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People ask me to name great scientists.

But like I said before 'greatness' in science is a relative term when contributions are taken into account. All the work is important and added to some knowledge. You really cannot say some are great and some are not. But there are some parameters that place some scientists above others. 

 A great scientist is great when  s/he  doesn't compromise the scientific method to acquire knowledge.

When s/he gives her everything for the welfare of the world without expecting much in return.

Some are also great even though they didn't offer a great contribution to acquiring knowledge in science but helped spread the word or clear misconceptions or provide the public with a view of what science is all about and what it is trying to accomplish and helping the world in the process.

When the above parameters guide me, I place some scientists a little bit above others.  Who are they?

These are scientists whose  inventions changed the world, but their worlds remained pretty much the same. These are the creators who refused to profit from their creative genius.

1. Sir Tim Berners-Lee is a British computer scientist. He was born in London, and his parents were early computer scientists, working on one of the earliest computers.

After graduating from Oxford University, Berners-Lee became a software engineer at CERN, the large particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists come from all over the world to use its accelerators, but Sir Tim noticed that they were having difficulty sharing information.

In those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it. Also, sometimes you had to learn a different program on each computer. Often it was just easier to go and ask people.

Tim thought he saw a way to solve this problem – one that he could see could also have much broader applications. Already, millions of computers were being connected together through the fast-developing Internet and Berners-Lee realised they could share information by exploiting an emerging technology called hypertext.

In March 1989, Tim laid out his vision for what would become the Web in a document called “Information Management: A Proposal”. Believe it or not, Tim’s initial proposal was not immediately accepted. In fact, his boss at the time, Mike Sendall, noted the words “Vague but exciting” on the cover. The Web was never an official CERN project, but Mike managed to give Tim time to work on it in September 1990. He began work using a NeXT computer.

By October of 1990, Tim had written the three fundamental technologies that remain the foundation of today’s Web (and which you may have seen appear on parts of your Web browser):

  • HTML: HyperText Markup Language. The markup (formatting) language for the Web.
  • URI: Uniform Resource Identifier. A kind of “address” that is unique and used to identify to each resource on the Web. It is also commonly called a URL.
  • HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Allows for the retrieval of linked resources from across the Web.

Tim also wrote the first Web page editor/browser (“WorldWideWeb.app”) and the first Web server (“httpd“). By the end of 1990, the first Web page was served on the open internet, and in 1991, people outside of CERN were invited to join this new Web community.

As the Web began to grow, Tim realised that its true potential would only be unleashed if anyone, anywhere could use it without paying a fee or having to ask for permission.

He says: “Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”

So, Tim and others advocated to ensure that CERN would agree to make the underlying code available on a royalty-free basis, for ever. This decision was announced in April, 1993, and sparked a global wave of creativity, collaboration and innovation never seen before. In 2003, the companies developing new Web standards committed to a Royalty Free Policy for their work.

If it weren't for Tim Berners-Lee, you would not be able to read this article. He is the man responsible for the introduction of the World Wide Web, having developed it as a communication utility while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory. Remarkably, he refused to patent his invention, giving it as a gift to the world instead. The internet has since revolutionized the way people communicate, as well as their ability to acquire information and the speed and efficiency with which global commerce operates. His invention was a truly revolutionary moment in communication, with the potential to surpass the discoveries of Marconi and Alexander Graham-Bell.

Tim Berners-Lee won $1 million Turing Award in 2017: CSAIL researcher honored for inventing the web and developing the protocols that spurred its global use (3).

2. Jonas Edward Salk was born October 28, 1914 in New York City, the eldest of three sons to Russian-Jewish immigrants Daniel and Dora Salk. The first member of his family to attend college, he earned his medical degree from the New York University School of Medicine in 1939 and became a scientist physician at Mount Sinai Hospital.

In 1942, Salk went to the University of Michigan on a research fellowship to develop an influenza vaccine. He soon advanced to the position of assistant professor of epidemiology. He also reconnected with his NYU friend and mentor, Thomas Francis, Jr., head of the epidemiology department at Michigan’s new School of Public Health, who taught him the methodology of vaccine development.

In 1947, Salk was appointed director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. With funding from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis—now known as the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation—he began to develop the techniques that would lead to a vaccine to wipe out the most frightening scourge of the time: paralytic poliomyelitis.

Contrary to the era’s prevailing scientific opinion, Salk believed his vaccine, composed of “killed” polio virus, could immunize without risk of infecting the patient. Salk administered the vaccine to volunteers who had not had polio, including himself, his lab scientist, his wife and their children. All developed anti-polio antibodies and experienced no negative reactions to the vaccine.

In 1954, national testing began on one million children, ages six to nine, who became known as the Polio Pioneers. On April 12, 1955, the results were announced: the vaccine was safe and effective. In the two years before the vaccine was widely available, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000. By 1962, that number had dropped to 910. Hailed as a miracle worker, Salk never patented the vaccine or earned any money from his discovery, preferring it be distributed as widely as possible.

What is more important is for various reasons that are somewhat controversial he refused to patent the vaccine benefiting the mankind in the process.

3. Marie Curie is one of the most extraordinary characters from the history of science. As a woman, she faced idiotic prejudices at every turn but always battled on. She fought her way to be the first female professor at the University of Paris; she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the only person ever to win two Nobel prizes in different sciences. How extraordinary then, that by 1921, Marie was left unable to afford even a single gram of an element she had discovered and named!

Radium had been painstakingly isolated in 1902 from over a ton of pitchblende. Marie and her husband Pierre had put themselves, albeit unwittingly, in harm’s way to isolate it; even today their papers are still too radioactive to be handled safely.

With its faint green glow, radium was an object of fascination. As Marie and Pierre had shared not only their discovery but their method, there was a radium boom. Radium became an element of miracles. 

There were true applications of radium, and by the 1920s radiotherapy was taking its first tentative steps. The Curies could have made a fortune. If a single patent had been taken out, the process would have been theirs to sell, but this wasn’t the Curie way. They had unleashed radium onto the world and it was for the world to play, test and explore this new toy like a curious child.

The radium phenomenon had changed the world, but the style of Marie’s life had changed very little until a chance question during an interview with the leading US journalist Marie Mattingly Meloney: ‘If you had the whole world to choose from, what would you take?’ Her dream sounded simple: ‘I need a gram of radium to continue my researches, but I cannot buy it. Radium is too dear for me.’ In the years since its isolation, the price of a single gram of radium had risen to $100,000. Marie had been left unable to carry on her work, incapable of purchasing the smallest amount of her element.

But the American public warmed to Marie – for her dedication to science; her quest for knowledge and her unstoppable resolve in the face of sexism. Soon a national campaign was underway. Before too long the money was found and Marie was on a boat to America. Crowds of people flocked to see her and show their admiration. She was taken on a whirlwind tour of the US and soon found herself at the White House being presented with a small golden key by the president. The key unlocked a lead-lined cabinet containing a single gram of her precious material.

Marie might not have made her fortune by patenting it, but she became a pioneer in the openness of science. She never regretted sharing her discoveries with the world. ‘Radium was not to enrich anyone,’ she told journalists who interviewed her, ‘Radium is an element, it belongs to the people’ (1).

John Walker gave us fire. The modern history of matches goes back to the early 19th century England, where one chemist saw the significance of self-igniting substances and managed to create first version of items that would soon manage to spread across entire world and change the way we look at the fire. This chemist was John Walker, ordinary pharmacist and chemist whose insight and innovation managed to kickstart entire modern industry of matches and lighters.

He gave us matches, when he invented them in the 1820s. But the chemist refused to patent his invention, wanting to make sure it was available for everyone.

5. Indian Scientists who Refused To Patent Tuberculosis Genome, encouraged anyone to make the drugs based on their work.

It's nice to see that even now that India does allow patents on pharma ( Indian patent laws have been abused by foreign pharma firms in order to jack up prices on commonly used medicines), some Indian scientists have mapped out the tuberculosis genome, which should help creating new drugs that can help respond to that disease. But rather than rushing to the patent office, the scientists are freeing up the research through an open source effort (2):

"What we have not done so far has been achieved. I thank all those students who have helped it become a reality. We are doing this through open source drug discovery (OSDD) and anyone across the world is free to join the effort," [Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) chief Samir] Bramhachari told 

"OSDD is a completely new formula across the world. 
Here we are making all our progress available to public. Anyone can take advantage and develop a drug based on our research. The aim here is not patents but drug discovery for a neglected disease," said Rajesh Gokhle, a senior scientist associated with the project.

Well done, ladies and gentlemen! Way to go.

Science is for everybody. It has to benefit whole mankind. I salute these scientists who refused to be selfish and worked exactly according to the spirit of science.  That is why they are great.

References:

1. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=uPRB-OED1bcC&pg=PA165&l...

2. https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100412/0118378969.shtml

3. http://news.mit.edu/2017/tim-berners-lee-wins-turing-award-0404

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Replies to This Discussion

761

Media hype! That’s what I felt when I read the lists on great scientists given in the media. Life sciences, which is one of the most important field because it’s discoveries and inventions can have impact on life itself, was mostly ignored. Likewise female scientists were ignored. Yes, I am complaining:)

My list goes somewhat like this: Ten Historic Female Scientists You Should Know

The 50 Most Important Women in Science

Scientists: Life Sciences

Any objections?

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