In honour of Sir David Attenborough’s 94th birthday last week, I decided to write a piece about all the scientists who have somehow shaped my view of the world. Of course, my passion for the environment wouldn’t be as fervent or well-informed without many non-scientific public figures (such as environmental activists and indigenous peoples who act as custodians over the land), and also the wonderful educators I encountered at university. Nonetheless, the achievements & breakthroughs of the renowned scientists on this list have had a remarkable impact on my view of the scientific field, and have therefore had some role in helping me get to where I am today. Read on to find out how they have inspired me:
- David Attenborough – Attenborough is probably the scientist who has influenced me the most. He has achieved amazing things over the course of his career, and inspired so many people from across the globe. He is one of few life-scientists who is very much a household name, all due to how enchanting and eye-opening his TV shows are. Growing up, his shows were like the portal to a magical kingdom – but unlike Narnia and Hogwarts, his stories were real. Watching his shows always provided me with a great deal of peace during difficult times, and after one episode, you couldn’t not fall in love with the natural world. It was largely thanks to his shows that I wanted to learn more about natural environments, and get involved in conservation, and then even study Biology in order to do so. I truly believe that I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the work of David Attenborough
- Marie Curie –Her chemical discoveries were integral for allowing us to advance medical technologies, and she accomplished all of this before Women’s Rights were fully granted. Additionally, she was the first woman to be awarded a Noble Prize, and had to endure a lot of struggles in order to make scientific discoveries that were acknowledged my her mostly male peers. All of this makes her a great female figure in science.
- Steve Irwin – although he’s probably remembered more as an iconic TV personality than a scientist, he had a pretty profound effect on my perception of animals growing up. The Crocodile Hunter’s shows probably would have been seen as somewhat problematic if released today, but they did give me my first taste of animal education, in a way that was exciting and definitely left me wanting more. Irwin was an avid conservationist and educator, and although he passed away when I was only ten years old, I can still easily recall the sound of his catchphrase (Crikey!) just from seeing it on a screen.
- Wangari Maathi – this real-life wonder women used her Biology degree & turned it into a life of environmental activism. As the founder of the Green Belt Movement in Africa, she helped plant over 30 million trees – an amazing feat for climate justice. Not only this, but she has also fought for women’s rights and other politically oppressed groups, as well as the environment. As such, this scientist is a great example both in their career, and their personal and political life.
- Rachel Carson – I first learned of this scientist whilst at university, when I was taught about her book “Silent Spring”. This book had a profound effect on society, changing the way that certain chemicals could be used. Carson was able to have this impact on the world because she had an amazing and unique ability to combine evidence and observations with poetic and creative writing, making her scientific findings a compelling experience for all readers. She practically founded the idea that of changing industrial practices to prevent poisoning the environment. She was called an alarmist by some, but in the end, her voice won.
- John Muir – I learned of this naturalist and environmental philosopher when reading about a lot of his work for a conservation class in uni. Reading about his love of the wild highlighted my own adoration for it, and I found it very easy to connect with his passion for nature. Muir was ahead of his time, because although he died way back in 1914, he spent much of his life fighting to protect the wilderness, to prevent it falling victim to increasing development and pollution. His lifework was vital in increasing the amount of space that was given National Park status in the US, and as such, he is responsible for preserving a lot of wildlife.
- Jane Goodall – having studied Chimpanzees in their natural habitats for over 40 years, she is the world’s expert on these animals. I read one of her books about halfway into my degree, and found it to be so enlightening, but also astonishingly fascinating. Much like Carson, her books bring science to life. Her work has been hugely helpful in the understanding of animal behaviour, which is a very important aspect in strengthening the bond between humanity and the natural world. Plus, she has done a lot for conservation, and acted as a great role model for female conservationists to look up to.
- Stephen Hawking – with essentially no background in Physics, I don’t really understand or know a great deal about his work. However, seeing someone overcome so many obstacles and yet still be an expert in their field is remarkable. Even in modern times, STEM is an area that tends to be very much dominated by white, able-bodied males. This field needs far more diversity, and a better balance of genders, races, and sexual orientations. But it also needs to be more open to people with disabilities. One thing that I love about Hawking is that he proved that people with disabilities are fully capable of contributing to science.
- Christina Figueres – although her background (in Anthropology) is quite different from mine, she has recently become a really great role model for me. I only discovered this person a few months ago, when I started to listen to the podcast Outrage and Optimism (which I would very much recommend listening to). Since then, I’ve found her ideas and stories to be very thought-provoking. Her achievements and her life’s work have been extremely important for attempts made to solve the climate crisis, and its for this reason that she may just be as important to me now as Attenborough was for me at 15.
- Charles Darwin – has been termed as “The Father of Evolution”, and his work was frequently referred to throughout my uni classes. Although I think his findings are very interesting, it isn’t exactly his Origin of Species that I find to be the best part of his scientific career. Rather, as an environmental activist, it is actually his bravery in standing by his science despite mass scrutiny. Many scientists on this list can also be praised for this, but perhaps none as much as Darwin himself. For his work denounced a very strong belief for many, and as such was widely reviled. The resistance that Darwin’s ideas faced is something we can see today in climate denial and inaction – the science has shown us how urgent and devastating this issue may be, and yet people continue to ignore it.
But since Darwin has been remembered as a respectable, correct, and important contributor to the Biological Sciences, this reaffirms that those who today fight against cultural norms and powerful organisations for the sake of climate justice (such as Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg) will also be revered in the history books.
So which scientists have inspired you in your life? Is there anyone you feel I forgot to mention? Let me know in the comments below.