The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
Newton > Einstein
- Poll among scientists on who’s bigger

London, Nov. 24: British scientists and members of the public consider Isaac Newton made a greater contribution than Albert Einstein to science as well as to humankind, according to polls conducted by the Royal Society.

A spokesman for the Royal Society told The Telegraph that the polls were not to be taken too seriously but the underlying reasons for holding them were serious enough.

The polls are intended to stimulate debate about physics and mathematics, which are being taken up by fewer and fewer students at school and university. It’s a trend India shares with Britain, with information technology being seen by bright students as a more paying proposition than science.

“There is a real crisis caused by the shortage of physics teachers,” the spokesman said.

The year 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of Einstein’s death and the 100th anniversary of the publication of three of his four greatest works, including the theory of relativity with its E equals MC square equation.

Despite all the publicity, Newton won the polls, with the results announced last night at a “Newton v Einstein” lecture at the Royal Society.

Members of the public and Royal Society scientists, both Fellows and Research Fellows, were asked to vote in two separate polls. A total of 1,363 members of the public voted online and 345 Royal Society scientists responded to an email questionnaire.

When asked who made the bigger overall contribution to science the public voted 61.8 per cent for Newton and 38.2 per cent for Einstein and the scientists voted 86.2 per cent for Newton and 13.8 per cent for Einstein.

When asked who made the bigger positive contribution to humankind the public voted 50.1 per cent for Newton and 49.9 per cent for Einstein and the scientists voted 60.9 per cent for Newton and 39.1 per cent for Einstein.

Afterwards, Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society, said: “The poll has certainly generated heated debate. Many would say that comparing Newton and Einstein is like comparing apples and oranges, but what really matters is that people are appreciating the huge amount that both these physicists achieved, and that their impact on the world stretched far beyond the laboratory and the equation. The really important question now is where the Einsteins and Newtons of the future are going to come from'”

The answer, some might say, is India though that is not the preferred option of the Royal Society.

The choice between Einstein and Newton was set up by the society as almost a heavyweight boxing match between “two of the greatest, if not the greatest, scientists who ever lived”.

On behalf of Einstein, Professor Jim Al-Khalili said: “In the space of just a few months during 1905, the centenary of which we are celebrating this year as International Year of Physics, Einstein published several papers that were to change the face of physics.

“Just consider that without this work we wouldn’t have solar panels. So when people say Einstein gave us the knowledge to split the atom and hence nuclear power which many perceive as bad, it is worth remembering he also gave us the knowledge to harness solar power.”

Khalili went on: “In 1910, Einstein explained why the sky is blue! How many people know that' His general theory of relativity, led to a whole new field of science called cosmology and led to ideas such as the Big Bang, black holes, parallel universes and so on. In 1917, he described the theory behind the laser. So he gave us the knowledge to invent CD and DVD players.”

Not to be outdone, Sir John Enderby put the case for Newton.

“The very first thing to note about Newton is the date of his birth, 1642,” he said. “This was the same year as the death of Galileo and some 18 years before the creation of the Royal Society. Thus the transition from an era of superstition, dogma and the persecution of those brave enough to challenge the ancient lore of Aristotle was still in its infancy. But by the end of Newton’s life in 1727, the transition to the modern scientific method had been achieved and in this he himself played a decisive role.”

Enderby then pulled a mean trick and used Einstein’s glowing words about Newton: “To quote from Einstein himself, [Newton] ‘in one person combined the experimenter, the theorist, the mechanic and, not least, the artist in exposition’.”

Email This Page