Many adults cannot name a scientist

Dimitri-IvanovskyUSA Today’s Snapshot for 29 June was a survey in which 1000 adults were asked to name a famous scientist. Here are the results:

47% named Albert Einstein
23% could not name anyone
6% named Marie Curie
4% named Louis Pasteur
4% named Thomas Edison

The survey was conducted by L’Oreal, but the methods were not revealed. Therefore it is not possible to determine if the results can be extended to the adult population in general. Nevertheless, the poor showing on naming a famous scientist is an indictment of the science education of those who participated in the survey.

I’m interested in how the readers of virology blog would respond to the question, ‘Name a scientist’ – it doesn’t have to be a famous scientist, and it should not be a relative, or the author of virology blog. Don’t look up someone in a book or online – I’m interested in who you would think of spontaneously. Post your answer – just one scientist – in the comments section, or send it to I’ll reveal the results here in a few weeks.

In attempting to determine how the L’Oreal survey was conducted, I learned about the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Program, an effort to celebrate women who have dedicated their careers to scientific research, and to encourage emerging talent to pursue scientific discoveries. It’s a commendable program, and I do hope they impress upon the recipients of these awards the need to educate the public about their work.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • JRose 2 July 2009, 9:40 am

    Glenn Theodore Seaborg, winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, former cancellor of UC Berkeley, and a damn decent guy.

  • albatross 2 July 2009, 9:41 am

    Steven Hawking was the first name that came to mind, and I'm pretty sure I could come up with more than a hundred names without all that much trouble; I suspect most of your readers could dew the same. But the set of people interested enough in science to read a virology blog is perhaps a slightly different population than the one L'Oreal sampled.

  • anonymous 2 July 2009, 9:41 am

    Richard Feynman

  • Amy 2 July 2009, 9:43 am

    Nikola Tesla

  • Pedro 2 July 2009, 9:43 am

    Neils Bohr

  • Hadley 2 July 2009, 9:45 am

    I thought of Curie quickly followed by VS Ramachandran and Freeman Dyson, for some reason.

  • AbbyK 2 July 2009, 9:47 am

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

  • Jason 2 July 2009, 9:51 am

    It is difficult to comment entirely spontaneously after reading a list of scientists. But assuming the question really is “name a scientist other than the four mentioned here”: I would of course say Charles Darwin! Not mentioned because his name might be synonymous with “agent of the devil” to many, perhaps. Or Fermi. Or Skinner. Or Watson. Or any of the fine fellows after whom units are named: Ohm, Watt, Joule, Newton.

    Or Oppenheimer. Or perhaps my all-time favorite:s Feinman, B. Fuller, and Dyson.

  • theshunter 2 July 2009, 9:58 am


  • Miss Cellania 2 July 2009, 9:58 am

    First thought was my late father, but I can think of plenty I'm not related to. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy Blog. Greg Laden. Carl Zimmer. Alex Santoso. I get all my science from blogs these days.

  • Dman 2 July 2009, 9:59 am

    Carl Sagan
    …was the first name that popped into my head. How about scientists whose names are part of our language and culture? Fahrenheit, Hubble, Hertz, Newton, Diesel, Watt, Bell, Nobel, Darwin, Bill Nye

  • Mike 2 July 2009, 10:10 am


  • Reconscious 2 July 2009, 10:19 am

    Michio Kaku

  • Joe 2 July 2009, 10:26 am


  • JErk 2 July 2009, 10:28 am

    Nikola Tesla

    Lev Termen

  • dillikumar 2 July 2009, 10:28 am

    I know only few people those are unvaluable , namely
    antony van leeuvenhoek
    louis pasteur
    robert koch
    lodish baltimore
    john gregor mendel
    charles darwin
    isaac newton

    edward jenner
    joseph lister
    m s swaminathan
    t h morghan
    hugo de wries
    watson and crick
    alexander fleming

  • Michiel 2 July 2009, 10:29 am

    Richard Feynman

  • John 2 July 2009, 10:30 am

    John Bardeen

  • Baka 2 July 2009, 10:31 am

    Mr. Wizard!

  • Informer 2 July 2009, 10:32 am

    True, though I believe Einstein's was the first to realize what maxwell's equations actually implied. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  • Chromis 2 July 2009, 10:34 am

    Thought of Albert Einstein first, but immediately thought of Nikola Tesla following.

  • Martin 2 July 2009, 10:36 am

    Robert Oppenheimer

  • Capt. Qwark 2 July 2009, 10:39 am

    Richard Feynmann of course.

  • ThatGuyMike 2 July 2009, 10:43 am

    The first name that came to mind when I saw this was Clifford Stohl, an astronomy proffessor at Cal Berkeley who wrote a fabulous book called Cuckoo's Egg about early internet days (2400 baud modem period) when he detected an intruder to their network and he tracked the caller back to a spy in East Germany or something. Very witty story contrasting the hippy, tree-hugger, bicycle-riding professor and the men-in-black, sunglasses wearing FBI guys who show up to work with him in locating the intruder.

    Second name that came to mind is my high school physics teacher, Bill Layton… this dude made his own 1000 watt speaker system and played old vinyl zeppelin records at lunch break.

    Third is the late, great Randy Pausch from Carnegie Mellon.

  • Gawron 2 July 2009, 10:44 am

    Stefan Banach

  • lagrange 2 July 2009, 10:48 am


  • tesla rocks 2 July 2009, 11:05 am

    nikolai tesla

  • anonymous 2 July 2009, 11:09 am

    richard feynman

  • iggy 2 July 2009, 11:11 am

    Kurt Gödel

  • troy 2 July 2009, 11:13 am

    Nikola Tesla

  • Joanna 2 July 2009, 11:14 am

    Jonas Salk, who invented the first polio vaccine. Then again, I'm a historian, so that could be considered cheating. 🙂

  • Rob 2 July 2009, 11:14 am

    Nicolai Tesla. Total badass. Crazy as hell though.

  • Rh1no 2 July 2009, 11:15 am

    Nikola Tesla – a pioneer in a brave new world who's passion and genius was unequaled.

  • Harry 2 July 2009, 11:17 am

    Isaac Asimov had a Ph.D. in biochemistry and was a tenured associate professor in Boston University, school of Medicine. He was a real scientist. Many science fiction writers were scientists first. I don't know about Forsyth or Ludlum and I'm not disparaging them, but when the criterion is 'a scientist', Asimov certainly qualifies.

  • p 2 July 2009, 11:22 am

    Mary-Claire King

  • gReg 2 July 2009, 11:23 am

    richard feynman

  • Patrik 2 July 2009, 11:26 am

    Carl Linnaeus, Christopher Polhem, Anders Celsius

  • Eric Pringle 2 July 2009, 11:30 am

    Eli Metchnikov – discovered phagocytosis in starfish larvae and is one of the fathers of immunology

  • BobTheRJT011000 2 July 2009, 11:45 am

    Turing, Masters and Johnson, Dr Cornell West 🙂 ….

  • ET 2 July 2009, 11:54 am

    Oh come on, let's open it up to include the Otremere!

    Ibn Sina-wrote a medical textbook that was used for 500 years

    Al Battani-by combining Babylonian and Egyptian al jabr (that's algebra for those who la atatkallum alarabi) with Greek geometry, invented trigonometry.

    (If the Arabic is off, I apologize-been a while)

  • Bob 2 July 2009, 12:05 pm

    Werner Heisenberg

  • Fusto 2 July 2009, 12:09 pm

    nikola tessla

  • Fusto 2 July 2009, 12:09 pm

    nikola tessla

  • Anonymous 2 July 2009, 12:19 pm

    Svante Arrhenius

  • Sudu 2 July 2009, 12:23 pm

    CV Raman, one for the indians

  • Adam 2 July 2009, 12:32 pm


  • ~ 2 July 2009, 12:38 pm

    Philip Plait, The Bad Astronomer

    Might have something to do with reading his blog though.

  • Tiki 2 July 2009, 12:39 pm

    Bill Nye!

    But in seriousness, Isaac Newton.

  • Pete 2 July 2009, 12:47 pm

    Nils Bohr is the first that springs to mind for me.

  • Armitage 2 July 2009, 12:52 pm

    Nicola Tesla is my personal favorite. He would have made a great Bond villain.