On September 5 the Web site Mashable published an article entitled “9 Cultural Icons Who Have Written for ‘The New York Times.’” The vanity piece was sponsored by and written by, you guessed it, the New York Times. The preamble to the list of nine iconic figures pointed out that “most people can name at least one Times writer.” Nah, but I don't mean to be a pedant, so I'll move on. The intro then announced, “But you may not be aware that some of the biggest names in literature, pop culture and politics have earned a byline in the Times, too.” Then came the starting nine of the paper of record's iconic byline earners.
I read the list, which was “pretty good, pretty good,” as Times contributor Larry David, who did not make the cut, might have called it. I then compiled a competing register of cultural icons who have contributed to Scientific American. Frankly, I think the Times list could have been stronger—every U.S. president eventually writes something for the paper—but we can only go up against the lineup that's on the field. Play ball!
For the Times, batting first: John F. Kennedy. Undeniably a big name, but I counter with a man who in 1914 published a piece for us called “The Problem of Our Navy.” He was assistant secretary of that branch of the military at the time, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was eventually sworn in as president—and again, and another time, and once more in those innocent days before term limits. He was also the last president I can think of to use a cigarette holder, which should make him a beacon of style for every Brooklyn hipster whose porkpie hat fails to complete the sought-after semiotic presentation.
Up next for the ink-stained wretches: Oprah Winfrey. Here the Times folks missed an opportunity to use only her first name to show just how iconic she is—nobody ever says, “Oprah? Which Oprah?” Oprah is part of our consciousness. Thus, Francis Crick, co-author of a 1992 Scientific American piece, “The Problem of Consciousness,” seems to be a good choice. It has not escaped our notice that he was also a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
Batting third for the Times: Stephen King. This guy scares me. So I'll send up Al Gore, co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That combination makes global warming deniers experience mental meltdowns.
Cleanup Times hitter: Mary-Kate Olsen, now a fashion designer but once part of the popular TV sister duo the Olsen twins. I offer in response one of a set of brothers: Orville Wright, author of the 1914 Scientific American article “The Stability of Aeroplanes.” He is also the most famous Orville not associated with popcorn, if you don't count the “popcorn chips” served on JetBlue flights.
Fifth for the Times: Oscar winner and humanitarian Angelina Jolie. For us: Nobel laureate and humanitarian Rita Levi-Montalcini, who worked in a home lab when driven out of academia by Mussolini. Jolie should play Levi-Montalcini in a biopic.
Sixth for them: Bono, world health advocate and rock star. For us: Bill Gates, world health advocate and nerd star.
Up seventh for the Gray Lady: Kurt Vonnegut, sometimes referred to as a modern Mark Twain. For us: Mark Twain. He penned a short satirical item in 1870 about the difficulties of installing stoves, which begins, “We do not remember the exact date of the invention of stoves, but it was some years ago,” and who can argue?
Batting eighth for the Times: Martin Luther King, Jr. Now there's a cultural icon. My admittedly quirky counterpoint: Alexander Graham Bell's assistant, Thomas A. Watson, who wrote a 1913 article called “Pioneers in Telephone Engineering.” He was mentioned by name in the world's first telephone call, when Bell famously said, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” because he had forgotten his two-step verification password.
And up ninth for the Times: William Howard Taft, the only man ever to be both president and chief justice. But we round out the Scientific American lineup with the author of the 1950 article “On the Generalized Theory of Gravitation.” I'm talking, of course, about Albert Einstein, the only man ever to be Albert Einstein. I think we win.