Who is the greater – Einstein or Newton?

07 November 2005

Seconds out, round one! The Royal Society has set out to establish who scientists and the public think is the greater scientific heavyweight, Einstein or Newton? Relatively speaking, of course...

The Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, is launching two polls about who made the bigger contribution to both science and to humankind. One is an online poll of the public, and the other is a poll of the Fellowship of the Royal Society, who are the leading scientists from the UK, Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland. The results of both polls will be announced on 23 November.

To try and settle the debate, once and for all, as to who is the greater, the Royal Society has set two questions:

Who do you think made the bigger overall contribution to science, taking into account the state of knowledge during his time?

Who do you think has made the bigger positive contribution to humankind?

And it should be a close one. In the rainbow corner we have Isaac Newton, one of the granddaddies of science as we know it today. He played a decisive role in introducing the modern scientific method on which all subsequent advances have been based. He helped to introduce the revolutionary principle that simple laws, supported by experiment, can interact to provide an explanation of the complexity of the Universe. Newton himself put the approach to good use by showing that a universal force, gravity, applied to all objects in the universe. He also showed that white light is made up of a spectrum of colours.

And in the blue corner we have Albert Einstein. Beneath that crazy hairstyle was a brilliant mind that, among other things, explained why the sky is blue. Even more impressively, he gave us a new view of reality itself, with his special theory of relativity. He showed that Newton was wrong about time and space and that both can be stretched and squeezed. Later, he proved Newton wrong again with his general theory of relativity, which explained that the force of gravity causes space and time to curve.

Professor Martin Taylor, Vice-President of the Royal Society, said: "It is hoped that this poll and debate will increase an appreciation of the importance that the work of Newton and Einstein had, not just for physics, but for humankind more generally. We want to reach the public and specifically the young people who are considering whether to study physics at school. Overall A-level entries in physics in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have reached a historical low, with the total for 2005 being 2% lower than in 2004, and 35% lower than in 1991. And that is compared to a rise of 12% in overall A-level entries for all subjects."

The results of both polls will be announced on Wednesday 23 November at 6.30pm as part of the Einstein vs. Newton debate, a public lecture being held at the Royal Society in London. The public can vote on who they think made the greater contribution by logging on to royalsociety.org/einsteinversusnewton/. Polling will close at 4.00pm on Tuesday 22 November.

Full supporting statements, outlining some of the scientific achievements of both these great scientists, can be found on the web site.