This may seem unorthodox coming from a seasoned physics teacher with an engineering educational background: Charles Darwin is the greatest scientist!
Unfortunately, scant evidence exists for my claim and I’ve already stated and supported my position that Isaac Newton is The Greatest in the first part of this stream of posts. A link to part one is in the previous sentence and this link will take you to part two.
Before venturing further into my argument for Darwin’s scientific supremacy, let’s clarify the difference between evidence and proof; the discrepancies are subtle but distinct. Scientists never prove anything. Evidence accumulates in support of a hypothesis until it becomes a theory. A theory is as close to proven as it gets, but theories are forever under the assault of young upstarts, and old veterans. Perhaps the greatest scientific accomplishment discovers evidence overturning or compelling a theory’s modification.
To say, “Darwin is the greatest scientist” is not a theory—it’s not even a hypothesis. It’s an opinion. Perhaps we should call it a belief; there’s a rationale for the claim, but I’d fail to assemble scientific evidence to support the claim. Basically, you would have to settle for this is how I see it and so should you. I would call it a hypothesis, but there’s no apparent means of testing it; so we keep circling back to the statement, Charles Darwin is the greatest scientist, being an opinion or belief.
I should have said, “I believe Charles Darwin will one day be seen as the greatest scientist.” While this is still a long shot, it’s far from impossible.
The reach of physics is vast: energy, atomic structure, exotic particles, gravitation, and the study of the entirety of space and time. It’s no surprise that the greatest scientists are almost exclusively physicists: Newton, Bohr, Einstein, Faraday, Maxwell…
It’s rare for biologists to get on the greatest scientist list not because they lack scientific prowess; the biologist’s domain is too tiny to compete with physicists. Although we hope life exists in other parts of the universe, as of now, every biological principle we have is confined to a narrow shell of water, land and air in the crustal region of the third planet from an ordinary star in a large, but common, spiral galaxy. It’s probable that one day aspiring scientists will flock to a burgeoning field most likely to be called exobiology, but currently, all biologists must focus their studies near the surface of Earth.
Lisa Randall’s new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs frequently uses the words (and various derivatives) “evolution” and “universe” in the same sentence. She writes things like:
“Improved technology combined with theories rooted in general relativity and particle physics have provided a detailed picture of the Universe’s earlier stages, and of how it evolved into the Universe we currently see.”
“…part of the beauty of the Universe’s early evolution is that in many respects it is surprisingly simple.”
While I’m sure Darwin would be thrilled to learn 21st century particle physicists use language that evolved from his work, it’s doubtful he foresaw such an outcome. Quantum mechanics in general and particle physics in specific didn’t hit full stride until over a half century after Darwin passed away (he died in 1882).
Modern cosmology kicked in shortly after Einstein theorized general relativity in 1915. The idea that the universe could change on a macro level was offensive to Einstein: He manufactured a cosmological constant to maintain a static universe contrary to general relativity’s mathematical prediction of an expanding universe. Ironically, and a bit humorously, Einstein eventually called his cosmological constant the “biggest blunder” of his life. We now recognize the cosmological constant as the first clue that our universe is growing. Einstein was so brilliant that even his misunderstandings qualify for good science.
In 1927, a catholic priest and physicist, Georges Lemaitre, hypothesized the universe arose from a primeval atom. After several decades of accumulating evidence, Lemaitre’s educated guess would eventually become the Big Bang Theory. The theory of an expanding universe appears to have cleared the way for an evolving universe. If the universe can expand, might it also go through changes that are life-like?
I do realize it’s a huge leap from The Theory of Natural Selection to an evolving universe, but it’s not impossible that Darwin stumbled onto something more universal than he thought. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Perhaps a 157-year-old scientific insurgency may be about to discover a higher gear?