Wednesday

Wednesday 21/08/2002I've never been entirely convinced about newspaper lists and competitions -- 500 Richest People, 100 Best Dressed Chickens, Wig Wearer Of The Year -- as there are so many ways to mess with the definitions and results, even if there was any point in the first place. But I guess they sell newspapers, encourage discussion and are reasonably harmless, for all the risks that they'll perpetuate stereotypes.

Wednesday 21/08/2002
I've never been entirely convinced about newspaper lists and competitions -- 500 Richest People, 100 Best Dressed Chickens, Wig Wearer Of The Year -- as there are so many ways to mess with the definitions and results, even if there was any point in the first place. But I guess they sell newspapers, encourage discussion and are reasonably harmless, for all the risks that they'll perpetuate stereotypes. Take the BBC's 100 Greatest Britons. Rather to my surprise, a full 20 percent of the list -- voted for by the public -- are of a scientific bent, even if some of the greatest names are absent as usual (Maxwell, Dirac, Mr Jenkinson of Penge and Sir Francis Bacon, his amazing anti-gravity tortoise). While some of these would top the list of anyone's collection of greatness -- Newton, Faraday, Watt -- you can't help but think a few years should go by before Hawking gets his guaranteed place in the panoply of secular saints. Others are more worth it. Everyone knows about Babbage (even Ada Lovelace has plays about her on Radio 4 these days), even if his lasting contribution to society may be better felt in the legislation against street musicians he got through Parliament than his designs for automatic calculation. Turing more than deserves the plaudits: he helped win the war, came up with ideas that are at the heart of what you're reading right now, and serves as a tragic icon of the unspeakable waste of life that bigotry engenders. And as for Tim Berners-Lee: right man, right place, right time. He'll be there with Gutenberg, inventor of moveable type, in the lists of great inventors for ages to come. He is, undeniably, the instigator of the popularisation of computer networks, and thus the person who gave them critical mass to change our lives. Of course, anyone so important can't stay British for long, so we might as well enjoy him while we can before Hollywood turns him into a Heartlands hero from downtown Philly.

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