Friday, August 9, 2013

My favorite scientist, and related ruminations...

By Jim Heffernan

Today we ask the question, inspired by a fragment heard on public radio, “Who is your favorite scientist?”

Hmmm. I’ve accumulated many “favorites” in various fields over the years, but never thought to select a favorite scientist. Maybe that’s because I’ve never taken to science that all much.

Of course most of us are forced to study science in school. That was always a struggle for me. I did learn to avoid science whenever I had a choice, like in college where you can emphasize other disciplines, but even in higher education you’ve got take some science courses to fill out your curriculum.

I took as little as possible, did poorly, and moved over to the English department by way of the department of Social Sciences, a science that has nothing to do with science in its classical sense. I am not regarded as a social scientist, even by myself, although if forced to choose, I am my favorite social scientist.

Got that?

So now to choosing a favorite scientist. As I think about it, I have identified one (to be revealed later). But it took a while, as I ruminated about scientists I know, even if only slightly. At first I couldn’t think of any, but then Albert Einstein came to mind, of course. He was probably a physicist, but all physicists are scientists even if all scientists are not physicists.

Albert Einstein
I suppose Einstein is the No. 1 scientist of all time, or at least modern and post-modern times. I’m old enough to remember him quite well when he was still alive, his wild hairstyle way ahead of its time, which was the first thing you noticed about Albert Einstein when he showed up in the newsreels of my youth. Who knew that by the late 20th and early 21st centuries half the males you see on the street would have Albert Einstein hair? Especially those interested in the guitar.

Still, hair is important when it comes to being a scientist. And as any reader who bothered to get this far will see, it plays an important role in my final selection for favorite scientist.

But first, allow me to describe my elimination process. After Einstein, I thought maybe Niels Bohr would be a good favorite scientist to choose. I forget what Bohr did in science but if I know the name it must have been plenty impressive. Enrico Fermi? Same difference.

Then there’s Linus Pauling, who is deeply respected for many serious scientific things, I think, but I remember him mainly for saying that Vitamin C taken in huge quantities would prevent, or cure, a cold. Not a cold front, but a “common” cold that results in sneezing, coughing, and the running of the nose together with a feeling of malaise, achy bones and general misery. If the foregoing seems like I know a lot about the common cold, rest assured that I do. Don’t we all?

After Pauling suggested taking mega-Vitamin C to cure them, I tried it one cold, maybe even two or three colds. After all, Linus Pauling is a great scientist, so why not do what he does to combat the common cold?

But it didn’t seem to work for me, and I gave up the Vitamin C regimen. Nothing works for a cold, I concluded, and even gave up on Vicks Vapo-Rub some years ago.

But we need a favorite scientist, not the best cold nostrum. A person could go way back to Gallelio or Newton, I guess, but they seem old-hat, so I won’t choose either one as my favorite scientist.

But now the suspense is over. I will reveal my favorite scientist. It is Christopher Lloyd. Christopher Lloyd is the actor who portrayed the eccentric scientist in the “Back to the Future” movies. 
Christopher Lloyd & Michael J. Fox
in the movie, "Back to the Future"

No one does science better than Lloyd. He’s got the wild hair and the desperate look in his eyes that might, in another forum, recommend Vitamin C for a cold. His laboratory, or garage, or whatever, was filled with scientific looking junk, and he moved around it in rapid herky-jerky motions just like scientists should if they know their stuff. He harnessed lightning, for crying out loud. Only on screen, I admit, but not since Dr. Frankenstein has anyone so effectively harnessed lightning.

Dr. Frankenstein, by the way, is my second-favorite scientist, another movie character. “He’s alive! “He’s alive,” he cries as the monster he’s pieced together from grave-robbed body parts begins to stir after his encounter with lightning up on the roof of the laboratory. For the record, Frankenstein is the scientist not the monster, a fact that has been overlooked by just about everyone.

I must say Dr. Frankenstein takes the No. 1 prize for having a lot of scientific-looking test tubes, vials and coiled wires in his laboratory.

But my vote for favorite scientist still goes to Christopher Lloyd. Who’s yours?