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5 important scientists you’ve probably never heard of

We spend a lot of time in school learning about famous scientists such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Marie Curie, but there are countless others who are just as important if not as well-known. For example, do you know who invented the World Wide Web or figured out how to prevent infections during surgery? Millions of researchers throughout history have worked behind the scenes to make the world what it is today. Here are five important scientists you may not know.

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell was born in 1831 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He grew up to become one of the most influential physicists of his time — but not everyone saw his potential early on. According to Britannica, a tutor he had as a child believed he was a slow and unmotivated learner. In fact, the opposite was true. He published his first scientific paper — about the properties of ellipses and oval curves in geometry — when he was just 14 years old.

At age 16, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, where he published two more scientific papers before continuing his studies at the University of Cambridge. It was there, according to Britannica, that he began to attract attention as one of the most promising students at the school.

After graduation, Maxwell — then a professor — made several major discoveries in the fields of thermodynamics, photography, and nuclear energy. In 1861, for example, he collaborated with Thomas Sutton to create the first-ever color photograph. His most important work, however, was his research into electromagnetic radiation, which proved that visible light is a type of electromagnetic wave. His contributions in this field not only influenced Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity but also led to the discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is used in television, radio, microwaves, and most other modern technology.

Narinder Singh Kapany

Up close view of fiber optic computer cables connecting to tower
Credit: asharkyu/ Shutterstock

If you enjoy streaming Netflix and surfing the internet at blazing-fast speeds, you should know the name Narinder Singh Kapany.

Kapany, who was born in India in 1927, is considered the "father of fiber optics." When he was in college, a professor told him that light "always travels in a straight line." Skeptical, he took that "fact" as a personal challenge and devoted his life to the study of light and its movement. After winning a fellowship to continue his studies at Imperial College in London, and then earning a Ph.D. from the University of London, he began to experiment with using bent glass wires — what we now know as optical fibers — to transmit light. His research opened the door to even more discoveries in the field of fiber optics, including the revelation that those cables could be used to transmit signals over great distances. Without his work, we might not have high-speed internet, high-definition cable TV, or important medical instruments such as endoscopes.

Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee gave us one of the most important and widely used inventions of our time: the World Wide Web. Born in London, England, in 1955, Berners-Lee took an interest in computers at a very young age, no doubt because of his parents' work on the first commercial computer system, the Ferranti Mark I. After graduating from the University of Oxford in 1976, he went on to design computer software for a telecommunications company, eventually earning a position as a software engineer at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It was there that he began the work that would become the World Wide Web.

In the early 1980s, Berners-Lee developed a program for himself that contained connections between files — a technique that became known as hypertext. Years later, he expanded upon that idea and proposed the creation of a global network of hypertext documents that could be used to share and distribute information over the internet, without the back-and-forth of email. He wanted anyone and everyone to be able to have access to the information. Thus, the World Wide Web was born.

Although he could have patented his idea and made a fortune, Berners-Lee chose instead to offer the World Wide Web free of charge. For his contributions to the scientific community and the world as a whole, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004, becoming Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Joseph Lister

Bust of scientist Joseph Lister on a pedestal, seen in London, England
Credit: Tony Baggett/ Shutterstock

Joseph Lister was born in Essex, England, in 1827. After receiving his medical degree in the 1850s, he went on to become a surgeon and medical scientist. Back then, surgery was a risky procedure. Infections such as operative sepsis were very common: According to Britannica, Lister reported a mortality rate between 45 percent and 50 percent among his amputation cases in the first half of the 1860s.

Unwilling to accept this, he devoted his time to studying the prevention of infection. Most people at the time believed that sepsis was caused by "bad air." Lister disagreed. He hypothesized that it was caused by a pollen-like dust that infected open tissue. This dust later became known as germs. To prevent the "dust" from entering wounds, he began to force his surgeons to sterilize their hands and instruments with carbolic acid, a cleaning agent that had antiseptic properties. Over the next few years, Lister's mortality rate during surgery fell from 45 percent to 15 percent.

Although his process has since been replaced by more modern methods of sterilization, Lister became known as the "Father of Antiseptic Medicine."

John Bardeen

John Bardeen is the only person in history to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics twice — once in 1956 for research on "semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect," and again in 1972 for a "jointly developed theory of superconductivity, usually called the BCS-theory."

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1908, Bardeen earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin and went on to earn a doctorate in mathematical physics from Princeton University. In the 1940s, he worked as a physicist with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory during World War II before joining Bell Telephone Laboratories to work in research and development.

In 1947, he and his team at Bell unveiled their latest breakthrough: electrical transistors. Transistors were a smaller, more efficient replacement for the bulky vacuum tubes used in electronics at the time. This new discovery revolutionized electronics and led to the development of computers. In fact, just about every piece of technology we have today was made possible because of Bardeen's contributions.

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