A few years ago, a saying did the rounds: “There are more people alive today than have ever died.” When you think about it, that is a staggering thing. Unfortunately, it turned out to be wrong, and that the figure was more like 5.8%, that is to say 5.8% of people who have ever lived are alive today. But maybe this finding is more interesting still: 90% of all scientists who have ever lived are alive today, according to Eric Gastfriend.

How does he calculate such a figure? He takes three indicators. The number of PhDs, patents and the number of scientific papers published and applied some statistical analysis and threw in a dollop of guesswork.

First off, PhDs. It turns that the rate at which these were granted was doubling every 15 years up to 1961, since then the rate has slowed down to doubling every 18 years. When you double a number you are left with a simple mathematical truth, the latest number is always slightly greater than the sum of all the previous numbers. So in the sequence, 2,4,8,16,32,64,128. The final number 128, is greater than the sum of all the previous numbers which is 126. It turns out, according to the assumptions made by Gastfriend, that 90% of recipients of a PHD are alive today.

Gastfriend found a similar growth rate for patents and the publication of scientific papers.

You have to feel sorry for the likes of Newton and Darwin, they must have felt very lonely, because using the Gastfriend conclusions and extrapolating backwards they lived in times when the number of their fellow scientists were few.

Other research suggests that much of this growth in the number of new scientists comes from China.

Question: if the number of scientists alive today outnumber the total population of late scientists by nine to one, does that mean that the total number of scientific breakthroughs from the current crop of scientists should exceed the total number of breakthroughs from now dead scientists by nine to one, as well?