TimBL on Richard Dawkins' list of giants with big shoulders.

I was struck by this sentence towards the end of Richard Dawkins' latest book The Greatest Show on Earth (page 408 in my UK First Edition). He's summing up, drawing the analogy here between the development of human knowledge with the the accumulation of myriad methods of living produced through evolution by natural selection.

Cover artwork for The Greatest Show on Earth
The world in which you and I live is richer by far because of those who went before us and inscribed their impacts on the database of human culture: Newton and Marconi, Shakespeare and Steinbeck, Bach and the Beatles, Stephenson and the Wright brothers, Jenner and Salk, Curie and Einstein, von Neumann and Berners-Lee. And, of course, Darwin.

His choice of names from history is almost random, one could draw up similar lists that didn't overlap — choose an early and a modern name from any field and you get a similar list, however, these are the ones Dawkins chose.

If I may stray into the naff, I can't help recalling a scene from Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan where Carol Markus is being berated by her and Kirk's son David for her indecision. He appeals to her by putting her at the end of a list of names: "You'll be remembered along with Newton, Einstein, Sorak..." (embarrassingly I can quote that from memory without looking it up I've seen it so many times). Richard Dawkins' list includes Newton and Einstein too but rather than then straying into fictional characters, all his references are, of course, real, with Darwin as the final exclamation mark. But step one name back from his climax.

Although Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are still alive, the Beatles ended in 1970 (arguably earlier but that's for the musicologists). Tim Berners-Lee therefore does rather stand out as the only person in this list of people who have contributed enormously to humanity who is still alive and actively contributing to their field.

It was, of course, TimBL's name that caught my eye (and, I am sorry to admit, Salk, because I've had to look him up. Jonas Salk, 1914 — 1995, American medical researcher best known for developing the first effective and safe polio vaccine). Just another bit of evidence of the position Tim holds and the respect he attracts. Finally in this context it might also be worth noting that Richard Dawkins dedicates his book to Josh Timonen. Who? Why, that would be his webmaster.

September 2009
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