The Gonzo Scientist

The Science Hall of Fame

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Science  14 Jan 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6014, pp. 143
DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6014.143-c

Welcome to the Science Hall of Fame (SHoF), a pantheon of the most famous scientists of the past 2 centuries. Unlike traditional halls of fame, this one does not rely on the subjective judgment of a small committee of experts. Instead, it uses an objective and literal measure of fame: the appearance of people's names in books over the centuries. Until now, most rigorous metrics of scientific impact have relied on citations: the number of peer-reviewed articles a scientist has written, the "impact factor" of the journals in which they were published, and how many times other scientists have cited those articles. But that measures only scientists' impact on their peers. This is a new way to measure a scientist's influence. It captures fame on the grandest scale, weighing the cultural footprint of scientists across societies and throughout history.

This became possible only weeks ago with the online publication on 17 December 2010 of this Science paper. (The paper appears in print in the 14 January issue.) A team led by Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden created a data set based on the trillions of words within Google Books, which currently represents 15 million books, 12% of those ever published. After quality checking the data, they created a version that captures a third of that corpus and put it online so that anyone can search for patterns of cultural change reflected in the frequency with which words or phrases rise and fall in the corpus over time. Michel and colleagues call it culturomics, the quantitative exploration of massive data sets of digitized culture. When I learned that one member of their team, Adrian Veres at Harvard University, was studying scientific fame, I teamed up with him to create a hall of fame for science based on rigorous culturomic data.

Before you read further, you might enjoy a few minutes playing with the raw data yourself. (Warning: It is addictive.) Go ahead and type in the full name of your scientific heroes and the scientific concepts associated with them. Note that it is case-sensitive, so "special relativity" is fine, but you should enter "Albert Einstein" rather than "albert einstein." The plots you'll see are the frequency of those names and phrases in the pages of all books published each year between the dates you choose.

This first version of the SHoF is a rough draft. There are classification errors, and many famous scientists are excluded at this point for technical reasons. Also, for the time being, the social sciences are presented only as a work in progress. These quirks are explained here. But what this first draft does do is capture the big picture of scientific fame, at least as reflected in published books over the past 2 centuries.

Do you want to be famous? Then read on. The SHoF offers some surprising career tips for those seeking immortality.

Reintroducing the milli-Darwin

The fame of Charles Darwin is mind-boggling. A scan of the Google Books corpus from 1839 to 2000 reveals that the name "Charles Darwin" appears a total of 148,429 times between the covers of 69,048 books. Put another way, Darwin's full name is invoked at least once in more than 2% of books published in the English language. (I know that is hard to believe, but we have carefully verified it. And it is on the rise. "Charles Darwin" appears in about 4% of English books published in the year 2000.)

Charles Darwin

To be able to compare scientists to one another, it is helpful to have a standard unit of fame. I proposed one that would make this kind of fame easy to comprehend: the Darwin. It is defined as the average annual frequency that "Charles Darwin" appears in English-language books from the year when he was 30 years old (1839) until 2000. Because it is such a big unit of fame, it has proved more convenient to use one-thousandth of that frequency: the milli-Darwin, abbreviated as mD.

This should not be confused with the "Darwin," a unit of evolutionary change. That unit—abbreviated with a small 'd'—was introduced by J.B.S. Haldane in 1949. But this duality serves only to illustrate the very nature of the measurement: Charles Darwin is so famous that he is the only scientist to have more than one unit named after him.

To create the SHoF, Veres faced two challenges. The first was to detect the people in the corpus who are scientists. To do that, he created a set of algorithms that scraped metadata from Wikipedia. For example, you can see such metadata at the bottom of the entry for the neuroscientist Donald Hebb. The second was to accurately capture their mD of fame from the data. You can read the full description of the methodology here.)

Why do we use scientists' full names? Because it captures references to them as individual people. For example, Darwin's name appears in shorter forms in an even greater number of books, from "Social Darwinism" to "Darwinian selection." But including that muddies the waters. Consider the case of Henry Bence Jones, the 19th century chemist. His name is immortalized by the Bence Jones protein, but the man himself only has 3 mD of fame.

The distribution of mD fame among scientists is highly skewed. Like many phenomena—the frequency of words in natural languages, the wealth of American citizens, the population size of cities—the distribution of fame seems to follow a power law. The top 1% of scientists such as Francis Galton (289 mD) and Marie Curie (189 mD) aren't just a little bit more famous than other scientists; they are orders of magnitude more famous. The majority of scientists who meet the minimum requirements for detection by the algorithms that Veres and his colleagues designed—a minimum of 40 occurrences in the books data and a well-structured biographical entry in Wikipedia—have less than 3 mD of fame.

But even 1 mD turns out to be a big unit. Consider Tak Mak, a geneticist at the University of Toronto in Canada, who happens to have precisely 1 mD of fame. He is part of the team that cloned the gene for the human T cell receptor in 1984, which he describes as "the Holy Grail of immunology." Mak, who immigrated to the United States from China in 1964 as a Ph.D. student before settling in Canada in the 1980s, chuckled when he learned that he is the standard bearer for a unit of scientific fame. But he wasn't surprised. Over the years since that breakthrough, his life has changed considerably. "The BBC came over and spent a week filming different aspects of my life, and Nature wrote twice about my lab," he says. And as a prominent scientist in Canada's largest hospital, he gives public talks frequently.

Audio Features

Listen to interviews with scientists across four orders of magnitude of fame—Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Tak Mak, and Luca Turin—at

To get a sense of what life is like at different levels of fame, I interviewed scientists with a range of fame: Luca Turin (0.5 mD), Steven Pinker (35 mD), and Noam Chomsky (507 mD). "Very odd," remarked Chomsky by e-mail upon learning of the high frequency of references to his name in books. "I presume it's mostly political—and probably mostly denunciations."

Career advice for immortality

Marie Curie

Winning a Nobel Prize is the secret dream of every scientist, even for those who dismiss it. For better or worse, it has become the ultimate status symbol, a timeless confirmation of a scientist's impact on the world. So it was a shock to see that scientists who have won a Nobel Prize do not dominate the SHoF. In a list of thousands of the most famous scientists, the Nobel Prize winners are not concentrated at the top. Instead, they are sprinkled throughout.

There are indeed many Nobels among the top ranks, such as Albert Einstein (878 mD) and Max Planck (256 mD). But there are many more Nobel Prize–winning contemporaries of those giants who remain in the bottom ranks of fame—such as Edouard Guillaume (1 mD) and Dickinson Richards (2 mD). About 80% of Nobel Prize–winning scientists have less than 10 mD, and their median fame is not far from that of other scientists who are famous enough to appear in Wikipedia (see this analysis). The only thing that the Nobel Prize seems to guarantee is that the winners' names will at least appear in books enough times to ensure minimal fame.

So don't sweat the Nobel. But if your goal is immortal fame, what should you do? Here are some career tips gleaned from the data:

1. Seek the social sciences; avoid mathematics.

One of the strongest determinants of fame is your field of research (see the data here). The social sciences generate more famous people than other scientific fields. Part of the reason may be that people interested in the social sciences simply write more books. Also, people described as sociologists, psychologists, or linguists—or having made contributions to those fields—are a far more diverse band than for the "hard" sciences such as physics and chemistry. Is Karl Marx a scientist? How about Sigmund Freud? Many consider them founding fathers of sociology and psychology, respectively. But there is a debate within sociology about scientific methods, and many psychologists consider Freud a clinician rather than a scientist. It is because of these uncertainties, rather than any judgment, that we have not yet included the social sciences in the SHoF. But you can download the full data set here and make comparisons.

One thing is clear, even with a conservative definition of "scientist": The top of the fame ranking is dominated by social scientists such as Chomsky—by far the most famous living scientist, as measured by mD. You have to go down the list to Barry Commoner (109 mD) before you find a living scientist from the fields of physics, chemistry, or biology. (Commoner, a professor emeritus at Queens College in New York City and now 93 years old, is a pioneer of ecology and the environmental movement.)

And if fame is the ultimate goal, you should consider avoiding a career in pure mathematics. It is a rather fame-impoverished field. But then again, if you're already a mathematician, you might not care. "I am neither surprised nor bothered," said Columbia University mathematician Michael Thaddeus (0 mD) upon hearing this news. "Our impact has a very long tail." He even dismissed the most famous mathematician on the list, the mathematician, philosopher, and bon vivant Bertrand Russell (1500 mD), author of Principia Mathematica. "He's famous for not doing math!" Thaddeus says.

2. Do good work, but don't get caught up in the citations rat race.

All things being equal, publishing ground-breaking scientific work certainly helps your chances of immortality. But citations are no guarantee of fame. The physicist Edward Witten, one of the most highly cited scientists of all time, has only 8 mD. And consider Paul Erdos (also spelled Erdös), a mathematician who published more papers in his lifetime (over 1400) than anyone in history. He was such a prolific collaborator that all mathematicians today know their personal "Erdos number." Yet he has only 3.5 mD of fame.

3. Write a popular book.

This is a risky business. You'll have to take a year off from full-time research to write a book, says Pinker, and "most of them are never read." But if you can pull it off, writing a popular book can launch you into fame. For most of his career, Pinker was a well-respected psychologist with about 1 mD of fame. But that changed dramatically after the 1994 publication of his book The Language Instinct. "That's when people started recognizing me in the street," Pinker recalls, "and I got an avalanche of unsolicited mail from strangers." And then came the invitations—to write articles on diverse topics, to take part in conferences in other disciplines—and "that was a godsend for me," he says.

In fact, once you've got a scientific career up and running, you might consider switching to full-time book writing. The extreme case is Isaac Asimov. His 183 mD of fame came not from being a biochemistry professor at Boston University, of course, but for becoming a titan of hard science fiction. Carl Sagan (152 mD), Rachel Carson (152 mD), Richard Dawkins (90 mD), and many others show the value of reaching out directly to the public. These days, that could take the form of a blog.

4. Embrace controversy

This is not to say that you should be evil. It is true that culturomics cannot (yet) distinguish fame from infamy. One of the most famous mathematicians, Ted Kaczynski (5 mD), is certainly not famous for his good deeds. You can gain fame through nuclear espionage, like the physicist Klaus Fuchs (84 mD) did, or by killing your scientific rivals, like the geneticist Trofim Lysenko (13 mD) did. But is fame really worth all that? In the words of psychologist Timothy Leary (136 mD), you could simply "turn on, tune in, drop out." Leary's research on psychedelic drugs—not to mention his use and advocacy—led President Richard Nixon to call him "the most dangerous man in America."

But even being associated indirectly with controversy can give a boost. Richard Feynman (47 mD) gained a few mD after his 1965 Nobel Prize. But his fame skyrocketed after he appeared on television during a hearing of the commission that investigated the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Feynman famously demonstrated the faulty O-rings by dropping them in a glass of water. (Then again, perhaps the lesson of Feynman's fame is that scientists should play bongo drums.)

And who could be more controversial than Charles Darwin (1000 mD) himself? Although social tension gave him great discomfort, there can be no doubt that Darwin's fame was propelled by the world-shaking controversy sparked by his theory of evolution. If immortality is what you seek, scientist, then start a revolution.

Science fame: The music video

Video: Science Fame

[For a high-definition version of this video, go to the Science video portal]

In the meantime, be inspired by this view of scientific fame, created for Science by Jonathan Feinberg at Google.

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