The search begins for Australia’s hottest scientists

As preparations for Hottest 100 music parties ramp up, Robyn Williams, the doyen of Radio National’s The Science Show, has a different list planned.

This year, Williams will be listing the “hottest 100 Australian scientists.” No, he’s not looking for centrefolds or bathing suits.

“I just thought I’d get my revenge on the nation by forcing this great big list [on them],” he tells Cosmos.

Williams, an icon of Australian science communication for over 50 years, will launch the hottest 100  on 27 January, the same day as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s annual music ranking – Triple J’s Hottest 100.

But the “hottest 100 scientists” are not going to be ranked or voted on – indeed, Williams already has the list ready.

“I’m not ranking anybody. Ranking is asking for trouble,” he says.

So why do it, if not to encourage a democratic but troublesome vote? There’s a few reasons.

“One of them is that over the years, I’ve been broadcasting lots about astounding achievements of Australian scientists. And yet when I talk to people, they’ve never heard of them,” says Williams.

“Second reason, [the list] would create arguments about who should be in and who should be out, which would then be something that you have as a continuing conversation on air.”

Then, there’s the hope that you can raise the profile of a nation’s science by giving them a decent list.

“I think if that got through to what is a collapsing interest in science – which keeps being exposed almost every week in the newspapers by another survey – this place can turn around from being a, well, Aussie joke,” says Williams.

Who’s eligible? Any Australian scientist, dead or alive – although Williams is not going to include those claimed by Australia on fairly tenuous grounds.

“It’s not the ones who grew up here and left aged 11 or so and got the Nobel Prize somewhere else,” he says. Too bad, Prokhorov.

Some of the scientists on the list have been well-decorated, like Sir John Cornforth, the only Australian to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. Cornforth, who won the prize in 1975 for work on stereochemistry and enzymes, was completely deaf from otosclerosis by the time he got to university. He graduated with first class honours despite not being able to hear the lectures, citing his fondness for lab work as an advantage. His wife, fellow Sydney chemist Rita Harradence, helped him to communicate throughout his career.

Other scientists on the list are less well-recognised. Ruby Payne-Scott had a brief and extraordinary career in radar and radio astronomy at the CSIRO in the 1940s. Payne-Scott laid the groundwork for Australia to become a world leader in radio astronomy – but she herself was forced out of the CSIRO in 1951 when she became pregnant. She had previously caused trouble at the organisation for marrying in secret, as even married women weren’t supposed to work for the public service.

Some on the list are still in the middle of their work, such as Dr Pia Winberg, whose wound-healing seaweed products are making waves. She suspects that they even helped her heal after losing her scalp in a freak lab accident.

Winberg is a local for Williams: they both live on the south coast of New South Wales. Williams wants people to learn more about scientists in their own communities – something that will hopefully be less overwhelming than the original list of 100.

“Let’s narrow it down a bit and say: who are the top 3 in your local area? Which then gives you something rather more manageable to explore.”

So, that’s 3% of the list – if the other 97 scientists have equally exciting stories, it’s bound to be a wild ride.

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