The Shorter Giants

Okay, here’s a geeky question for you: who’s your favorite lesser-known scientist? There are some luminaries in the field that everyone knows: your Einsteins and Newtons, your Galileos and Darwins, the people that the general public has heard of, even if they aren’t quite sure what they did. Then there are the folks you learn about in the average high school science class, the guys with laws and units and models named after them, like Curie or Tesla or Mendel or Rutherford.

And then there are the really obscure ones, the people that you only get to know once you’ve taken the scientific plunge, the people whose names you never memorize from a textbook. I’m talking about your Tycho Brahes and Sadi Carnots, your Aristarchuses and whatnot. Who do you hold a special candle for?

For me, it’s Eratosthenes. I’ve come to know this particular Alexandrian pretty well over the last several years, with the number of times in arguments where I’ve had to correct people who think Columbus set sail with a cube-shaped globe. No, he wasn’t the first person to posit a spherical Earth, but he was (one of) the first to accurately calculate its circumference. Depending on the exact measurement of his unit of distance, he got within 16% of the actual figure using only sticks and shadows and measured footsteps.

I just watched the first episode of “Cosmos” tonight (thanks, Netflix!), and it was just fantastic to hear Sagan talking about my favorite forgotten Egyptian. Of course, the whole show was fantastic, and it’s a shame that it’s taken me so long to start watching it.

So, who’s your favorite low-profile scientist? Just to limit things a bit, it can’t be anyone still living; otherwise I would have had to say Norman Borlaug.

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