Sure, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie might have hogged the limelight back in the classroom (showoffs!), but they certainly weren’t the only scientists on the scene. Here are six geniuses who deserve equal attention.
The Guy Who First Realized We’ve Been Drifting Apart
In geology, Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) is recognized as the father of continental drift. His theory, introduced in 1915, then ridiculed for years, was a paradigm-shifting idea that led to all modern-day geology. In fact, you’ve probably seen simulations of what the world looked like back when all of the continents were joined together. Wegener’s understanding of continental drift and plate tectonics has helped to explain phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes and other action within the earth’s crust. Further, his ideas have shed considerable light on how plants and animals have evolved and spread across the globe.
The Guy You Should Thank for Must-See TV
Philo T. Farnsworth (1906-1971) single-handedly dreamed up the cathode ray tube, which led to the invention of the television. By scanning and transmitting images in horizontal lines, the young eccentric pioneered an entirely new medium. Sadly, his claim to fame was quietly usurped. At just 21, Farnsworth presented his research to RCA executive David Sarnoff and Russian scientist Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin and Sarnoff then replicated the technology and revised it. Using their resources at RCA, the two then began to dominate the marketing of this new technology. Farnsworth sued and seemingly won in court, but the power of the corporation proved mightier, and Farnsworth was never able to profit from the industry he helped launch.
The Guy Responsible for Your Speedy PC
William Shockley (1910-1989) and other scientists at Bell Labs were the first to use semiconductors to replace vacuum tubes in 1951. In fact, the use of transistors completely revolutionized modern computers. Shockley’s use of the technology both as a transmitter of information, converting sound waves to electronic information, and as a resistor, to control the electronic current (spelling it out TRANSmit + resISTOR), was unique. Transistors could perform the same function as vacuum tubes at one-millionth the energy required. The technology quickly became ubiquitous in electronic equipment, leading to revolutions in size, speed and capabilities. Sadly, however, the genius tarnished his reputation in later years by espousing some shockingly racist theories.
The Guy You Should Thank for the World Wide Web (and We’re Not Talking Al Gore!)
Tim Berners-Lee (1955- ) helped launch an information revolution that has forever altered society. While the Internet is the product of many people’s creative genius, the World Wide Web (WWW) itself has a unique parent. In 1980 Berners-Lee struck on the idea of having hyperlinked text available to him on his computer so he could easily follow his thoughts while working. But he didn’t want to access data and information on just his own computer; he wanted information available from other computers on the network. And ultimately, that means the entire network of computers out there. Burners-Lee created the first language for Web pages, HTML, which is still the primary language of the WWW. In 1991 the WWW was introduced, and the whole world’s gone dot-mad ever since.
Just One Word Plastic
Is there any substance that is more ubiquitous and more representative of the past 40 years than plastic? It’s inexpensive, moldable and incredibly functional, and we’ve got a genius named Leo Baekeland (1863-1944) to thank for it. In fact, Leo saw the immense potential for the fully synthetic material when he first invented it, way back in 1907. Dubbing his creation Bakelite, the inventor spent his life dominating the world of synthetic plastics, even subduing rival Thomas Edison. Bakelite itself became a predecessor to more advanced and malleable plastics (you can still find Bakelite products and collectors on eBay!), and his legacy clearly lives on: during this year alone, over 50 million tons of plastics will be produced.
The Guy Who Chose to Breed Flies instead of Swatting Them
Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) isn’t a name that rolls off the tongue (or that immediately springs to mind when we think of the world’s greatest scientists), but his contribution to the field of genetics is immense. Dobzhansky took Darwinian concepts of evolution and began studying them in terms of genes and gene pools. His research focused on the humble fruit fly, but his results weren’t humble at all. He’s credited with having first demonstrated evolution in action by showing how the genetic makeup of fruit flies changed to adapt to different environments. For the first time evolutionary theorists could point to the hard science of genetics to bolster their claims. No small feat, Dobzhansky laid the groundwork for all future science in evolution and genetics.
Strange but True
Einstein’s Pickled Brain
While Albert Einstein’s cranium is now safely stored at Princeton Hospital, the genius’s cranium was actually kept in a mason jar in a Wichita, Kansas, laboratory for many years. The brain, which has been subject to plenty of postmortem study, measures surprisingly smaller than average brains. It is, however, markedly denser in some of the regions associated with mathematical ability, and neuroscientists disagree over whether these differences are significant.
Adapted from Condensed Knowledge (HarperCollins) which is available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun visit www.mentalfloss.com and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.