Are You a Famous Scientist?

John is a Science contributing correspondent.

You've heard of Charles Darwin, of course. But have you heard of evolutionary biologist Ray Lankester? How about physicist Balfour Stewart? Probably not.

And yet they were very famous scientists in their day. If one could somehow capture the evolving fame of these three men through time, how would they compare? Now, using a method described today in Science, researchers show that fame can be rigorously measured across history. On average since they each arrived on the scene, Ray Lankester and Balfour Stewart have been 17.5% and 12.4% as famous as Darwin, respectively. See for yourself on our Interactive Science Hall of Fame.

Credit: Jonathan Feinberg
Want to see the evolution of the fame of the most prominent scientists over history all at once? We thought you might. Jonathan Feinberg at Google created this animation for Science. The size of the scientists' names are determined by the frequency of their appearance in books published each year between 1850 and 2000. The names are color-coded by the year of the scientist's first fame and organized alphabetically. More Science News Videos

The data comes from Google Books. A team led by Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden, mathematicians at Harvard University, used quantitative methods to explore linguistic and historical patterns within 500 billion words from digitized books published between 1800 and 2000. They call this new data-driven approach "culturomics." According to Anthony Grafton, a historian at Princeton University and the president of the American Historical Association, many humanities scholars consider this disciplinary encroachment by scientists as "the coming of the antichrist." Still, he plans to promote it as a valuable new tool.

Regardless of one's views of the approach, it certainly makes some fun analyses possible. Take, for example, the "Science Hall of Fame." That's a project I teamed up on with one of the co-authors of the Science paper, Harvard undergraduate Adrian Veres. He created the computer algorithms that generated the initial candidates, and then we both curated and statistically analyzed them. To compare the fame of scientists, we used a unit called the milli-Darwin (mD), which is one thousandth the average annual frequency of "Charles Darwin" appearing in books from 1839 (when Darwin was 30 years old) until the year 2000. For example, Balfour Stewart's fame trajectory looks like this. The average frequency of his name in books from the year in which he was 30 years old until the year 2000 amounts to 124 mD. Lankester's fame is 175 mD. You can read all about the nuts and bolts of the project in the Gonzo Scientist story.

Are you a famous scientist? How about your Ph.D. adviser? You can explore the data yourself at the Interactive Science Hall of Fame. *

So what's it like to be a famous scientist? To find out, I interviewed scientists with a range of culturomic fame.

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Luca Turin (0.1 mD of fame)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) biophysicist who studies smell discusses the dangers of even a small amount of fame:

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Tak Mak (1 mD of fame)

Geneticist at the University of Toronto in Canada, the first to clone the T-cell receptor, discusses how a scientific breakthrough can change your life:

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Steven Pinker (35 mD of fame)

Harvard University psychologist discusses the impact of writing a book and the importance of having good hair:

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Noam Chomsky (507 mD)

MIT cognitive scientist and philosopher, discussing the tradeoff between scientific and political life and the "vicious" attacks against Bertrand Russell:

*If scientists are missing, it is probably because they do not meet the minimum requirements: First, their full names must appear at least 40 times within the data set (representing 4% of books published between 1800 and 2000). Second, they must have a Wikipedia entry that is well-formed and sufficiently detailed for the algorithms to detect them as scientists. There are also technical reasons for exclusion. For example, no matter how important and famous a scientist named John Smith might be, his unique identity cannot be distinguished from all the other John Smiths of history and is thus automatically excluded by the quality-control algorithms. All technical details of the Science Hall of Fame live here.