So – who’s the smartest person to have ever lived? It’s likely that a handful of names just popped into your head. You’re on a science site, so it’s probable that Einstein cropped up, as well as Feynman, Hawking, Curie, and a few others. Some would vociferously argue for Tesla. Others would suggest Faraday or da Vinci.
Based on his body of work, it’s entirely unsurprising that “Einstein” is synonymous with “genius”, much in the way Newton was back in the day. Their incredible scientific and cultural legacies have led to both of them being described as some of the smartest people in history – but does such a phrase have any inherent meaning? Can anyone ever own that title without equivocation?
Human civilization has been around for many millennia; our species emerged from the tapestry of evolution way before then, perhaps around 350,000 years before the present day. Ever since it’s been a story told in countless chapters, each one often featuring an individual whose unique life opportunities, combined with their ingenuity, has changed everything.
Einstein wouldn’t have made his famous discoveries had it not been for the work of Aristotle and Copernicus, Galileo and the Herschels. Darwin wouldn’t have been prompted to advance his theories if it wasn’t for the work of Charles Lyell, a pioneering professor of geology.
Who’s to claim that Einstein is the smartest of them all when there are brilliant mathematicians like Srinivasa Ramanujan – whose contributions to the field are arguably comparable to that of Newton, the inventor of the game-changing calculus?
Today, these scientific discoveries come as part of a team, and it’s rare a single person has such heft in that way. As the world becomes more global, collaborations become wider and more international – and who are we to say is the smartest among them? As is often paraphrased, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and it’s this stream of genius that drives progress.