10 Scottish Scientists Who Changed the World

Scotland has been a hotbed of research and discovery in the Sciences, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology over the centuries.

The Scottish Enlightenment during the 18th century, in particular, saw a huge number of scientific revelations, advances and achievements taking place as a result of investments in education, a flourishing economy and an optimistic Worldview following the Act of Union in 1707.

Here are just 10 brief overviews of the most famous Scottish Scientists who made huge leaps forward in their fields and have undeniably helped shape the World we now live in. Hopefully, they’ll provide inspiration to future generations of young Scots looking to leave their mark in the history books too.

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell

1. James Clerk Maxwell
Thermodynamics and electromagnetic theorist

His groundbreaking work in unifying observations of magnetism, electricity and optics into electromagnetic theory places Maxwell in the same league as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein on the World stage. Indeed, Einstein once said of Maxwell’s work that it was the “most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton”.

His four fundamental equations describe the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields. In addition they can be used to show that light is an electromagnetic wave.

Along with his contributions to the kinetic theory of gases, Maxwell’s work paved the way for the fields of special relativity and quantum mechanics.


2. William Thomson, Lord Kelvin
Mathematician, physicist, engineer

Renowned for pioneering work in electromagnetism and the laws of thermodynamics, he was widely known for developing the Kelvin scale of absolute temperature measurement.

In 1846, he became Professor of Natural Philosophy in Glasgow, a post he would hold for more than fifty years.

He was also a prolific inventor and oversaw the laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable that provided instant communication between North America and Europe, designed a mariner’s compass and depth measuring equipment.


3. Alexander Fleming
Microbiologist, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1945

Whilst studying influenza in 1928, Fleming noticed that some mould had started to grow in dishes being used to culture the staphylococci germ. Around the mould was a bacteria-free area. The chance find led him to investigate further and discover the active substance that he named penicillin.

Penicillin was later to revolutionise the medical world, but Fleming also wrote many influential papers on bacteriology, immunology and chemotherapy.


4. Joseph Black
Physicist, chemist, and discoverer of carbon dioxide

In being the first to isolate pure carbon dioxide, Black showed that the air was not an element, but a mixture of different substances. This was a huge step forward in chemistry and in biology, where it illustrated that it was the gas released during animal respiration.

His studies of latent heat and specific heat make him one of the founding fathers of thermodynamics, which would help his protégé James Watt in the improvement of the steam engine and lead to the Industrial Revolution.

Latent heat is the amount of energy in the form of heat released or absorbed by a chemical substance during a change of state.

Specific heat is the measure of the heat energy required to increase the temperature of a unit quantity of a substance by a certain temperature interval.


5. Robert Brown
Discoverer of Brownian Motion and botanist

The botanist noticed that pollen particles didn’t remain still under his microscope, rather, they were knocked around by the motion of water molecules that he’d used to coat his glass slides.

Sometimes, they’d move a little – sometime, a lot, but as they shuffled around their motion could not be predicted. The momentum of the moving molecules determines the size of the knock the suspended particle receives.

Brownian motion affects any small particle suspended in a liquid or gas, resulting in its random diffusion. The mathematics and concepts involved have useful implications in predicting risks and future events such as in stock market fluctuations and also creating virtual landscapes in computer games.


6. James Dewar
Low temperature physicist, invented the vacuum flask

Dewar is perhaps best known today for his invention of the Dewar flask that kept heat out of its contents, and his work on the liquefaction of gases such as hydrogen and oxygen that would lead to him approaching temperatures of absolute zero.

He also pursued the fields of atomic and molecular level spectrometry; helped to co-develop cordite – a smokeless alternative to gunpowder; and the surface tension of soap bubbles.


7. James Hutton
Brought scientific thinking to geological processes

Titled the father of modern geology, Hutton inherited his father’s farm in the Borders where it seems his great interest in the earth, rocks and meteorology began to really take shape.

Following his painstaking research, Hutton’s (at the time) staggering claim that the Earth was many millennia older than the 6,000 years proposed in the Bible, freed rational scientific thinking and philosophy from religious dogma.

Hutton showed that the Earth’s surface was in a constant state of being recycled and regenerated, powered from a core that was hot.


8. John Napier

He might have considered mathematics as just a ‘hobby’, but Napier is best known today for his invention of logarithms.

Logarithms are the opposite of powered numbers, and made calculations by hand much easier and quicker, and thereby opened the way to many later scientific advances (such as in computer science) and facilitated more immediate advances in astronomy and physics.

He was also responsible for the introduction of decimal notation for fractions, and Napier’s bones – an abacus that allowed the calculation of quotients and products of numbers. Multiplication can be reduced to addition operations using Napier’s bones and division to subtractions, simplifying complex calculations.


James Watt

James Watt

9. James Watt
Mathematician and engineer whose improvements to the steam engine contributed to massive advances in the Industrial Revolution

Watt’s great realisation was that the widely used Newcomen engine was hopelessly inefficient as the chamber where the piston lay had to be repeatedly heated and cooled wasting lot’s of energy and time.

He began work on improving the design, developing a separate condensing chamber for the steam engine that prevented enormous losses of steam. This removed the need for heating and cooling, making the engine faster, safer, and more fuel-efficient.

Watt also solved the problem of how to convert the up-and-down piston movement to rotary movement (so that engines could power looms, bellows, and other mechanical devices in addition to extracting water from copper and tine mines as they were initially used).

He coined the term “horsepower” and nowadays his name is found written on almost every light bulb as the unit of electrical power.


James Young

James Young

10. James ‘Paraffin’ Young

A friend and sponsor of the explorer David Livingstone, Young made his fortune by patenting a method for distilling paraffin oil and wax on a large scale from coal and shale – satisfying a universal demand for its use in lighting, heating and manufacturing processes.

Why not check out Another 10 Famous Scottish Scientists

About Derek Shirlaw

I'm passionate about science communication, social media, and my home country, Scotland. In particular, I have a real interest in astronomy, digital marketing, and the great outdoors.
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