Heroes Of Science
    By Josh Witten | January 16th 2009 11:58 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Michael White recently linked to a Cracked article about stupid legal challenges to science.   The Cracked list reminded me of some of my own personal heroes of science.  Frequently, "heroes" in science are people who have achieved great things, like Darwin, Einstein, Feynman, and Brenner. 

    My "heroes" are not "heroes" for the magnitude of their achievements, but what they have risked in the service of critical thinking.  These individuals have put their livelihoods and even their very lives on the line.  The official citations for the Titanium Spork of Scientific Valor follow.

    Ben Goldacre, M.D., has served science through his Bad Science weekly column for The Guardian.   In 2007, Matthias Rath filed a libel suit against Goldacre and The Guardian for saying that vitamins do not cure AIDS. 

    Instead of attempting to have the suit dismissed on freedom of speech grounds, they fought the libel charge arguing, correctly, that vitamins do not cure AIDS.  In 2008, Rath withdrew his suit and is responsible for Goldacre and The Guardian's legal costs.

    In March 2008, Sanal Edamaruku, president of Rationalist International, went on India TV for a discussion on Tantrik Power versus Science.  On the show, Tantrik to Politicians, Pandit Surinder Sharma, claimed that he could kill anyone in three minutes using his black magic. 

    Edamaruku challenged Sharma to kill him with black magic.  Edamaruku survived for two hours without flinching as Sharma attempted to kill him with black magic. 

    Sharma determined that Edamaruku required the "Black Magic of Ultimate Destruction".  That night Sharma's attempt to kill Edamaruku as 300 million people turned into watch "The Great Tantra Challenge".  Edamaruku survived unscathed and demonstrated to his people that the black magic of the tantriks has no power over them.

    At only 8 years old, James Phipps had never been exposed to small pox or cow pox.  As such, he was the perfect candidate to test Edward Jenner's theory that a cow pox inoculation protected against small pox.  Phipps received the inoculation and tolerated intentional exposure to small pox without contracting the deadly disease.  This success heralded the eventual demise of small pox and the rise of vaccines. 

    Although the experiment may not have been ethical, James Phipps risked acquiring small pox, and his life, in the service of biomedical research.

    Ben Goldacre, Sanal Edamaruku, and James Phipps are some of my heroes.


    Great blog: many thanks. Clair Patterson (you can find more about him in Bill Bryson's A shot history of nearly everything) was for a long time the only scientist fighting against lead in gasoline, and he was attacked by the whole fuel industry. It so happened that he was the only scientist with good lead measurements in the atmosphere and in seawater: it is hard to get accurate measurements because of the risks of contamination.

    Claude, I am glad you enjoyed it.  This list is certainly not exhaustive both for me or in general.  I'm extremely glad that you felt motivated to share Bill Bryson's story as it was one with which I was not previously familiar.
    I don't think I really have a modern list.   Newton and Tesla are the two that I think I likely admire the most but this profile of Josef Penninger certainly brought him close to that category for me.
    I have just read this obituary of Leonard Goodwin (1915-2009).  What drew my attention to it was the sub-heading: Expert in tropical diseases whose research accidentally introduced the pet hamster to Europe.  Here is an extract:

    He travelled widely in Africa and further afield, carrying out chemotherapeutic trials on human and animal victims of diseases including malaria, trypanosomiasis, bilharzia and helminth (i.e. parasitic worm) infections.  

    Goodwin thought little of volunteering himself as a guinea pig. On one occasion, testing a new antimalarial drug, he allowed four infected mosquitoes to bite his arm – fortunately with no ill effect. Another time, while in Mombasa testing a possible treatment for bilharzia, he noticed a “slight glimmering” in his eyes in bright sunlight and wondered whether the substance he had been taking might be “a bit suspect”. As it turned out he had developed toxic retinitis which, apart from causing great excitement on visits to the optician, did no lasting harm.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Of course the titans belong in any list of heroes. However it is refreshing and informative to see some other names here. It's really important to study heroes, not only to admire them. After all, these were all homo sapiens too. Heroes are simply those who have manifested the best in all of us.

    I would like to propose Dr. Thomas C Van Flandern June 26 1940 - January 9, 2009.

    Not one to 'go with the flow', not one who allowed others to do his thinking for him, Dr. Flandern challenged many widely accepted theories in cosmology and provided a forum for many other challengers of orthodoxy.

    In the absence of public dissent, scientific truth is indistinguishable from dogma.

    For taking a stand against the teaching of science as dogma, Dr. Flandern is worthy of the title 'hero of science'.

    Non est ad astra mollis e terris via