Isaac Newton was the greatest, most influential scientist.
This is a fact but not a really scientific fact. There aren’t really any facts—even in science—because the scientific method (question, hypothesis, experiment, analysis, conclusion, evaluation) dictates all ideas must carry some degree of uncertainty. The scientific method never rests. It does get tired after many iterations. If exhaustive repetitions fail to uncover evidence against—scientists attempt to falsify, not support their predictions—a hypothesis becomes a theory: a scientific fact is born. Keep in mind all facts—theory is probably a better moniker; a fact and a theory are essentially the same—are subject to ongoing review.
Any evidence against a theory compels at least a modification, or even abandonment of that theory. The idea that facts don’t exist confuses the general public; it often confounds people with advanced degrees. Most realize the universe is continuously changing, evolving. Facts are part of the universe. Assuming ideas are manifestations of the physical universe, facts should be subject to evolution too.
Why was Newton the greatest scientist? His influential accomplishments were many. In order of estimated decreasing importance, here is what Newton revealed: the nature of light (he even hypothesized light came in particles called corpuscles, a precursor of photons, but he conducted no experiments regarding this belief), the universal nature of gravitation and the laws of motion. He invented (should we say discovered?) calculus too.
Calculus would be a more significant achievment but another bright chap, Gottfried Leibniz, created the same branch of mathematics about the same time as Newton. Had Newton died in the plague—he fled London when the pandemic ravaged the British Isles—calculus would have been Leibniz’s baby, so to speak.
It’s unlikely another scientist would have discovered (should we say invented?) the other three ideas within a few decades. Newton’s color theory of light might have taken a century or more before another scientist discovered it.
If Newton were alive today, he wouldn’t claim to be history’s first scientist; Newton would most likely defer to Galileo. Galileo seems to be the first person we know of to test his ideas. Newton didn’t really do anything distinctly different from Galileo. Newton just took Galileo’s practices to another level.
I’ve never heard an argument that any scientist surpasses Newton’s greatness. Albert Einstein is often considered as Newton’s competition. Einstein was the first scientist to compel a modification to Newton’s gravitation law; it was a cosmetic adjustment really, and it only modified it in extreme conditions. But Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity did do something Newton couldn’t do: Einstein explained the true nature of gravity—a distortion of space-time caused by the presence of matter.
It’s appropriate that we distinguish between laws and theories. It’s likely most people believe laws are superior to theories. Unfortunately, the word theory is often mistakenly applied when the word hypothesis should be employed. A hypothesis is an educated guess; a theory is system of ideas backed up by a vast and complicated reservoir of experiments. In short, and once again, a theory is what we commonly call a scientific fact.
A law is a mathematical system which allows us to make predictions. Laws are powerful scientific tools. Laws have a profound weakness: they don’t explain what’s actually happening, physically. We just know that, as long as we realize the necessary constraints, laws yield reliable predictions.
Niels Bohr is a dark horse candidate to compete with Newton for greatest scientist. What did he do? Bohr was a father of quantum theory. Why not the father of quantum theory? There are many fathers of quantum theory: Max Planck and Einstein to name two more—there are others we should consider too—but neither really accepted the fundamental weirdness that goes with quantum theory.
Bohr was the first scientist to embrace the weirdness, the probabilistic nature of the universe, at the root of quantum theory. Once Bohr convinced the scientific community—not all scientists we on board with Bohr, Einstein was stubborn and never accepted the dicey nature of quantum theory—a vast array of successive quantum theorists continued to build the most explicative theoretical system in the history of science: quantum mechanics.
Bohr is not the father of quantum theory, but he’s the first on the list of potential fathers. Since quantum theory is the most successful scientific system of ideas, it makes sense that the first on the list of fathers is one of the greatest scientists.
It will be nearly impossible to knock Newton of his lofty perch. He had the advantage of getting in at the start of the game. Science didn’t really exist in an organized way when he was born.
The whole discipline rests on a foundation he constructed. Thanks to Newton, the base of science is strong. The only way to supersede Newton may be to discover a new characteristic of the foundation, or something we had not thought about how the foundation rests on whatever is supporting it. In my opinion, there is one possibility for another scientist to take the title of greatest scientist from Isaac Newton.