Britain produces far more than its fair share of world-class scientists.
This was unquestionably the case during the Enlightenment – Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin.
More surprisingly perhaps, given the advancement of other nations in the past three hundred years, it still seems to be true in the twenty-first century.
To take one measure, Nobel Prizes for physics, Britain ranks joint second with Japan at eight prizes so far this century, behind the stand-out leader, the US, with 24, and ahead of Germany and Russia, both with five and France with two. (Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider, hasn’t won one since 1987.)
Another measure might be how many modern scientists you can name.
Whether you are in London, Washington, Moscow or Beijing, there is a strong likelihood that your first, and perhaps only, answer, will be the late Stephen Hawking.
The fact that Hawking himself never won a Nobel Prize is a perfect example of the difficulties of measuring what is ‘world-class’. Because despite missing out on the gong, the physics community is unanimous in seeing Hawking as kind of a big deal.
There a couple of reasons why that’s the case.
So, what of his Britishness? Hawking studied in America for much of his career. Is his nationality incidental, coincidental, irrelevant? To which the answer is probably, yes, maybe, no.
Unlike Einstein whose ideas sprung from the relative intellectual isolation of his work as a patent clerk in Bern, Hawking won a scholarship to his father’s old college, University College, Oxford.
Since the college didn’t offer mathematics (!) he settled for physics. He studied for a time under English astronomer Fred Hoyle, and his passion for singularities and black holes was initiated when he attended a lecture by English mathematician Roger Penrose, who had just released a seminal paper on space-time singularities.
Hawking came from a free-thinking ‘bohemian’ family, where all fields of human endeavour were regular meal-time fodder, from maths to theology.
At the age of 32, he became one of the youngest fellows of the Royal Society, an accolade he shares with many of those Englishmen of the Enlightenment who introduced the scientific method more than 300 years earlier.
The complex interplay of family, society, culture, history, educational establishments and scientific institutions in producing great scientists is impossible to unravel. What seems clear is that the British condition, for whatever reasons, has proved conducive to scientific accomplishment, over a prolonged period. That’s worth recognising.