Suppose I tell you my neighbor’s son is one of the best soccer player in the world. How would you check? You would immediately Google him to see in which team, in which league, the prodigy plays. If you couldn’t find anything, you would be wondering. Who is this world-class player Google doesn’t know (just try with Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo)? In the same vein, if you found him playing for the Miguelturra team in Spain, you would equally wonder. Who is this alleged best player in the world who plays in Spain, granted, but not in Madrid or Barça, but in the CD Migueltureño, a third division team ?
The universe Science and Faith is full of names supposed to represent “great” scientists. Obviously, the more the scientist says what I think, the “greater” he is. How can you check? How can you know if such and such, presented as great scientists, really are?
Just see if they play in first league, in the NBA. For physics, astrophysics, climate science (see the blue section below for climate science), here’s how.
The “astrophysics data system” database
Scientists write articles to explain their work. In these articles, they cite the articles upon which they rely. When I was a PhD student at Orsay University (France) in the early 90s, I would go to the library every week to read the journals publishing articles related to my research. Nature, Science, Physical Review, Physics of Fluids, etc. It was very common for one article to cite another, which cited another, which cited another, which made me navigate from journals to journals. Quickly, I would realize that a given author was often cited for having written one or more influential articles.
I now make this weekly pilgrimage from my computer. In the 90s, when the internet took off , databases were organized to index all this information. One of them is the astrophysics data system (“ADS”). Run by NASA and the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, it indexes nearly 15 million articles in math, physics and astrophysics, some of which date back to the 16th century . There are other databases, but this one has the advantage of being free and powerful. Let me emphasize that it only indexes journals dealing with physics, math or astro. So if you query it about one of the last Nobel Prize winners in medicine, it will only give you what he published in multidisciplinary journals like Nature or Science. Not his complete works.
For each scientific article, ADS indexes the authors, their academic affiliation, the list of all other articles that cite it, etc. Thanks to ADS, a bibliographic search which took 1 week during my PhD thesis is now done in a few minutes. Starting from the name of a scientist, you can easily check,
- If your scientist is currently active, that is to say if his last article dates from 2020 or goes back to 1980.
- If his work has an impact, that is, if it is often cited because it sparked further research.
All the “big ones” satisfy the second criterion. By definition, all the “big ones” currently active satisfy the first as well.
How does it work?
When you get to the main page, you find this,
A simple interface, with a single field to type your request. With the possibility of launching a query on other fields, such as the year of publication or the name of the journal, and of combining them with the AND or OR operators, you can launch quite elaborate searches.
Let’s just ask for the articles of a so-called “Einstein, A”. By clicking on the white magnifying glass on the blue background on the right, or by typing “Enter” on my keyboard, I get this,
As you can see, you have to filter a little more because there is at this very moment at least one other “Einstein, A” in activity, which is obviously not our Albert. I will therefore filter the results to retain only the articles published between 1901 and 1955, the date of his death. I therefore replace 2019 with 1955 in the red enclosed area at the bottom right and press “Apply”. I get this,
The search box now contains the weird formula I could have typed directly to get there. The area I mark in red indicates his co-authors. Insiders will recognize Rosen and Infeld, but we also discover Laub and de Haas. The green area tells that the database contains 155 articles in peer-reviewed journals (“refereed”), and 49 elsewhere. As we can see, with 204 works in 53 years (1901-1954), Einstein was remarkably productive.
But this is not the most important. One can very well publish 204 articles without any impact. This is not the case with Einstein. To see this, let’s click on the menu circled in orange where we see “Date”, and choose “Citation Count” instead. We get that,
Where there was “Date” before, there is now “Citation Count” (marked in orange). Here ADS tells us that Einstein has been cited almost 20,000 times (in red). In case you are wondering, yes, that’s a lot. Articles are now ordered by number of citations received, not by date. The first one has been cited 7,231 times (in green) so far, which is huge. I cannot resist the pleasure of pointing out that this article is false. It is that of the famous EPR paradox. But so it is with brilliant people: they are interesting even when they are wrong .
A few comments
I urge you to play around with the database a bit. I have only commented on a few of its options. But you can filter by journal, co-authors, academic affiliation, etc. It is quite intuitive. A few remarks now. Each time I quote a scientist, it will suffice to click on his name to see his record in the ADS database.
- Anglo-Saxons often have a middle name allowing to further refine the search. For example, searching for the works of Freeman Dyson (this is his Wikipedia page. See below for his works on ADS) yields more precise results by typing “Dyson, Freeman J”. The “J” sets him apart from others Freeman Dyson’s. If that is not enough, which is the case for the Dyson I’m interested in, we can filter on the left by “AFFILIATIONS”. Cornell and Princeton for Dyson.
- It can be very difficult to isolate the works of a scientist whose name is too common. Knowing what an Anglo-Saxon named “John Smith” or a Korean named “Jeon Park” did can be a real puzzle. Unless additional filters save you the day, you’ll have to hope they posted their publication list on their own website, or that they have an ORCID number.
- ADS does not tell you if people have a PhD. In fact, frankly, nobody cares. The database tells you what someone accomplished scientifically, PhD or not, and that’s what matters. Freeman Dyson did not have a PhD, but his work had a huge influence.
- A corollary is that being a PhD does not say anything about your scientific contributions. A “prominent”, “world-class”, “renowned” scientist is someone whose articles matter, PhD or not.
- Public fame is not synonymous with scientific stature. Perhaps Einstein and Stephen Hawking are the only ones whose public fame matches scientific contributions. Roger Blandford is one of the most influential astrophysicists of the past 50 years, and he is virtually unknown to the public. Same for Lev Landau, John Wheeler, Iakov Zeldovitch, Carlo Rovelli or Peter Goldreich (the list is far longer).
- Watch out for the numbers. Blandford has more articles and citations than Einstein, which doesn’t mean he outshines him. He would be the first to recognize it (I know him personally). Beyond a few tens of thousands of quotes, we are dealing with a “big one”, with a very uncertain hierarchy. Now a physicist cited 20,000 times has clearly brought more than another cited 100 or even 1,000 times .
So, is my science champion really a champion?
The Science and Faith debate is teeming with scientists presented as “eminent”, “world class”, and alike. Are they really so? Sometimes, alas, well, not really. Just a few examples (let’s make friends):
- A Christian apologist once called David Berlinski a “world leading physicist”. As you can see, the ADS version is nearly “who is Berlinski?”.
- Hugh Ross, sometimes referred to as “a respected astronomer” , has not published anything since 1977 and his 10 articles have had little impact (53 citations to date). He’s “respected” by many, but not by the scientific community.
- Young Earth Creation Astrophysicist Jason Lisle published the last of his 6 papers in 2008, and received just 193 citations in all. His colleague Russell Humphreys, who now tortures General Relativity, only received 204 citations for his 9 articles. The case of Danny Faulkner is similar, with 209 citations for 27 articles .
Note that being a champion in one discipline does not mean you are a champion in another field. Rafael Nadal sucks at curling and Stephen Hawking was a far better physicist than philosopher.
Let’s finish with some Christians, scientists currently in activity, who are genuine champions : Ian Hutchinson (MIT), Anthony Bell (Oxford), Katherine and Stephen Blundell (Oxford), Lorenzo Sironi (Columbia), John Barrow (Cambridge), Karin Oberg (Harvard), Don Page (Alberta), Juan Maldacena (Princeton), Gerald Gabrielse (Harvard), George Ellis (Cape Town), Eric Priest (St Andrew),…
So all those declared “champions” are not necessarily so. Fortunately, some are, definitely. You now know how to spot them.
What about climate science?
Climate science is also indexed in ADS. Here’s what you get when you plug some good climate scientists in the database: Stefan Rahmstorf, Katharine Hayhoe, Hervé Le Treut, Michael Mann, Richard Alley, Edouard Bard, James Hansen, Raymond Pierrehumbert.
 I received my first email in 1994. I didn’t even know I had an email address.
 To launch a query that returns the full content of the database, just ask for the articles written between 1500 and 2020. As of September 16, 2020, the query returns 14,843,813 articles. The oldest, in Latin, is from 1502! Noteworthily, 90% of these 15 million were written in the last 50 years.
 This reminds me of Niels Bohr when he said “the opposite of a profound truth may very well be another profound truth”.
 Todate I’ve been cited more than 2,000 times, and I know very well that my contributions are not those of Blandford.
 The Google query “Hugh Ross” ” respected astronomer” returns about 100 pages.
 It seems there are several Danny Faulkners. So I filtered by affiliations (Indiana where he did his thesis, then South Carolina, where he is a professor). The 27 items found fit well the “two dozen” mentioned on his creation.com page.