Surprises found in the “Science Hall of Fame”

Breaking news from the world of culturomics! The most famous scientist of the past two centuries is Bertrand Russell, whose fame clocks in at a stunning 1500 milliDarwins.

If you’re like me and have never heard the word “culturomics” before today, fear not. The idea is relatively simple, and the implications for study of human society are enormous. Researchers at Harvard have teamed up with Google Books to analyze frequency of word usage in an enormous collection of digitized books. The database is called N-Grams (check out the original paper in Science to understand the name). You can sort through the data yourself; enter a search term (case-sensitive) and see how it works. The popularity of a given word, phrase, or name is plotted versus time, giving us a new level of insight into the evolution of culture.

N-Grams is a goldmine of interesting results, especially for the humanities and social sciences. One cool feature for scientists is the “Science Hall of Fame.” Compiled by Adrian Veres and John Bohannon, this is a measure of how often scientists have been mentioned in books by their full name. An individual’s total impact is measured relative to Charles Darwin, whose fame is exactly 1ooo in units of milliDarwins.

Playing around with the list, I found a few surprising things:

1. Out of the top ten most famous scientists, I had never heard of four of them. In my defense, the fame of all four peaked well before I was born.

2. Three of the top ten most famous living scientists are women. In fact, the two most famous living physicists are women: Vandana Shiva and Evelyn Fox Keller rank just ahead of Stephen Hawking.

3. In the list of 4169 scientists, the breakdown is as follows: 1417 biologists, 1202 physicists, 963 mathematicians, and 857 chemists (some people are cross-listed). As a practitioner of “the central science”, I finally have firm evidence that we chemists are severely under-appreciated.

It turns out that many of the most famous scientists are known for their non-scientific activities. Check out the author’s introductory article for some more advice on how scientists can achieve notoriety based on these trends. In a nutshell: become a psychologist, and make sure you have controversial opinions. Or try to win a Nobel prize.

Further reading:
NY Times coverage of N-grams
Culturomics website

ResearchBlogging.orgMichel JB, Shen YK, Aiden AP, Veres A, Gray MK, Google Books Team, Pickett JP, Hoiberg D, Clancy D, Norvig P, Orwant J, Pinker S, Nowak MA, & Aiden EL (2011). Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6014), 176-82 PMID: 21163965