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Crypto mirror on the wall, who’s the smartest of them all?

Can scientists out-perform sports stars, musicians and politicians in recognition and influence? You bet they can!

A recent BBC TV series entitled Icons asked the question, “Who was the greatest person of the 20th century?”

That’s a huge and controversial question in any country, in any language, in any category – and, as you can imagine, the answer’s even bigger, and no doubt even more controversial.

There were seven categories: Artists & Writers, Sports Stars, Activists, Entertainers, Scientists, Explorers and Leaders.

The nominees had to be both important and influential – people whom you’d recognise not only for being top in their field, but also for the significance of what they did.

For example (these are off the top of our head): George Orwell, Jesse Owens, Mohandas Gandhi, Dame Vera Lynn, Rosalind Franklin, Sir Edmund Hillary and Nelson Mandela.

In fact, only one of the people listed above made the final seven…

…and didn’t win.

Popular votes of this sort should always be taken with a pinch of salt – especially when they’re presented by the BBC and the majority of people voting are British.

Indeed, the final winner was British, but we’re still pleased and proud that he won, no matter how reasonably our transatlantic friends might complain that he enjoyed a unfair home-ground advantage.

For better or worse, all the finalists were men, so you can immediately rule out Rosalind Franklin (who died too young to receive the Nobel prizes she surely deserved) and Vera Lynn (the Forces’ Sweetheart) from our off-the-cuff list above.

Nevertheless, we’re delighted at the identity of the ultimate winner for several reasons: he was a scientist, he pretty much invented both the theory and early practice of the entire field we work in, and he made a profound contribution to the defeat of the Nazis during World War Two, despite working in inauspicious circumstances in a collection of rank, damp huts at Bletchley Park in England.

Like three of the other six finalists, he suffered from the hypocrisy of his own government during his lifetime; like one of the other finalists, the prejudice against him led to his own tragic and sudden death.

How much more he might have achieved had the establishment not turned its back on him!

You’ve probably guessed who we’re talking about: the man who pretty much invented the field of computer science and the concept of machine intelligence, before modern computers even existed.

If that weren’t enough, he went on to become a pioneer in the development of early electronic computers, after the years he spent serving both his country and the field of cryptography during World War Two.

And the winner is…

That’s right – the BBC Icons winner, the most important and influential person in the 20th century, was Alan Mathison Turing.

In case you’re wondering, the BBC’s Top Seven were, in the same order of categories as above: Pablo Picasso, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., David Bowie, Alan Turing, Ernest Shackleton and Nelson Mandela.

We’re delighted to see a scientist win, rather than a sports star or politician – you have to admit that beating Messrs Ali and Mandela is a tall order! – because…

…well, because science.

So, in case you were wondering, scientists really can change the world, and change it for the better, too.


Image of Bletchley Park courtesy of Wikipedia


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