Which scientist would you most want to have a beer with?

I’m currently away from home at a meeting, so blogging is necessarily light.  I’ve been thinking lately, however, about various scientists and people of reason throughout history that I just flat out admire, and got to wondering which of them I would most like to meet in  a social setting and just sit down to chat with.  And maybe a beer.  So I thought I’d turn this post into a readership poll: which scientist(s), living or dead, would you most like to have a beer with?*  (Or wine, or dinner, if you’re not into beer!)

For me, I’ve got three perhaps unconventional types that stand out:

  1. Reginald Scot (1538-1599).  Scot was born and lived in Kent in the U.K., in a time of rampant fear and ignorance.  Witch-hunts were depressingly common, and tens of thousands were killed as witches during the era from 1480-1700.   Reginald Scot was a shining beacon of reason in this very dark time: after successfully defending and rescuing an accused witch in 1581, he set out to prove that witchcraft did not exist!  He published The Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584, a stunningly ballsy move in an era when the existence of witches was church and government doctrine and arguments to the contrary were very nearly heresy.  He made powerful enemies in the process: James the 1st, of the King James Bible, became king of England in 1603, and was himself a fervent believer.  He wrote his own book, Daemonologie, in 1597 in large part as an answer to Scot’s.  James ordered that Scot’s book be burned, but Scot himself fortunately escaped his wrath, having died in 1599.  It would be fascinating to talk to Scot about what it was like being essentially alone in his rational beliefs.  Also, he would appreciate a good beer: his first book,A Perfect Platforme of a Hoppe-Garden (1574), led to Kent becoming the hop-producing center of England!
  2. Sophie Germain (1776-1831).  Sophie was a brilliant mathematician in an society which could not and would not allow women to be educated as men.  Born into a wealthy Parisian family, she taught herself the works of Newton and Euler (learning Latin in the process) while sheltered at home from the French Revolution.  Prohibited from attending the École Polytechnique when it reopened in 1794, she obtained the lecture notes and began submitting her homework under a male pseudonym, “M. LeBlanc”.  Her brilliance attracted the attention of the famous mathematician Lagrange, who became her mentor.  Germain went on to make significant contributions to the mathematical theory of elasticity and number theory.  The great mathematician Gauss got to know Germain as “LeBlanc” through correspondence as well, and was impressed with the “man’s” talents.  He was even more impressed and gracious when he learned her true identity when she took steps to protect him during a French invasion of Germany; you can read this correspondence in my post here.  It would be a delight to chat with Sophie about mathematics and her struggles as a woman in mathematics in that unforgiving era.
  3. Michael Faraday (1791-1867).  I’ve talked plenty on this blog about Michael Faraday, who was one of the greatest scientists of his time and one of the top experimental scientists ever!  He started life as the son of a blacksmith, and was essentially prohibited from the upper class world of scientific investigation.  While working as an apprentice bookbinder, his requests for a menial job at the Royal Society were ignored but he started his own experiments in the bookshop, eventually attracting the attention of the preeminent chemist Humphrey Davy.  From there, working as Davy’s assistant and personal valet, Faraday would go on to complete the unification of electricity and magnetism, demonstrate the relationship between magnetism and light, and make fundamental discoveries in chemistry, among others.  He was an excellent lecturer, and gave numerous Christmas presentations to students at the Royal Institution.  He was an activist who wrote letters in favor of cleaning the Thames.  He was also a visionary, making intriguing speculations on the nature of atoms and on the unification of the fundamental forces.  I can’t say how cool it would be to just get to chat with him about his views on physics, society, and the natural world in general.

That’s my dream of perfect scientific social encounters!  (Not counting my thesis advisor, who is awesome and I’ll be having dinner with in 10 minutes.)  Now it’s your turn — who would you love to grab a drink with, and why?  Let me know in the comments!


* This post was inspired by Carin Bondar’s regular interview question: If you could have 3 guests for dinner, who would they be?

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14 Responses to Which scientist would you most want to have a beer with?

  1. I’d want to hang out with Hypatia of Alexandria, for my interests in both science and ancient history. I have so many ideas about the culture during the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity and I would love to hear what it was really like to live during that time. And, of course, she was a lady mathematician, scientist and philosopher during a time when, by law, a man could kill his wife with no penalty. How did she get where she was? I can’t imagine what she had to deal with.

    Basically, she just seems like such a brilliant tough cookie, especially for her time. I want to hang out with her!

  2. Blake Stacey says:

    Hypatia was my top choice too!

    Among the famous and more recent set, Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan would have made for interesting conversation (though I have to wonder if Sagan would’ve preferred something other than a beer…). Of those less well-known among non-scientists, the field theorist Sidney Coleman is a candidate: those who knew him speak of him with seemingly unwavering admiration, and in his writing and lectures he comes across as quite the perceptive individual.

  3. IronMonkey says:

    How about Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein ? After two pints of beer, I’m sure the conversation would shift from pure science to several other entertaining topics! But I must admit I would feel intimidated to keep up with these geniuses; so I would simply watch them argue with each other and laugh along with them 🙂

  4. Hannah & Blake: Oooh, Hypatia is a good choice! I’m surprised I didn’t think of that myself!

    IronMonkey: Feynman & Einstein would be an awesome argument/conversation to listen to! It would be especially interesting to see what thoughts the two of them together could have on a unified field theory.

  5. Lucas says:

    Ernst Haeckel, 1834-1919. Someone so polarizing as Haeckel is bound to be an interesting conservation partner. Never someone who eschewed orthodoxies, he was one of the first public defenders of Charles Darwin in Germany. He appreciated the beauty of evolution (and had the artistic capabilities to match). Also, we would disagree on lots of topics. Not the least of which would be his racial theories of evolution. A proper night of drinking should end in a small brawl, after all. Then, after we reconciled our differences, we would brotherly sing songs on our drunken way home.

  6. Great question, DSS. I would have to say Archimedes — seeing his heat ray in action would have been something. Other than that, perhaps Marie Curie. It would be interesting to hear her perspective on being a woman in science.

    This was a fun distraction today!

  7. John McKay says:

    In one of their “Books of Lists” the Wallaces asked some famous people to name ten historical figures they like to have over for dinner. Most lists turned out to be more along the lines of “ten people I’d like to interview and have tell me their most intimate secrets.” Only Vincent Price really thought about the scenario as a successful dinner party and picked ten people based on how he thought they would interact with each other. he worked out the details down to the seating arrangements for dinner.

    When I thought of a great scientist I’d like to have a beer with, Richard Feynman was the first name that came to mind simply because he would be a blast to go on a pub crawl with even if he never said a word about science. Einstein was known to enjoy a beer or two so I like IronMonkey’s suggestion of the two of them together.

    I suspect dinner with William and Caroline Herschel would be nice and the addition of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan would make for some very interesting conversation both about science and about women in science.

    I would not want to go out for a beer with many of the big figures of the scientific revolution. They were, almost to a man, a vain and petty crowd.

  8. John McKay says:

    Ben Franklin!!! Scientist, political conspirator, party boy.

    • Ben Franklin would be *awesome*!!! I would want to meet him simply for his amazing speech at the Constitutional Convention. (I’d probably hug him for it, too, but that might get a bit awkward.)

      It’s a nice and deeper question to try and arrange a dinner party! I hadn’t thought of that as much, but there are definitely some folks that would be great to get together.

  9. Kaleberg says:

    Why would I want such an awkward experience? I’m too much of an introvert to enjoy that kind of thing.

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