The Times of London reports that in a poll of both scientists and public, Isaac Newton crushed Albert Einstein as to the question of who made the greater contribution to science. Among scientists (Royal Society members), Newton got a whopping 86.2%; the public gave him a clear 61.8%.
Even taking into account the nationalistic bias, this result seems right to me. The fact that Einstein’s conception of the universe is now more accepted than Newton’s misses the point. My understanding is that Newton created the very notion of a universe that can be coherently explained by mathematical laws: Einstein freely admitted that relied on Newtonian concepts in developing his own framework.
Two other things stand out:
1) Einstein quickly fell behind in his own discipline. He never accepted quantum mechanics, and by the late 1920’s was something of a dinosaur. (We should all be such dinosaurs!). His famous argument that “God does not play dice with the universe” is something of a misquotation, but it gets the essence of his contention.
2) But for me, here’s the trump card: when developing his system of optics, Newton realized that existing mathematical concepts were inadequate for his purposes, so he invented calculus in order to get him over the hump. That’s just extraordinary. (Leibniz published first, leading to a pretty ridiculous competition between the two men for the credit when they really both should get it). Einstein used non-Euclidean geometry to develop general relativity: the closest equivalent would be if he had invented it himself.
I suppose it goes without saying that none of this should be taken to diminish Einstein’s achievement, and general relativity’s notion of cuirved space represents breathtaking creativity. But Newton wins this one. That’s why we don’t have “Fig Einsteins.”
UPDATE: A reader points out that Fig Newtons are in fact named after Newton, Massachusetts, not Sir Isaac. Who knew? (Besides the reader, of course.). I was being somewhat facetious, but suburban Bostonians can rest assured that their honor has not been slighted.