Heroes of Science

I found the coolest list the other day (wow, that sounds so cheesy!), it is a site called Science Heroes. There is one page in particular that had me floored: the general gist of it  most important contributions to humanity via lives saved. (I know, I know, lists suck, but this one doesn’t!) The answers might surprise you.

Fritz Haber takes the list with 2.72 billion lives saved. How did he do it? Synthetic fertilizer. If I had to take a guess before seeing such a list, I would’ve guessed Edward Jenner, who came up with the concept of vaccination when he noticed that milk maids who had been exposed to Cowpox did not succumb to Smallpox. Jenner, it turns out, is number 5 with an estimated 530 million people saved. Haber solved, it turns out, a century-long problem that had vexed humanity’s growth: how to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere to be used in farming. It is safe to say that industrialized farming exists in a long chain of cause-and-effects because of this man. His successful discovery of this problem (later industrialized by Carl Bosch, #2 on the list) is what earns him the top spot of the greatest scientists list. The number of people that he saved is hard to understand at an emotional level: 2,720,000,000. Almost 40% of the population of Earth today! Or, 2.72% of all the humans that have ever lived in Earth’s history (100 billion people). Second, as I alluded to earlier, on the list, is Carl Bosch who duly shares in this discovery by mass-producing the process; something which Haber was not able to do. (It’s not all roses, however: Faber was instrumental in the chemical warfare that become the defining feature of WW1 on the German side, so there’s that.)

Norman Borlaug, a name whose most readers of this blog will be intimately familiar, sits at #6, which 259 million lives saved (a priori, I thought he would’ve been much higher). Borlaug is an amazing human being, with some estimates that his Green Revolution has saved an area the size of the USA from being farmed to feed the world’s population. Think about that; without the Green Revolution the environment may very well be in much worse shape today than it is. In other words, how much worse would it have been without his indefatigable determination to breed hardier crops — an affair to which he would dedicate 60 years of his life.

The list over at Science Heroes is long, fascinating, and informative; do check it out. All too often, our histories glorify a Khan, Alexander the Great, and the  Julius Cesar; those who were very efficient at killing people. Rarely, do we applause those who have saved millions, and I’m glad that the fine folks over at Science Heroes have done so.


  1. That’s a good point–we remember the most notorious and those famous for conquest, which sometimes had nasty side effects of death and destruction.

    I went to see where insulin was on the list (~16million). I read a good book about the discovery of insulin a while ago. But what really stuck with me was how awful it was to watch young children die of type 1 diabetes. It was excruciating to read how it progressed. Never saw it in my lifetime (but have heard of it in religious cults–grrr). I can’t even imagine what that was like for parents, to be so helpless facing that suffering. What I mean is there’s not just death, there’s related agony around diseases and starvation too.

    Thanks for the tip, I hadn’t seen it before.

    1. Yeah, it’s a funny thing, isn’t it? Makes sense tho: just as our news today revolves around tickling our amygdala, so it does in history too; those are the things that are found to be most interesting.

      And that is another area where the impact of science is not recognized: quality of life instead of just quantity of life.

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