Brighter than Isaac Newton?

By Razib Khan | November 30, 2006 10:39 am

In his presentation for Beyond Belief 2006 Neil deGrasse Tyson offered Isaac Newton as his candidate for the most brilliant intellectual ever. Because he is trained as a physicist Tyson can be accused of some bias, but the impact on him personally was pretty obvious, he was emotionally moved just comprehending Newton’s genius. Myself, I would tend to agree with Tyson though these things are always subject to the various weights on your parameters. Who would you offer up? Of the ancients I believe that Archimedes is likely to have been a magician in the mold of Newton. Here is what the great polymath J.M. Keynes had to say of Sir Isaac Newton:

He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.


Comments (19)

  1. Mustafa Mond, FCD

    I have to give a strong vote to Darwin. He shattered the old paradigm in an impressive way.

  2. Archimedes is definitely up there. I would cast a vote for Galileo who too like Darwin, managed a paradigm shift (which in turn aided Newton) in the face of extreme hostility from a powerful church. I am not making a comparison with Newton – just adding to the pantheon of giants.

  3. grigory
  4. i thought of gauss too. the main diff. might be that newton already snatched the ‘low hanging fruit.’

  5. Mustafa Mond, FCD

    I vote for Chet Snicker.

  6. david1947

    I’m thinking that the list is those people who managed fundamental paradigm shift for humanity as a whole. Galileo does not quite make that – his paradigm shift was only for Roman Catholics. So, for all of us, V(x): before x : x : after x (not rigorous, but you get my drift)
    Whoever first made fire without a handy ember.
    Various Greeks, around and specifically Democritus (500 bc ?), who invented the notion that the world around us obeys laws that we can discover.
    Inventor of 0 and positional notation. (India 600 ad?)
    Newton. For so many reasons, but mostly because he made what before him was hand-waving into what after him was real (i.e. useful, practical, of general utility to humanity). nature of light (refraction etc). reflecting telescope. calculus. laws of motion. laws of gravity. orbital math. He made the Industrial revolution possible by providing the tools of thought that brought it about. He was the last philosopher able to study everything, and was the originator and facilitator of the knowledge explosion that made that impossible after him.
    Post Newton? Tough to say, I cannot think of any one person who so fundamentally affected humanity. The obvious ones (in no particular order, and obvious to me anyway), Laplace, Napier, Herz, Maxwell, Pascal, Bohr, Turing, von Neuman, Babbage, Wiener, Knuth, Schottky, Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein, …, brilliantly focussed all, nevertheless very narrow focus. (partial list, based on paradigm-shift enablers vs developers/explicators/exploiters)

  7. You’re not going to like it, but Aristotle. No question about it.

  8. yolio

    yay for aristotle! although truthfully I think the “low hanging fruit” does go for both Plato and Aristotle
    But that Darwin really did something, and he was so thorough!
    R.A. Fisher, a sonuvabitch, but a really brilliant sonuvabitch

  9. A bit off topic. Speaking of giants of science, I have always wondered why in the US, we have so few non-scientific public institutions (parks, libraries, streets, elementary, middle or high schools) named after scientists. In other countries you see them prominently honored. Max Planck in Germany. Einstein, Pasteur and the Curies in France. I have seen streets named after Pasteur and Marconi outside France and Italy. Some college campuses do have streets named after scientists (Van Allen in Iowa City) but even there, literattis fare better than scientists. But I don’t have just campus towns in mind. Why not streets named after scientists in Houston, Miami, Detroit or Omaha? Why not a Linus Pauling federal highway? In the US, its seems that the imagination doesn’t extend too far beyond politicians. Presidents, governors, senators, down to the lowly mayors. And that too only American ones. (Other countries honor great men of other nationalities: Tagore in Israel. Shakespeare, Mandela, Pasteur, Ho Chi Minh and Max Mueller in India. Gandhi in half a dozen countries outside India.) Scientists (as also artists and authors) are conspicuously absent from the American landscape.
    I for one, believe that the US missed a great opportunity of thinking outside its parochial box when it did not exercise its collective imagination in naming the two Space Centers in Houston and Cape Canaveral after Galileo and Isaac Newton instead of the presidential duo, Johnson and Kennedy. (Boring!)

  10. pconroy

    Without hesitation I vote Archimedes…
    In terms of Calculus, I am with those who believe that it was actually invented by Leibniz, rather than Newton. In terms of Galileo, I see him as more a popularizer of Copernicus’s ideas, same as Faraday popularized and laid claim to the findings of John Tyndall.

  11. Lincoln

    I’d put in a strong vote against Darwin.
    What did Darwin really do? Darwin wasn’t a revolution, but merely the next step along a well trodden path. Darwin is totally replaceable. If Darwin hadn’t of done it, Wallace would have. And if not Wallace then somebody else.
    Can the same be said about Newton?
    I think not.

  12. dougjnn

    Well, in response to a list of the 25 greatest or most influential scientists which Mr. Snicker reordered for himself and invited comment upon, I dissented and named Newton as my numero uno edging out his Darwin, and complained bitterly that the absent Archimedes deserved a high spot. : ) So I can’t exactly disagree to much now, can I?
    But as well, Leonardo da Vinci should be way up there. He was one of the earliest modern European great empiricists, which I believe is the core secret of Western civilizational advance in particular, and human post agricultural advance in general. (Not to make too sweeping a statement or anything.  )
    Mark me down for empiricism man. That’s what makes the brilliant leaps of synthesis actually true, as opposed to merely a beautiful mind game.
    Catholic scholastics and Talmudic scholars and no doubt Islamic ones as well were all capable of brilliant mind games.

  13. dougjnn


    Can the same be said about Newton

    Of course it can. It would have taken somewhat longer in some areas and it probably would have required several people rather than Newton’s singular genius, but of course Western civ was going to discover all that Newton discovered. And sooner rather than later as well.
    Leibnitz after all invented (or discovered) calculus at about the same time, and a minority claim slightly earlier.

  14. dougjnn

    Yolio said–

    although truthfully I think the “low hanging fruit” does go for both Plato and Aristotle

    Yeah, I agree.
    But ask yourself this. Why was it low hanging fruit then, and for Newton in his time, but not for others earlier? What had dropped the bough holding that fruit down low, or lifted the eyes of men upward to see it (if you prefer).
    Part of the reason is that we are indeed talking extraordinary individual geniuses in these cases. But part of it as well, and for my money by far the more important part, is that we are dealing with two of the most important inflection points not only in Western history, but in human history.
    It seems entirely possible to me that the individual human with the highest IQ in human history was a medieval scholastic (like Bacon), a Talmudic rabbi or a Confusian or legalist scholar, for example. There are those that claim that Goethe was the greatest genius of all time.
    Yet these weren’t terribly productive areas in which to apply great genius. Testing what works, and realizing that THERE LIES the highest truth, is the key. No amount of brilliance in determining how many angels can fit on the end of a pin will be seen to have been a crucial contribution to mankind a millennia later. The fundamental reason why is any conclusions there or in religion or ideology generally are hard to distinguish from mere preferences. It’s ultimately testing made tangible by what engineers can build (or use to destroy) that makes science something that is undeniably great. Because it undeniably confers competitive advantage, and huge amounts of it.
    The classical Greeks systematized intellectual exploration of the world in an unprecedentedly rational, objective and non religious way. Yes they borrowed extensively from contemporary Egypt and Persia and their predecessor civilizations, but the key was how well the Greeks were able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and then rapidly develop those kernels. To a remarkable extent they dispensed with authoritative prior wisdom and looked for contemporaneous proof and demonstration. Greece was the first civilization to develop a widespread intellectual elite that had become largely secular in the outlook of it’s many leading thinkers, but still passionately curious about universal truth.
    Yet the Greeks had not yet developed a rigorous method of empirically testing natural philosophy. They did do extensive testing in the realm of pure logic and abstraction (logic and math). But not fully in the natural philosophy (embryonic science) of the laws that governed events in the physical world around them. Though Archimedes in the late, declining period of Greek thought was a brilliant exception – if only his work had inspired a whole movement dedicated to furthering, expanding and refining his approach. (Perhaps it did in applied science aka engineering among the Romans, but not so much in the systematic empirical investigation of underlying natural laws.)
    The great inflection point of the 17th century was the Western European invention of systematic scientific method, and the great leaps of not only thought but also practical engineering application that resulted from applying this method. Newton is the singular giant here, though of course he did stand on the shoulders of giants, including Galileo, Copernicus and yes the gritty gatherer of astronomical data, Tycho Brahe. Really of equal importance in making this one of the two most important post agricultural inflection points, were the engineers of the 18th century and the industrialists who backed them, (lets use the traditional James Watt of steam engine fame as an archetypal figure) who showed that systematic exploration of what works in relative disregard for what’s traditionally been done, could transform the world.

  15. dougjnn

    Leonardo da Vinci should be placed way up there.
    One of the first of the great modern European empiricists.
    Empiricism is the key. Systematic discovery of what makes things work. Leonardo was a trail blazer.
    The place of Aristotle in the history of science is illuminating in this regard seems to me. In his day he was a great and brilliant synthesizer. Nothing wrong there. Major contribution.
    Trouble was how he came to influence Medieval thought. The Catholic scholastics made Aristotle the unquestionable authority in the realm of natural, or physical world, philosophy. He became the final world, which no mere contemporary midget should presume to contradict.
    Thus Aristotle became the enemy of scientific progress.
    Wasn’t his fault of course.

  16. pconroy

    Yes, I agree that Leonardo da Vinci deserves to be way up there also.
    Maybe also some non-Westerners like Lao-Tzu of China and Imhotep of Egypt also deserve honorable mention?!
    I would like to nominate other ancients, but mostly their names have been lost to history… like the creator of the Antikythera mechanism or the Chinese water clocks and such…

  17. Chet, what the fuck is wrong with you? 🙂 You’re one strange motherfucker…
    [white patriarchs must always resort to insults -Chet]

  18. pconroy

    Speaking of Imhotep – I just saw this article which makes the case that the the Egyptian Pyramids were likely not constructed of giant quarried limestone blocks, but rather POURED CONCRETE BLOCKS, produced in situ:
    Concrete evidence of Pyramid construction
    Wow, that would place the invention of concrete, some thousands of years earlier than the Romans!

  19. For someone who came up with something that probably wouldn’t have been done by anyone else (for a while), consider Kurt Goedel.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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