British scientists who have changed the world - past and present!
British Scientist Highlights
There are many fantastic British scientists throughout history who have contributed to the advancement of our understanding of the world and in some cases, things out of this world! Have a read below, of just a few notable British scientists and their contributions to the various scientific fields. How many do you recognise and how many had you never heard of before?
Sir Isaac Newton – We couldn’t have a list of British scientists and not mention this guy! A mathematician, physicist, astronomer and author, Sir Isaac Newton is largely regarded as one of the most important scientists of all time with his research being key in how we understand the world today. The story goes that he discovered the laws of gravity and motion when watching an apple fall from a tree. He wondered why the apple fell to the ground and his research on gravity changed the way people looked at the world. Literally! His discovery of gravity helped prove that the Sun is at the centre of our solar system rather than the Earth. He also built the first reflecting telescopes allowing people to see clearer images when looked through. But his achievements don’t stop there! Newton also created calculus (an entire branch of mathematics), made the first calculations of the speed of sound, came up with the law of cooling which states how fast the body loses heat depending on its environment and much more!
Stephen Hawking – We also couldn’t write this list without including this man who is probably known to many of you. Stephen Hawking was a theoretical physicist, cosmologist (someone who studies the origins of the universe), and author, who is often regarded as being one the most influential scientists in human history. He coined the term "Hawking radiation", the name given to the theory that black holes emit radiation which was a significant breakthrough in the scientific community. He was also an avid supporter of the many-worlds interpretation, the theory that there are other worlds and universes as a result of events that take place in our world. Most remarkably, however, was that Hawking was able to contribute so much while afflicted with a slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease which gradually paralysed him over decades. In his initial diagnosis, he was given 2 years to live. Instead Hawking lived for over 50 years and helped grow the public's understanding of science. His book ‘A brief history of Time’ stayed on the bestseller lists for nearly an entire year. Even having lost the ability to walk and speak, he continued to advocate for science as well as disabilities with the help of an electronic speech device. In a BBC poll in 2002, he was ranked 25th in the list of the greatest Britons.
Rosalind Franklin – Franklin’s contributions to science went somewhat unrecognised, unfortunately, until after her death. She was a Chemist and X-ray crystallographer (the experimental science determining the atomic and molecular structure of a crystal) whose work was crucial to how we understand DNA. While researching at Kings College London, she worked on DNA research alongside numerous other chemists. Alleged sexism towards her by other members of the team, caused Franklin to instead move to a different institution where she would continue to do breakthrough studies on other sectors. However, she had to leave behind her previous work on DNA at Kings College, which allowed the other chemists to discover the structure of DNA, changing how we understand ourselves, the past, and medicine. It is thought that Franklin’s work was pivotal to this discovery and unfortunately was not recognised at the time. Since then she and her work has been honoured, with awards and buildings named after her as well as a blue plaque placed on her home in London, that you can still see today!
Charles Darwin – A biologist, geologist, and naturalist (the study of living organisms), you may have heard of Darwin in your science lessons at school. He is most widely remembered for his contributions to the science of evolution (the change in characteristics of organisms over time). He proposed that all species on Earth must have descended from common ancestors, meaning that, for example, the chimpanzee and gorilla have a common ancestor but evolution has caused two separate species over thousands of years. This is the basis for understanding where we as humans have come from and is largely accepted as science fact today. What you may have heard of him for however is the process of "natural selection". In this process, the animals we see survive today are here because they possess the strongest characteristics, essentially the survival of the fittest. In his time Darwin was extremely controversial but over time his works are accepted as a basis for understanding life on our planet.
Ada Lovelace – The Countess of Lovelace is regarded as one of the first computer programmers and if that doesn’t sound interesting enough, she lived in the 1800s! Remembered as a mathematician and writer, she is known for her work on the Analytical Engine with fellow scientist Charles Babbage, which would be the basis of computer technology in the electronic age over 100 years later. Ada recognised that the computing machine had many more applications that just calculating numbers essentially predicting what modern computer capabilities are in a time when computers didn’t even exist. While the program she wrote in 1843 was never tested due to the engine never being made, Ada’s contribution to computer science is pioneering and her predictions on the future of computers outstanding. Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated on the second Tuesday of October to raise up the profiles of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Alan Turing – A mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist - what wasn’t he? Often regarded as many to be the father of modern computers as well as artificial intelligence. During the Second World War he was hired to create equations and sequences to break the German codes and provide the Allies with high-value intelligence. He’s most remembered for creating a machine to break the German enigma code, largely thought to be ‘unbreakable.’ It’s thought that by breaking this code, as well as his other work, helped reduce the length of the war by two years and saved over 14 million lives.
After the war he continued to work on advancing computing technology. Unfortunately, in 1952 he was arrested for committing homosexual acts, still against the law at the time. Instead of a prison sentence he accepted punishment in the form of chemical castration. This is thought to have slowly poisoned his body and mind until his death in 1954.
In 2017, the ‘Alan Turing Law’ pardoned all those who had been convicted by historic laws banning homosexuality. In 2019 he was named the ‘the greatest person of the 20th century’ for his contribution to human history despite facing little to no recognition for doing so.
Alexander Graham Bell – A Scottish inventor, scientist and engineer is most well known for his works in the USA and Canada. His father, grandfather and brother worked with on speech and language and his mother as well as his wife were deaf, which hugely impacted the direction of his scientific work. His researching on hearing and speech began to lead to experiments with hearing devices for those that were losing their ability to hear clearly. However, this instead culminated in the first patent (meaning no one else can make money from an invention for a short while) for the telephone in the United States. While he is often attributed as having created the first telephone there were many other competitors however Bell continued to advance and develop his invention as well as popularise their use. Bell also like to experiment in other fields of science and inventions including, hydroplanes, the first metal detectors, alternative fuels, solar panels and even the basic principle of tape recorders.
Tim Berners-Lee – One of the most influential people on the course of human history as his work has changed the way we work, communicate, relax and so much more, yet many will not even know his name. Tim Berners-Lee is a computer scientist, known for inventing the World Wide Web. Essentially this means that every time you go to a website or webpage, you are accessing the Web. He originally designed it for use by scientists to share data across this obscure thing called ‘the Internet’ however he decided to release the World Wide Web to all – for free! By doing this, everyone had the tools to make websites themselves and you know how many there are to this day. It’s really something to believe that something so important could come from one person, so next time you search something in Google or login to your favourite social media site, maybe give a thought to Tim Berners-Lee.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock – Space scientist and educator, she has worked on numerous projects over her life including instruments to detect landmines, development of new telescopes, measuring wind speeds to understand climate change as well as pioneers her own company to engage all ages with space science. As a child with dyslexia, she was asked by a teacher what she wanted to do when she grew up. When Maggie responded that she wanted to be an astronaut, the teacher suggested nursing instead as becoming an astronaut was too scientific. You could say this made her determined to prove that anyone no matter their race, gender or class could become a scientist. She has hosted numerous series and shows on the BBC regarding space science many of which you can watch online if you’d like to know more!
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