Anthropologist John Hawks offers some good suggestions:
Don`t get me wrong, I like physics as much as anybody. But once your list includes Newton, Einstein, and Maxwell, and then you throw in Galileo, well there`s not much room for anything else. None at all if you take Darwin as a given.So I decided to do something a little different: What five scientists have had the greatest impact on human life? Yes, Newton was great, but gravity goes on without him.Many later discoveries stood on his shoulders, but Newton`s achievements were far more intellectual than practical. I`m looking for people whose accomplishments saved lives, prevented wars, stopped hunger, or released people from endless drudgery. This isn`t a list of inventors — if it were, there would be a lot of ancient inventions like the moldboard plow that deserve more attention than anything modern. It`s a list of scientists whose impact stretched across many fields, and without whom life today would likely be worse.1. R. A. Fisher. His work in population genetics laid the foundations for the vast productivity increases of twentieth-century agriculture. He was far from alone in this, but he stood apart from his contemporaries by inventing many of the statistical methods that would come to define scientific hypothesis testing. Without Fisher`s innovations in statistics, large-scale medical research studies would be meaningless. All this after he established the basis for Mendelian inheritance of continuous characters.
Fisher strikes me as the Newton of the 20th Century: the scientist / mathematical innovator.
For the rest of Hawks` list, click here