first time it happened, and it damn sure won’t be the last.

    Hughes, on the other hand, had a huge impact on the space age. His company, led by him, paved the way for geosynchonous satelites for communication, GPS, weather, and even exploring other planets. I firmly believe hughes put us 20 yrs ahead in space. It could be argued that the moon landing would have been possible in 1969 without him.

  14. Ernst Mach, the namesake for the Mach number and the optical illusion known as Mach bands.

    Robert H. Goddard: One of the fathers of modern rocketry. Flew some of the first practical liquid-fuel rockets, much to the annoyance of his neighbors.

    Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky: Rocket scientist and pioneer of the astronautic theory.

  15. @infinitemonkey: You’re right it won’t be the last but the problem I have with your statement is largely that it seems to undercut the work of the creatives within science like Einstein, who don’t necessarily do the nitty gritty work. He was a thinker, a big picture sort of person, willing to go where no other was willing to go and quite frankly, by stating what you just stated would be like me pointing out that what Tesla and Hughes did in deed contribute would have been discovered and contributed even if they had never existed. I just feel that claiming because Einstein didn’t actually “do” anything in your estimation that he is somehow overrated. His little idea “did” an extraordinary amount for the advancement of physics and science in general. Hughes and Tesla only advanced technology a little, not insignificantly, but not to such a great extent as to create a whole new field of science (quantum physics, and yes he did indeed start that field even though others took up the torch from his starting point) and revolutionize the scientific world. And fine, Hughes gave us GPS, but without the German scientists and the Nazi rocket technology, we would never have made it to the moon. Technological advances happen all the time, scientific revolutions do not.

  16. Nobel prize winning surgeon Joseph Murray. Skin grafting, organ transplant, and immunosuppressant agent pioneer. First successful internal organ transplant – a kidney in 1954 (along with the first allograft transplant and tranplant from a cadaver.)

  17. dysomniak:
    I agree that Norman Borlaug may well be the best human being ever.

    Questionauthority:
    Turing was the victim of amonumental injustice. Not only was he convicted of being gay (this was illegal in the 50’s) but the Ministry of Defence did nothing to help him out. He was a war hero for cying out loud, but because all his work was still Top Secret, no-one knew. The MoD could have sent his former CO to the court as a character witness without giving anything classified away, but they let him twist in the wind.

  18. Hedy Lamarr. She was a 1940’s film star. When WWII came along she looked around and thought “How can I help my adopted country win?”. Then she said “Oh, I know, I’ll develop a way for our torpedoes to be a lot harder to be detected of jamed.” So she took a little time between making movies and being famous and invented frequency hopping or spread spectrum. It is very important for today’s cellphones.

  19. I nominate Jennifer Michael Hecht, specifically for Doubt: A History and The Happiness Myth.

    The first book especially accomplishes something that I think the skeptical movement desperately needs: a history of the virtue of doubt itself. Not just formal skepticism or science or atheism, but the act of questioning received wisdom as such.

    The second book is also very good: it investigates the structure of happiness from a rational, skeptical perspective and actually manages to provide some pretty solid advice in the process.

  20. @killyosaur42: I feel the need to refine or redo my argument to some degree. I seem to be trying to play the same game as infinitemonkey by downplaying the contributions of the doers to accentuate the achievements of the thinkers within science. The fact is they are both integral parts of science and both equally necessary, both worthy of our respect. The thinkers are generally the progenitors of the revolutions within science, the big ideas and innovations, theoretical or otherwise. The doers are the incremental advancers, taking up the torch from the thinkers to further the study of science or technology or whatever and continuing the revolution. But the doers tend to be much more conservative in the way they achieve their advancements than the thinkers are, they seldom seek to rock the boat. While they may achieve great things, like developing the integrated circuit, GPS, or furthering our understanding of the nature of electricity and its potential uses, the thinkers are the ones willing to go a step further and push the envelope. Sometimes the thinkers are wrong, and it’s often the doers that show this to be true. Sometimes they are correct and in Einstein’s case, astronomically so. By calling Einstein’s achievement “noteworthy” with a seeming air of it not being that great of an achievement is to misunderstand exactly what Einstein’s theory did. It shook the very foundations of science as we knew it and forever altered the fundamental way in which we view the Universe. This is more than just “noteworthy” in the same way that Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing of everest is more than just a dude climbing a big rock. While Howard Hughes and Nikolai Tesla deserve every bit of the adulation and respect that they do get, so to does Einstein. The fact that a thinker such as Einstein even gets this sort of recognition is a credit to the importance of his ideas, as most thinkers are usually sidelined by the doers who often get most of the recognition. So it is nice for once that a thinker gets that kind of reception and he is hardly “overrated.”

  21. Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. But that’s only because I named my daughter after her.

    Doug Hofstadter, Stuart Kaufman, Melanie Mitchell, and Ken Arrow. Never afraid to back up being seriously weird with mind numbing math.

    Pamela Gay.

    Swoopy.

    Thomas Paine (Obviously)

    And a serious second on the nomination of JMH FTW.

  22. I’m not familiar enough with this movement to have an un-famous favorite. Anybody I’d know enough about to like is surely already quite famous.

    However, If you twisted my arm, I’d say Michael Shermer (not obscure in anybodies’ book but that’s all I’ve got).

    Only thing is, I keep forgetting who I’ve loaned his books out to and they’d rather just keep them than remind me.

    I’ll remember, someday, I’ll remember…

    rod

  23. My favourite obscure scientist and critical thinker is Ken Smith. He was a huge influence on me when I was an impressionable youth.

    Ken Smith was one of the first people to expose the work of Ken Ham to the wider Australian skeptical community, and the devious way in which the Creation Science Foundation was trying to influence the Queensland education system. I’d like to think that he was part of the reason why Ham left Australia (though this probably isn’t the case; it’s likely to be more about internal politics in the CSF).

    He edited a book, Creationism – An Australian Perspective, for Australian Skeptics in an attempt to understand and expose what creationists were doing in Australia in the mid-80s. I came to know him in the early 90s, and he was a big influence on my own skeptical thinking.

  24. Lise Meitner. Not sure exactly how obscure she’s considered by physicists, since my science education only went to high school and there focussed on biology, but I read “E=MC^2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation” and remember being faintly indignant that her work paved the way for Einstein’s, and I’d never even heard of her (mostly because her nephew stole all the credit.)

  25. Hedy Lamarr also worked on remote-guidance for torpedoes during WWII.

    @James K: There were times when the hypocracy was just sickening. Turing should have been a national hero for his cryptography alone. Winston Churchill said that cracking Enigma was one of the biggest factors in the Allies winning the war.

  26. Karl Jansky and Grote Reber, the fathers of radio astronomy.

    Charlie Tolbert, astronomy prof at UVa who continues to teach the wonders of the universe with just a chalkboard, has the best anecdotes, and unabashedly teaches 600 students a year that if they learn one thing from his class, it is that astrology is bunk!

    And, all the great mentors I’ve had in my research :-)

  27. @Indigo: That tended to be typical of most women’s scientific achievements in before the 20th century (and the early parts of the 20th century). I had heard of a woman who had mad great fossil discoveries that helped further our understanding of evolution (sorry I seem to have forgotten her name at this point), but instead of getting any credit for these discoveries it was all given to the man who paid for the fossils.

  28. I’m tied between Grace Murray Hopper. She was one of the first and most outstanding female computer scientist (coined the term bug AND created the first complier).

    and

    Thomas Kuhn (I would say Paul Feyerabend but he’s a philosopher not a scientist). Kuhn helped science break away from it’s reliance on strict logic computation and open the door for a deeper understanding of how the field/work of science works.

  29. I know he’s hardly obscure, but my vote is for Jared Diamond. His book “Collapse” was nearly impossible for me to put down. The breadth of his knowledge is incredible, and his musings are remarkably “big picture” and detached.

  30. I would say Our Lord Jesus Christ, who … Oops! Wrong blog! No, I would vote for Girodano Bruno. He was a late 16th century monk who was burned at the stake for claiming the stars were suns just like ours, only farther away. Umm … he also believed, I am told, in some weird sex magick which may have contributed to the whole stake thing, but I figure if you’re going to believe in magick, it mights as well involve weird sex.

  31. My favorite obscure critical thinker is Paul Kurtz. His books on the life of reason, particularly The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge, have been a great inspiration to me. I have had the pleasure of meeting him several times at Center for Inquiry conferences. I think his name should be a household word, but hardly anybody has ever heard of him.

  32. The Marquis De Sade.

    He is not necessarily “obscure” but he is rarely noted for his skeptical, and atheistic beliefs. I guess many wouldnt want a serial rapist/torturer/proto-murderer to be seen a the poster child for the “skeptical/atheistic movement”, but it is a guilty plesure of mine to indulge in (the reading of his works that is).

    Read the dialogue between the priest and the dying man (google it) for a nice histoical refutation to the existence of god. Plus how many atheistic refutations do you see that end with an orgy between 2 men and 6 women? (take note Dawkins)

    I guess he opitimises the old argument of “if theres no god, then why not go around doing whatever you want?” that believers always like to use. I think that properly asking that to yourself and reading the logic behind his arguments a good way to test your philosophical assumptions…believers and skeptics alike. Its always nice to have an alternative view within the skeptical world.

  33. A few of my favorites include the great mathematician David Hilbert. He was one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived, and outlined 23 outstanding mathematical problems in 1900, a few of which still remain unsolved, that influenced the direction of mathematical research for much of the 20th century. In addition, he was far ahead of his time in recognizing that women were just as capable as men in the mathematical sciences, and consistently fought with the establishment over women’s equal rights in obtaining academic faculty positions.

    Another great mathematician tops my list, Emmy Noether. She was a highly creative mathematician who had the support of Hilbert. Physicists owe her a great debt too, for she first clarified the relationship between symmetries in nature and physical conservation laws (Noether’s Theorem). Basically, she explained where the laws of physics came from, which should really spell the end of silly creationist arguments about their origins. (Vic Stenger does a great job explaining the link between symmetries and conservation laws in his books.) I would regard Noether’s Theorem among the top ten mathematical achievements of all time.

  34. @TheCzech: There’s a book of his collected papers that’s been on my Amazon Wishlist since forever. Mostly because I never bothered to send my wishlist out to anyone. But I’ve seen it in person, and it’s pretty massive. Good for reading or bludgeoning.

  35. @Joshua: By Darwin’s beard that is huge…with a huge price tag to go with it. I suspect it will sit in my wish list for many years to come as well. (It had a fair number of other things to keep it company.)

    From the reviews, it does sound like I might actually be able to read it. My MS in Math has moldered in my brain barely used for 15 years, so any mathematical writing that is too scholarly would probably be above me at this point.

    Thanks for introducing me to this fellow. It made my day.

  36. hats off to Claude Shannon and Turing as mentioned above.
    Barbara McClintock for her extraordinary insight, and come to think of it, Lyn Margulis also.
    But my favorite, and yes I know hes got a unit named after him etc but still not widely known is Michael Faraday, the most awesome chemist/physicist ever, despite a total lack of higher education. A true genius; also, surprisingly, a staunch believer in God (though not interested in shoving it down peoples throats) – worth considering the next time one is tempted to think all believers are stupid.

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