Monday, November 25, 2002

NZ pundit discusses the results of the BBC's competition to find the ten greatest (and then the greatest) Briton of all time. I watched the program on the BBC last night where they counted the votes, and the proponents of each of the top ten who put the programs together had a debate.

They cut it down to the last three and got Churchill, Brunel and Diana. They then asked the proponents of the other seven which out of the three they would vote for. (Most went for Churchill). However, I was struck by the comments of Fiona Shaw, who was the proponent for Shakespeare. Firstly she said something along the lines of "I am sad not so much about what Shakespeare missed out on than I am about what the voters missed out on". Then, when asked to choose from the remaining three, she said that "There is no way I am voting for Bob the Builder" (ie Brunel) with this amazing tone of contempt, before voting for, of all people, Diana. I had almost forgotten how patronising and wilfully ignorant British arts types can be.

When I first heard of the contest, I thought it would be between Shakespeare, Newton, and Darwin. On the others, I am a great admirer of Brunel, but number 2 is too high. As for the others, Elizabeth I deserves a high place, but most of the others don't quite compare with the three above. (Diana and John Lennon are ridiculous). As for Churchill, he is problematic. The British revere him, but I am an Australia. I see the second world war from a more Pacific perspective than do the British. I also am more conscious of what happened at Gallipoli, and he did once describe Australians as coming from "bad stock". That said, everything the British revere him for is actually true. He was the man for the hour, and if he had not been there Britain may well have given in or done a deal with the Nazis.

As for people who are not in the top ten, the 20th century person I feel the absence of the most is Alan Turing, who played an enormous part in winning the second world war, and was the key figure in inventing the computer (which is the key invention of the second half of the 20th century). Turing is scandalously underappreciated in his own country. That said, if you look at the list of the top 100, he is at number 21, which is I suppose reasonably higher, although he deserves to be higher.

On that list of the top 100, I have to take issue with James Clerk Maxwell being at number 91. The British, and even the Scots, fail to appreciate the greatness of this man. Newtown got the laws of gravity and motion right, and Maxwell got Electricity and Magnetism, a comparable achievement. (That said, Newton started with less and also invented calculus along the way). Certainly he belongs higher than 91. Hawking certainly does not belong as high as at 25. He is there for celebrity as much as science, I think.

Okay, so who do I think should win? Shakespeare made the greatest contribution to British culture and the English language, but Newton and Darwin revolutionised the way we look at the entire world and/or universe. Five years ago, I would have voted for Newton. However, as the years go by, the importance of the revolution unleashed by Darwin becomes greater and greater. Physics used to see itself as the foremost of sciences. The interesting stuff is today happening in computing (further reasons for promoting Turing) and biology. In the end I have to go for Darwin.

(My education makes me a scientist, and as much as anything a physicist. I suspect you can tell).

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