Scientists are the unrecognized benefactors of humanity. How many laypeople will recognize the name of Fritz Haber or Karl Bosch? Togetether they’re estimated to have saved over a billion lives. What about Norman Borlaug? He saved over 259 million lives. Ann Holloway, Samuel Katz, Kevin McCarthy, Milan Milovanovic, Anna Mitus, and Thomas Peebles? Together—over 100 million lives. Andreas Gruetzig? 15,400,000 lives. These people invented synthetic fertilizers, new breeds of wheat, measles vaccines, angioplasty, and so on.
The average person might recognize the name of Edward Jenner, who popularized (but perhaps didn’t invent) smallpox vaccination, thereby saving an estimated 530,000,000 lives; and they’d probably recognize Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, whose polio vaccines saved the lives of over a million people, but I bet you could stop a college student, give them those three names, and none would be recognized.
You can see their stories, and read about (or question) the numbers of lives they saved, at the Science Heroes site. Click on Nils Bohlin, for instance, and learn how his improved three-point seatbelt, produced while he was working for Volvo, is estimated to have saved over 1,300,000 lives:
Now you can question the figures, but there’s no doubt that many lives were saved by antibiotics, smallpox vaccinations, and so on. Sometimes the innovations were sought deliberately, like polio vaccine, and others came accidentally, like penicillin, but it doesn’t matter. What these data do show is that, in the only way that matters to many people—human lives saved or improve—science has made a difference.
When I give lectures about science, I often ask people raise their hands if they would be dead if it weren’t for antibiotics, and many hands go up, for simple infections killed many people before there were these drugs. If you asked people how many would be there if formal science didn’t exist, well, probably everyone could raise their hands, but many of the innovations that kept us here are unrecognized—like having obstetricians simply wash their hands.
Are these people heroes? Well, they didn’t risk their lives, and of course had they not lived, someone else would have produced their innovations. In those senses they differ from traditional heroes. But no matter; what’s important is that science works, and Science Heroes shows that it works to save lives. Can you think of any other area of intellectual or practical endeavor that has improved the lot of so many people? Theology? I don’t think so.
h/t: Nicole Reggia