Which scientist should be on the new £50 note? El Reg weighs in – and you should vote, too

Here's our Top Ten pick of the best of Brits

scientists

Poll This week the Bank of England said it was going to put a famous boffin on a new polymer £50 note, and has decided to ask the public who it should be.

There is even an online form where you can put in a nomination – it will be open for the next six weeks. There are only two rules attached: they must be a) a scientist – covering any field from astronomy through to zoology and b) dead.

They don't even need to be British but we have decided that with the UK's extraordinary history of scientific discovery we aren't going to consider non-Brits (but we have included a list of worthy non-British contenders at the end).

The Bank of England appears to have learned from the highly amusing but ultimately embarrassing Boaty McBoatface incident and has named a panel of four scientific experts to make the decision. But they will no doubt be swayed by the results of the public poll.

So let's dive in: who should it be?

We have taken a quick poll of El Reg's offices to pull together a list and then scoured online discussions this morning to see if we missed any. And then we boiled that down to a Top Ten.

Here they are in alphabetical order. At the end we give El Reg's considered conclusion as to who it should be. And of course because we love our readers, a poll for you to decide.


Charles Babbage

Why?

Put simply because he invented the computer, albeit a mechanical one. As a founder of the Astronomical Society he decided he wanted to figure out a faster way to compute squares and made a small machine that did exactly that.

He thought bigger and ended up creating the Analytical Engine with punched cards that was the beginning of computers as we now know them. It was an extraordinary and brilliant leap of thought and practical action.

It wasn't just computational efforts that made him remarkable though: he was a master of electrodynamics, a first-rate decoder and cracked a critical cipher, assisting with the Crimean War effort. He invented a device to clear tracks in front of trains.

During the course of his career he jumped from theoretical to practical and back again, designing real products based on intellectual insights. He was, in short, absolutely brilliant.

Why not?

He was a bit of a snob. And he absolutely hated street music and in particular organ grinders, sparking him to carry out several campaigns against them. You could imagine him in the pages of The Daily Mail these days complaining about common folk and their awful ways. Of course, taking a stand against awful whining music could also be seen as a plus.


John Logie Baird

Why?

He basically invented television. Now, given the shite that is on the box you might be tempted to hold that against him, but he wasn't to know that people would come up with things like Love Island. What he did was making it possible to send pictures through thin air – which even now seems kind of amazing.

There were lots of people at the time trying to figure out how to do television but he was the one who cracked it and he kept refining his systems until he eventually pulled off a TV signal between London and Glasgow in 1927 – a distance of over 400 miles.

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Having cracked black-and-white television, he then started work on colour TV and achieved a number of firsts there too. He even came up with early version of 3D images. Oh and he invented high-definition TV. Basically, every time you look at a TV, you have him to thank.

He also did lots of good work on other revolutionary technologies including fibre-optics, infrared and radar.

Why not?

He also came up with some stupid ideas: like trying to make diamonds by heating graphite, designing a glass razor (which shattered) and inventing a pair of pneumatic shoes whose internal balloons burst.


Michael Faraday

Why?

He invented the basis of today's electric motors. And refined the Bunsen burner before Robert Bunsen took the credit. And was a brilliant physicist and chemist, despite having had a pretty terrible education. He came from a poor family and simply worked and self-taught his way into the annals of history, often while others were consciously unpleasant and obstructive because he wasn't from the right class.

He discovered benzene and two compounds of chlorine and carbon that we still use today. He was the first to figure out electrolysis, bringing together electricity and chemistry. And it was the interaction between electricity and physical materials that eventually led him to figure out how to create the first electric motor (by way of magnetism) - which pretty much changed life as we know it.

Faraday was also keen to share his knowledge and spent years of his life giving lectures in order to spur intellectual excitement in young minds. He was humble and twice turned down a knighthood. He was, by all accounts, a lovely man.

Why not?

He's already been on a bank note! From 1991 to 2001 he was on the back of £20 notes pictured giving one of his lectures.


Alexander Fleming

Why?

In a word: penicillin. Fleming was an extraordinary biologist and pharmacologist who dedicated himself to figure out how to treat diseases and bacterial infections.

You've probably heard of the old mould-on-a-plate story but what Fleming did, along with Australian Howard Florey and German-Brit Ernst Chain, was figuring out how to mass produce the life-saving drug and these methods opened the door to new drugs that cured diseases that at the time people believed were simply not treatable. He basically created antibiotics. Countless millions of human beings have been saved from horrible deaths from syphilis, gangrene and tuberculosis, among others, because of what he achieved.

He wasn't just a doctor in a lab, however – he worked in battlefield hospitals at the Western Front in France during the First World War and a big part of his drive to find new drugs came from seeing dozens of solders die in front of him from infected wounds.

Why not?

He's already on a banknote – albeit a Scottish one. The back of the £5 to be exact.


Tommy Flowers

Why?

Because he designed and built Colossus – the world's first programmable electronic computer – which Brits used to decrypt German messages during the Second World War, something that was a major factor in winning.

Although he has in many ways been eclipsed in history by Alan Turing – who reached out to Flowers to help him at the codebreaking facility in Bletchley Park – it was Flowers' brilliance at turning ideas into machines that made the difference in cracking German codes.

Flowers took the extraordinary designs and concepts first developed by Turing and added an additional layer of sophistication. He incorporated more electronics, reduced the number of paper wheels from two to one, making it more reliable, and used more than 10 times the number of valves in his new design.

Despite the halcyon stories we tell ourselves about Bletchley Park being where everyone came together for the betterment of humanity, in reality those in charge just didn't think Flowers could pull off his radical design and even tried to get him kicked off the project.

He eventually prevailed and his system ended up being five times faster and more flexible than what they had previously. He then set to work creating an even better version with even more valves – 2,400 in fact – and on the very first day it was up and running it provided critical information that may have changed the course of the war: it cracked a German cable that confirmed Hitler thought plans to land in Normandy – what became know as the D-Day Landings – were a ruse.

That cracked cable is what led to General, later President, Eisenhower to decide to launch landings the very next day. The rest is history.

Why not?

Because even though he was shafted by the authorities despite his extraordinary work – the Bank of England wouldn't loan him the money to build another machine because they said it wouldn't work and he was banned from explaining that he had already made it work because of the Official Secrets Act – his colleague, friend and pseudo-boss Alan Turing was shafted even worse.


Rosalind Franklin

Why?

Because she discovered DNA and was basically screwed over by the scientific establishment when it then gave credit to two men - James Watson and Francis Crick – who basically confirmed her findings.

To be fair, Watson did suggest that Franklin be given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her role but she was already dead by then.

Franklin, with two colleagues, discovered that there were actually two forms of DNA – which they termed A and B – and figured out over several years that they both had a helical structure. Her team managed to get a photograph of that structure and it was that which led to Watson and Crick's famous double-helix model.

Aside from DNA/RNA work, she was also a star in the X-ray crystallography field, which led to her discovering different forms of carbon – something that found real-world applications in gas masks and other products.

Her later work on the molecular structures of viruses resulted in another team member getting another Chemistry Nobel Prize. Because she was dead.

Basically she should have received two Nobel Prizes for her work in two different areas but she got ovarian cancer early and died aged just 37. She has become a feminist figurehead because numerous accounts revealed that she was repeatedly dismissed by male colleagues seemingly only because she was a woman since her actual work revealed her to be a far superior chemist.

Why not?

Because, tragically, she didn't live long enough to put her stamp on her discoveries.


Stephen Hawking

Why?

Because he is the most famous scientist of the new century and because his ability to make world-shaking discoveries while suffering from motor neurone disease is an enduring inspiration for everyone. And because he was in The Simpsons, Futurama and performed with Monty Python, as you can see below:

Youtube Video

Hawking is a remarkable scientist by any measure: he not only developed theories that undercut decades of scientific thought but he was also able to explain them in ways that the wider populace was able to grasp. His books became best-sellers at a time when science was so far from being mainstream that it's hard to imagine how it happened.

The fact that he managed that while his disability slow ate away at him was the most extraordinary living example of how the mind can conquer the physical - which in itself is the perfect metaphor for science itself.

Pretty much the entire world is aware of the frail man, scrunched into a motorized vehicle and forced to talk through an electronic speech box by using his cheek muscle, who managed to redraw mankind's understanding of space and the universe. It's hard to imagine a more extraordinary figure in the world of science.

Why not?

He was a bit of a shit to his first wife. And he was wrong that the Higgs boson would never be found (although, to be fair, he did immediately admit fault when it was).

Next page: Ada Lovelace



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