Who is the greatest genius?

In the Summer issue of BBC Focus Magazine, we're asking you to choose your top genius of all time. But before you vote, read more about the 15 nominees.

4th July 2014
Who is the greatest genius?

In the Summer issue of BBC Focus Magazine, we're asking you to choose your top genius of all time. But before you cast your vote at /greatestgenius*, find out a bit more about the 15 nominees...

*This poll is now closed

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)

Nominated by Michael Mosley, writer and presenter of Trust Me I’m A Doctor

"Kepler was the person who made sense of astronomy. He realised, following in the footsteps of Copernicus, that the Sun is not the dead centre of the Universe and that the planets go round in ellipses. He was a wonderful, weird character: incredibly short-sighted and yet he gazed at the stars. He would get into fierce debates with Galileo about tides and why they happen. Kepler quite correctly said that it’s because of the Moon – he basically predicted gravity..."

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Nominated by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Director of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL

"Rosalind Franklin systematically, methodically and meticulously spent many years encoding or deciphering the structure of DNA using X-rays. It was her pictures, her X-rays, that made Watson and Crick absolutely certain about the structure of DNA. They were close but they needed the evidence. They were theoreticians, but her work was the real data that solidified what they had been getting to..."

John Sulston (1942- )

Nominated by Alison Woollard, Lecturer in genetics and presenter of the 2013 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

"John Sulston is a biologist who won the Nobel Prize in 2002. The thing that sets John apart is that whenever you speak to him or read his writing, he’s always extremely generous about recognising that science is done by teams and communities. But actually, it was his individual work that really set the field on fire. His single-minded determination is what sets him apart; to see a really big problem, and say ‘let’s get to work and do it’..."

Bernhard Riemann (1826-1866)

Nominated by Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford

"Riemann pioneered what’s called ‘high-dimensional geometry’, which was absolutely key to Einstein’s breakthrough on relativity. He understood how you can go from three dimensions to four to five to 11. That insight is absolutely extraordinary – using a mathematical language to go from the physical world around us to geometries in higher dimensions. It’s crucial for physics and, without it, Einstein wouldn’t have had the maths to develop his ideas..."

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Nominated by Heather Williams, medical physicist at Central Manchester University Hospitals and director of ScienceGrrl

"Da Vinci was a mathematician, engineer, botanist, cartographer and much more, so it’s hard to single out one achievement. He was remarkable really. This is a guy who had no formal schooling. His trade was a painter and he learnt what he did through deduction. I nominate him as my favourite genius not just because he excels in so many different spheres, but because he shows us what science is really all about..."

Thomas Young (1773-1829)

Nominated by Martyn Poliakoff, Research Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham, Foreign Secretary and Vice-president of the Royal Society

"Young’s main claim to genius is his work on the nature of light... but Young also made important breakthroughs in other areas. He gave his name to the ‘Young’s modulus’, a measure of elasticity [and] he was also an Egyptologist who made key contributions to deciphering the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone. Lots of people dabble in different areas, but it was his ability to make a real mark in all of them that sets him apart."

James Lovelock (1919- )

Nominated by Robert Matthews, Focus columnist and Visiting Reader in Science at Aston University, Birmingham

"Lovelock is most famous for his Gaia hypothesis: the idea that organisms and the planet they’re on interact to keep it suitable for life. People talk a lot about Stephen Hawking and Peter Higgs. They’re really smart guys, but what they’ve discovered isn’t going to change our lives in any direct way. Lovelock’s work is both universal and relevant to all our lives through its implications for the environment..."

Marie Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934)

Nominated by Maggie Aderin-Pocock, research fellow at UCL and presenter of The Sky At Night on BBC TV

"There are only four people who have won two Nobel Prizes and Marie Curie was the first of them. She won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 for her work on radiation, and then one in chemistry in 1911 for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. I think her genius can be seen not only in her experiments and the physical doing of things, but also in her choices of exactly what to study. She had an amazing insight to see where new science might be..."


Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Nominated by Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey and presenter of The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4

"The three theories that Einstein published in four papers are some of the greatest ideas ever to come out of the human mind: he proved that atoms exist with his paper on Brownian motion, discovered the fact that light is made up of packets of energy, and the whole field of cosmology and most of modern astronomy was born from the General Theory of Relativity. Any one of those would have been enough to put him up there as one of the greats..."

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Nominated by Frances Ashcroft, geneticist at the University of Oxford and author of The Spark Of Life

"Charles Darwin is one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Not only did his idea of evolution by natural selection revolutionise the field of biology, but it has also influenced our views of society, ethics and religion. What I admire about Darwin is not just his insight, but also the very detailed and careful way in which he worked. He was a superb observer and carried out extremely meticulous and painstaking experiments..."

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Nominated by the Focus magazine team

"Yes, the iPhone, iPod and iMac all have counterparts we could happily use. But Steve Jobs lit the blue touchpaper on nascent devices like the tablet computer and the smartphone by making them desirable. Today, technology’s rapid advance is driven by people who fell in love with an iPod."


Stephen Hawking (1942- )

Nominated by the Focus magazine team

"He managed the difficult feat of marrying the science of the very small (quantum physics) with gravity (relativity) to describe the Universe’s most extreme objects: black holes. His key discovery was that black holes could leak ‘Hawking radiation’. He also realised the Universe was essentially a black hole in reverse, starting with the Big Bang."


Mark Zuckerberg (1984- )

Nominated by the Focus magazine team

"When Marconi invented the wireless telegraph he changed the way the world communicated. This century, Zuckerberg has arguably done the same. Some 1.28 billion people use Facebook and, with the growth of internet access, this number will only grow. Other social networks have followed Facebook’s example, making his impact undeniable."

John Harington (1561-1612)

Nominated by the Focus magazine team

"The next time you go to the toilet, spare a thought for this man – the father of the flushing loo. In 1596, Harington described a device with a cistern, from which water would flow down and empty the pan. Sadly for Harington, his design never caught on at the time, but it’s hard to imagine life without a self-purging privy."

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Nominated by the Focus magazine team

"For the daughter of Lord Byron, genius clearly ran in the family. The Countess of Lovelace demonstrated a precocious talent for maths at an early age, and is considered to have written the first computer program whilst working with Charles Babbage in the mid-1800s."

Read the nominations in full in the Summer issue of BBC Focus Magazine, and head here to cast your vote... voting ends on 23 July.

Have we missed anyone out? Let us know in the comments below!