What have been the greatest intellectual achievements?

In yesterday's post I briefly mentioned Claude Shannon, founder of information theory. It occurred to me that even most Oxford students wouldn't know who he was, despite his work being crucial for the subsequent development of the "Information Age". How many other intellectual revolutions in obscure fields haven't become common knowledge yet? Perhaps the best way of finding out is just to start listing the greatest and most influential intellectual achievements ever, and seeing if anyone else has more to add - particularly in the humanities and social sciences, where my knowledge is a little shallower. Also, is there anything you expect to deserve a place on this list in the next few years? I'm focusing on achievements which either founded or greatly influenced an entire field (also, although there are many amazing artistic and engineering achievements, to keep things relatively concise I'm not going to include either here). Of course this will be necessarily subjective and incomplete; the main point is not to have a definitive ranking but simply to spark some discussion - which it has. I've seen some very useful and thought-provoking comments both on Hacker News and my Facebook post. I've put a summary of the best additions at the end; here's my original list, ordered chronologically:
  • Thales and Pythagoras' origination of modern mathematics 
  • Herodotus and Thucydides' work as "fathers of history" 
  • Socratic method of philosophical inquiry 
  • Copernican revolution of Earth around Sun 
  • Galileo: father of astronomy and, arguably, science 
  • Descartes' launch of modern analytic philosophy 
  • Newton's mechanics and calculus 
  • John Locke's foundation of liberalism, developed more practically by French and American revolutionaries 
  • Adam Smith's foundation of modern economic theory 
  • Bentham and Mill's advocacy of utilitarianism 
  • The reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European, the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages 
  • Kant's attempted a priori derivations of knowledge and ethics 
  • Darwin's theory of evolution 
  • Germ theory, proposed by Fracastoro and proved by Snow, Pasteur and Koch 
  • Development of atomic and nuclear theory, notably by Dalton, Thomson, Rutherford, Curie, Bohr, Chadwick, Yukawa and Fermi 
  • Mendeleev's periodic table 
  • Modern medicine, pushed by Jenner's smallpox vaccine and Fleming's penicillin 
  • Frege and Cantor's inventions of modern logic and set theory, respectively, to solve the foundational crisis in mathematics 
  • Durkheim's establishment of the academic discipline of sociology 
  • Modernism across a variety of creative disciplines 
  • Einstein's special and general relativity 
  • Wegener's theory of plate tectonics 
  • Freud's identification of the subconscious 
  • Development of quantum physics in the first half of the 20th century, most notably by Planck, Einstein, Dirac, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Born and Feynmann 
  • Probability theory: introduced by Pascal and Fermat; pioneered by Laplace; formalised by Kolmogorov; furthered by Jeffreys and Jaynes 
  • Big Bang cosmology, proposed by Lemaitre and confirmed by Hubble 
  • Population genetics: inspired by Mendel and founded by Fisher using novel statistical methods 
  • Godel's incompleteness proofs 
  • Turing/Church/Godel's models of computation, particularly Turing Machines 
  • Coase's theory of the firm 
  • Von Neumann's game theory 
  • Goddard's development of rocket science 
  • Shannon's information theory
  • Several waves of feminist philosophy, originating most notably with Simone de Beauvoir
  • Watson, Crick, Franklin and Wilkins' discovery of the structure of DNA 
  • Lewis and Chenery's structural-change theories of development economics 
  • The wider environmentalism movement, jumpstarted by Carson and others 
  • Said's foundational study of post-colonial culture 
  • Behavioural genetics, as founded by Galton and revived by Fuller and Thompson 
  • Kahnemann and Tversky's work on cognitive biases and System 1/System 2 processing 

A few areas which I think could get there, but that are still to show their full potential:
  • Predictive processing models of neuroscience 
  • "Happiness science" and cognitive behavioural therapy 
  • Quantum computing (although it's worth noting the early work of Shor and Grover)
  • Genetic engineering
  • Theories of statistical learning & knowledge representation
  • Environmental engineering
  • Agent foundations
  • Animal rights movements and effective altruism

And the most important things I originally missed:
  • Understanding of electricity due to Franklin, Volta, Faraday, Ohm, Edison, Tesla etc
  • Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, which built on work by Orsted and Ampere
  • Norman Borlaug for the Green Revolution of massively increased food yields
  • Jevons, Menger and Walras for the “marginal revolution” in economics
  • The development of the field of Artificial Intelligence by McCarthy, Minsky, etc
  • The development of deep learning by Hinton, Bengio, LeCunn, Schmidhuber, etc
  • Euclid, for the axiomatic conception of mathematics
  • Chomsky’s revolutionary work in linguistics
  • The development of thermodynamics, particularly by Carnot, Maxwell and Boltzmann
  • Foucault on power dynamics in the construction of knowledge
  • Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions
  • Marx's critiques of capitalism
  • Bacon's introduction of the scientific method
  • Parfit’s work on population ethics and personal identity
  • Babbage and Lovelace’s early development of computers


  1. I would argue that the general method of science as articulated by Francis Bacon "the father of empiricism" should make the list.

  2. The internet (TCP/IP) and world wide web (HTML, HTTP).

    Relational algebra, databases, Linked Data (RDF,).

  3. The UNDHR (UN Declaration of Human Rights): [Equality,]


  4. - Time, Calendars
    - Standard units of measure (QUDT URIs)

  5. - CRISPR, CAS9

    - Tissue Nanotransfection

  6. Radio by Marconi, Telephone by Graham Bell and Internet by Vincent Cerf

  7. There is a gap of several hundred years between Socratic method of philosophical inquiry and Copernican revolution of Earth around Sun - the entire Islamic civilization that forms the bases of a lot of our modern science. Here are few examples:

    Al-Khwarazi, mathematician who advanced algebra and the word algorithm is a latinized version of his name

    Al-Biruni, a prolific natural scientist and the author of the India, the first work of anthropology. A good discussion program on him on BBC.


    Ibn Alhaytham, called the "father of modern optics"

    Ibn Khalid, whose work was the first in the systemic study of history (philosophy of science), economics, sociology. His book was on Mark Zuckerberg's reading list few years ago.


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