Great scientist exploring UK

7 of the greatest British scientists (and how they changed the world)

British science has long exerted a huge impact on global STEM. From computer science to the double helix, the world would be a very different place without British innovation.

For centuries, Britain has been a veritable hotbed of scientific innovation. From Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, the country's best scientists are household names all across the globe.

While there are plenty of valid concerns about the long-term effects of Brexit on the UK STEM sector, British science is still in a good place. According to the most recent government data, the UK produces 7% of the world's scientific research papers (despite comprising only 0.9% of the global population and 2.2% of global GDP). And of the most highly-cited research papers, Britain has a 15% share. 

But British science goes far beyond these impressive statistics. Without resorting to hyperbole, it's fair to claim that the contributions of British scientists — some of the most influential scientists of all time — have directly changed the course of world history.

To celebrate the ongoing achievements of the British STEM sector, we look at six British science pioneers whose work had ramifications reaching far beyond the boundaries of the discipline.

 

1. Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Sir Isaac Newton is not just one of the great British scientists, but he’s also one of the most prominent scientists ever to have walked this planet. A true polymath, the Lincolnshire-born Newton was an expert mathematician, physicist, astronomer, and alchemist.

Newton is best known for his (likely apocryphal) 'eureka' moment when he saw an apple fall from a tree — an epiphany that supposedly inspired his most-celebrated work, Principia. More than just a thesis, Principia formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation which are still relevant, cited, and form the basis of empirical research today.

Aside from his contributions to classical mechanics, Newton worked extensively in optics and formulated his theory of colour, which attributed colour as a property of light. If that's not all, he also invented the field of calculus (Gottfried Leibniz, the prominent German polymath and contemporary of Newton, developed the idea independently around the same time).

When paired with his mathematical breakthroughs, Newton’s work has formed the basis of hundreds of years of scientific discovery — giving us the empirical toolkit to compare apples with apples. Much more than just a titan of science, Newton's continued legacy was underscored when he was voted the sixth-greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 BBC poll.

 

2. Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Though Newton's name is synonymous with science, few people on this list have had an impact as profound as the 19th-century naturalist, geologist, and biologist, Charles Darwin.

Breaking with almost two millennia of deeply entrenched religious dogma, Darwin's theory of evolution would radically alter our understanding of humanity's place within nature.

In his landmark 1859 book On the Origin of the Species, Darwin used compelling evidence to suggest that populations evolve over the course of generations through the process of natural selection. Such was the impact of this theory, that by the 1870s, evolution was considered a fact by the scientific community and educated public. Indeed, natural selection now forms the unifying theory of the life sciences, explaining both the common ancestry of organisms and the diversity of life. 

Darwin's achievements went far beyond one seminal book, however. Earlier in his career, his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle and his subsequent discoveries made him one the most widely celebrated naturalists and geologists of the day. Later in life, he also put forward the idea of sexual selection in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex — extending on his famous theory of natural selection.

By changing the way the average person thinks about the world, Darwin is considered the father of modern thought and one the most influential figures in human history. 

 

3. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Many people cite another British great, Alan Turing, as the creator of the computer. But without the work of Ada Lovelace, it might not have been possible. In the socially conservative Victorian era, Lovelace was years ahead of her time.

Many of us think of computers as a relatively recent invention, and the idea that computing goes back to 1840 seems somewhat far-fetched at first consideration. But before Apple and Microsoft and before the Harvard Mark I, Ada Lovelace had an incredible grasp of computing. Her understanding was not only unparalleled at the time, but went under-appreciated for more than a century — only coming back to the fore in the 1950s.

What makes her understanding of computing more incredible is that she was working at a time when few women had access to education. Despite being faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, she overcame society’s obstacles to inspire some of the greatest computer scientists of the 20th century.

Considered the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was a true Victorian visionary.

 

4. Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)

Another Nobel Prize winner — this time in 1945 — Alexander Fleming had an impact that would transcend science. Born in Ayrshire in 1881, Fleming’s great discovery came when he was studying influenza in 1928 — almost a decade after returning from service in the First World War.

He noticed that mould had started to develop on staphylococci culture dishes which had accidentally been left out. This mould had created an immunity circle around itself, resisting bacteria. Fleming named this substance penicillin.

Though it wasn’t Fleming who translated this discovery into the drugs that fight off bacterial infections we use today (that honour went to the US drug industry), his groundbreaking findings led the way in reducing the impact of bacterial infections for millions of people globally (he also went on to write highly influential papers on immunology, chemotherapy, and bacteriology). One of the greatest Scots in history, Fleming is a true icon of both science and global healthcare.

 

5. Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)

As the only British woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, it’s perhaps not surprising to see Dorothy Hodgkin’s name on a list of the greatest British scientists. Though born in Egypt, she was raised and educated in the UK.

Hodgkin’s prolific career was full of incredible scientific discoveries. In 1945, she discovered the atomic structure of penicillin. In 1954, she published work discovering the structure of vitamin B12. This research, produced in collaboration with American chemist Ken Trueblood, led to Hodgkin being awarded a Nobel Prize for “her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.”

Hodgkin went on to reveal the structure of insulin, a project she’d been working on for decades. Incredibly, she worked throughout her life while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

 

6. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Many consider Rosalind Franklin’s emission from the rollcall of Nobel Prize winners as a blemish on the prize’s record. Franklin, a British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer, made hugely important and influential contributions to our understanding of the molecular structures of DNA.

Through her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA, we discovered the DNA double helix. The discovery of this structure allowed scientists to understand how genetic information is passed between parents and their offspring.

Despite the importance of her work, she’s still often overlooked for three reasons. Firstly, she died of ovarian cancer at young age. Secondly, her work was appropriated by the Cambridge University scientists James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, who published a series of articles that led to the trio picking up a Nobel Prize.

The final reason, of course, was her gender. Back in the 1950s were just not taken seriously in an academic context. Wilkins, who would later win the Nobel Prize by piggybacking on Franklin’s research, initially thought that she was a lab assistant rather than the head of her own project.

Like Ada Lovelace before her, Rosalind Franklin is a frank reminder of the struggles that women had to endure just to have their work acknowledged and respected. If there's one thing to take from this celebration of British scientific achievement, it’s that we strive to ensure women working in science — wherever they are — are afforded the same level of opportunity, appreciation, and respect as their male counterparts.

 

7. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

Simply put, the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century and arguably one of the greatest thinkers of all time. To wrap up our list, we'll let the great man summarise his remarkable life in his own words in this video from Discovery UK.

 

For more insights into the world of STEM, stay informed with the SRG blog.

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