Which scientist should be on the new £50 note? El Reg weighs in – and you should vote, too

Here's our Top Ten pick of the best of Brits


Ada Lovelace

Why?

She was the first computer programmer. She worked on Babbage's Analytical Engine and had the extraordinary insight that she could make it doing something beyond pure calculation, that numbers could be used to represent something other than quantity.

We know this because she wrote down her insights and published them. Apparently Michael Faraday (see above) was a fan. We also have her notes for Babbage's machine that represent the first algorithm every produced.

In one note she considered how a computer could be used in connection to music – an absolutely unheard of connection between science and art at the time: "Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent," she mused.

It's safe to say that pretty much every aspect of modern computing – from the computer you are reading this article on, to the telecommunications network that brought it to you – stemmed from this insight.

And in case you were wondering how she was able to make that leap, there's another great fact: she was the daughter of legendary poet Lord Byron. She was a pretty remarkable woman.

Why not?

Some claim that her impact has been overblown and that she was more of a Steve Jobs figure – able to brilliantly understand and explain what could be done with new technology rather than an original developer of ideas.


Isaac Newton

Why?

He was the original superstar scientist covering a range of different fields with apparent ease – from maths to physics to astronomy and beyond. He was also able to put thoughts down on paper, which made him the author of countless scientific concepts and ideas.

It is hard to overstate his contribution to science: he developed the principles of modern physics. He figured out gravity (yes, he's the apple guy). He figured out how light makes colours for goodness sake. He built one of the first telescopes. He explained how stars and planets move around, why we have low and high tides, and much more. He's the guy that Steve Jobs idolized.

There's not much more to say: he's Isaac Newton.

Why not?

He's already been on a bank note: he was on the back of £1 note – the most common note in the UK (and still missed) for ten years between 1978–1988. He died in 1727: maybe it's time to give someone a little more recent a go.


Alan Turing

Why?

Because he may have single-handedly saved Britain from being overrun by the Germans in the Second World War with his code-breaking work. Because he was the creator of ideas and technologies that will define the next 100 years of humanity. And because he was treated appallingly by a homophobic government and deserves the highest levels of recognition that he was denied when he was alive.

Turing was a brilliant mathematician who was able to see what some others – like Ada Lovelace – could see in computers: the ability to go far beyond computation and into new realms of understanding. He is the father of artificial intelligence.

In many ways he represents Bletchley Park – the code-breaking center that cracked German communications during the Second World War and may have helped turn the war. His achievements are the epitome of how the mind and intellectual rigour can be used to defeat man's very worst impulses.

Turing devised the techniques that enabled the Allies to crack extremely complex encryption methods used by the German to communicate war plans. When they did, Britain had an enormous strategic advantage over Germany – one that some estimate shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives.

After the war he wrote the first chess software program – but no computers at the time had enough computational power to make it work. He also undertook groundbreaking work in mathematical biology. And he could well have use his genius in remarkable ways as the power of computing exploded and scientific breakthroughs in biology and chemistry started appearing.

But in a tragic turn of events, the fact that Turing was gay ruined his life. At the time homosexuality was illegal and he was prosecuted in 1952 for gross indecency – for simply acknowledging he was in a gay relationship. He was given a choice between jail and "chemical castration" – basically injections of synthetic estrogen designed to kill off his libido.

The conviction meant he had his security clearance taken away and he was barred from carrying out the work that was so central to his existence and for which he would posthumously become world famous. He wasn't allowed to enter the United States. And he was not allowed to talk about his code-breaking during the war, nor was he acknowledged for his extraordinary contributions.

In 1954, just days before his 42nd birthday, he was found dead in his apartment from cyanide poisoning. More than 50 years later, in 2009, the British government formally apologized for the way he had been treated.

If he was put on the £50 bill, Turing would appear on the other side of the UK's largest bank note to the monarch that posthumous pardoned him in 2013.

Why not?

He's already had an enormous degree of recognition in recent years, including a blockbuster movie.


So, with our Top Ten scientists listed above for the honour of being placed on the £50 note, we turn to El Reg's recommendation.

Faced with Top Ten list above, and after yet more enthusiastic disagreement about whether the list was right, here are the results in order of preference:

  1. Ada Lovelace
  2. Tommy Flowers
  3. Alan Turing

But what do you think? Fill in the poll below:

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And here's our list of notable, worth, and lesser-known non-British contenders:

  • Rachel Carson (American biologist)
  • Enrico Fermi (Italian/American physicist)
  • Margaret Hamilton (American computer scientist)
  • Grace Hopper (American computer scientist)
  • Edwin Hubble (American astronomer)
  • Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (Russian rocket designer)
  • Lise Meitner (Austrian-Swedish physicist)
  • Maryam Mirzakhani (Iranian mathematician)
  • Jonas Salk (American virologist)
  • John von Neumann (American-Hungarian physicist)

We also note that some idiots are arguing that Margaret Thatcher should be chosen because she started her career as a chemist. The less we hear of that, the better. ®


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