Cold, Hard Proof That Science Has Cultural Currency

Cold, Hard Proof That Science Has Cultural Currency – scientists who have appeared on currencies around the world

Edward F. Redish

A STATUE, A PLAQUE, A COMMEMORATIVE chair: Most memorials are a dime a dozen. In this avaricious age, when a country truly wants to honor its own, it reaches for something with real face value. Twenty-five hundred years ago, when the Greeks first made coins with portraits of people on them, only gods and goddesses were considered fit for the tribute. A few centuries later, Caesar had to seize control of the Roman mints before his portrait could appear on denarii. It wasn’t long, though, before mere mortals regularly made the grade: Sir Edmund Hillary is on New Zealand’s five-dollar bill, William Butler Yeats graced the Irish 20-pound note, and Che Guevara gazes heroically from the Cuban three-peso note. Now a few countries have taken to honoring worlds-hakers of another kind: physicists.

Of the more than 20 physicists who have appeared on bills around the world (another 250 have appeared on stamps), only a handful are household names: Copernicus, Curie, Einstein, Galileo, and Newton. Others, like Kristian Birkeland, are a bit more obscure. Birkeland is honored on Norway’s 200-krone note for his pioneering studies of the aurora borealis and Earth’s magnetic sphere. A cynic might quip that the Norwegians must be hard up for heroes. Couldn’t they think of anyone else? But the Norwegians might just as easily turn that question around: Is Birkeland any less obscure or influential than Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the treasury under Abraham Lincoln, who appears on the American 10,000-dollar bill? And whence the American fondness for politicians? Benjamin Franklin is the only scientist who appears on American money, and he earned the honor by drafting the Constitution, not by theorizing about electric charges. Maybe it’s time, in other words, for Richard Feynman, Robert Millikan, or Murray Gell-Mann to be fiscally immortalized. True, the regular denominations are taken. But there is one obvious candidate for another bill, one worth exactly $3.14159265358979323846….

MARIE CURIE (1867-1934) and PIERRE CURIE (1859-1906) CURRENCY: French, 500 francs ($81) CLAIM TO FAME: The Curies were the first couple to win the Nobel prize (in 1903, for discoverino radioactivity); Marie was the first woman to receive the prize on her own (in 1911, for isolating radium and polonium) and the first person, man or woman, to win it twice. Their daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, completed the first Nobel trifecta, winning the prize for chemistry in 1935. Though Marie was a French citizen, she was born in Poland and also appeared on the Polish 20,000-zloty note (worth only 83 [cts.] when last issued, in 1995).

ERNEST RUTHERFORD (1871-1937) CURRENCY: New Zealand, 100 dollars ($53) CLAIM TO FAME: A mentor to many of this century’s greatest physicists, Rutherford was the first to show that atoms have a positively charged nucleus surrounded by a swarm of fighter particles. Rutherford also discovered thoron (an isotope of radon), detected alpha and beta rays in uranium radiation, and with his research assistant Hans Geiger, helped design what became known as the Geiger counter.

NIELS BOHR (1885-1962) CURRENCY: Danish, 500 kroner ($70) CLAIM TO FAME: Bohr created the first functional quantum mechanical model of the atom, for which he won the Nobel prize in 1922. Albert Einstein praised him for his “intuitive grasp of hidden things,” yet the two parted company over quantum uncertainty. God, Einstein famously declared, does not play dice. But Bohr’s view carried the day.

ERWIN SCHRODINGER (1887-1961) CURRENCY: Austrian, 1,000 schillings ($57 when last Issued, in 1983) CLAIM TO FAME: As a physicist, Schrodinger devised equations that define particles as waves-one of the cornerstones of quantum theory. As a biological theorist, he showed how quantum physics relates to genetics in his book What Is Life? He shared the 1933 Nobel prize for physics with P.A.M. Dirac.

ALBERT EINSTEIN (1879-1955) CURRENCY: Israeli, 5 pounds (15 [cts.] when last issued, in 1980) CLAIM TO FAME: A twentieth-century icon, Einstein left behind more than just theories of relativity. He was the first to conceive of the photon and helped lay the groundwork for quantum theory and lasers. German by birth, Jewish by heritage, Swiss by citizenship after 1900, and American by citizenship after 1940, Einstein could plausibly appear on four different currencies. Nevertheless the Israelis were the first to claim him.

OLE ROMER (1644-1710) CURRENCY: Danish, 50 kroner ($7 when last issued, in 1970) CLAIM TO FAME: In 1676, while working at the Royal Observatory in Paris, Romer noticed that the time between eclipses of Jupiter’s moon lo by Jupiter grew shorter when Earth came closer to Jupiter and longer when the two planets drew apart. The speed of light, he concluded, must be less than infinite. Though Romer’s best estimate–140,000 miles per second–was off by about 25 percent, it wasn’t bad for a first approximation.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (1706-1790) CURRENCY: American, 100 dollars CLAIM TO FAME: In the eighteenth century, Franklin was nearly as eminent for his scientific research as for his politics. He was among the first to recognize that there are two kinds of electric charges (positive and negative, as we now call them). He also showed that lightning is a form of electricity and that electric charges are always conserved in nature.

GUGLIELMO MARCONI (1874-1937) CURRENCY: Italian, 2,000 fire ($1) CLAIM TO FAME: Marconi may not have been the first to invent the radio (see Nikola Tesla), but he was the first to perfect it and demonstrate its full potential. Only seven years after designing and building his first transmitter and receiver, Marconi sent messages from England to Newfoundland, winning the Nobel prize for physics in 1909.

NIKOLA TESLA (1856-1943) CURRENCY: Yugoslavian, 5 million dinars, last issued in 1992, during a period of skyrocketing inflation CLAIM TO FAME: An eccentric to some, a genius to others, Tesla gave us alternating current, Tesla coils, and a host of other inventions, although he gets credit for only a few. Marconi is called the inventor of radio, but Tesla demonstrated the essential principles 10 years before him.

MICHAEL FARADAY (1791-1867) CURRENCY: British, 20 pounds ($32) CLAIM TO FAME: The son of a blacksmith, Faraday was apprenticed to a bookbinder at the age of 14 but went on to become England’s greatest physicist since Newton. He discovered some of the fundamental properties of electricity and electromagnetism, coining some familiar terms such as anode, cathode, electrode, and electrolysis, among others.

HANS CHRISTIAN ORSTED (1777-1851) CURRENCY: Danish, 100 kroner ($14 when last issued, in 1967) CLAIM TO FAME: In 1820 Orsted showed that when a compass is pointed at an electric current, its needle will be deflected to one side or the other, depending on the direction of the current. He thus discoverd electromagnetism, paving the way for the motors of modern life.

RUDJER BOSKOVIC (1711-1787) CURRENCY: Croatian, 25 dinars (.5 [cts.] when last issued, in 1994) CLAIM TO FAME: “The greatest Dalmatian scientist of ail time” was an accomplished diplomat and poet as well. He was among the first physicists to accept Newton’s theory of gravity and to speculate about the forces between atoms, and the first to develop a theory of how Earth’s mantle undulates above its molten core–a precursor to the theory of plate tectonics.

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