Skulls in the Stars

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?