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"Scientist" may not be required since the term (I believe) is less than 200 years old and anyway there is not much science fiction that far back. I want not a fictionalized version of the author (I think in fiction in general in the distant past, authors often wrote as if the events had happened to themselves.)

I think there may be extremely few such references -- writers probably don't like being constrained by the person being real and also there might be (as in movies) legal issues.

My money is on Einstein, one of the first really famous scientists who captured the public's imagination and he certainly was alive when science fiction was very popular. If not Einstein, I bet Curie may have been mentioned even before him -- even if not by name, implicitly like "the female discoverer of radium" or something.

I know that some movie versions of Frankenstein have the fictionalized version of Polidori in them. He was a doctor (close enough) -- but if he was in the book itself and thus probably the first such reference, I would prefer someone closer to a real scientist.

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    Do you want someone who appears in the narrative, or is namedropping enough? I think Verne mentions real scientists but doesn't have them as characters.
    – alexg
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 17:57
  • 1
    @alexg I think name dropping is fine. I do not expect many older stories to include a living person in general, science fiction or not. I do recall a time travel story where Boltzmann is a character although not an active character -- the main chars go to see him lecture iirc.
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 18:06
  • Does it count if the story was written a few years after the scientist's death?
    – Laurel
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 18:18
  • @Laurel: That would be okay. But think how many stories mention Newton, etc. So the closer to the scientist being alive the better.
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 18:20
  • 2
    Are you saying that someone like Aristotle or Pythagoras isn't a scientist because the term hadn't been invented yet?
    – terdon
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 12:01

7 Answers 7

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Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) in Kepler's Somnium (written 1608)

It's book written by a scientist that features his partner in crime (the crime being astronomy) as a character. It is also considered one of the earliest science fiction works.

After the letters were handed over, Brahe in a very cheerful mood began to ask me many questions. I did not understand him because I did not know the language except for a few words. He gave all his time to his students, whom he cared for in large numbers. Through Brahe's liberality they could frequently speak to me.

(A Translation by Reverend Normand Raymond Falardeau, S.S.S.)

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    Those were the days when astronomy could indeed contribute to crime, e.g. Galileo
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 14:46
  • @Barmar Galileo's home arrest was not related to astronomy work. Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 15:12
  • 3
    @Yksisarvinen It was a bit of a joke (like Laurel saying "partner in crime"). And it was about what he wrote as a result of his astronomy.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 15:20
  • 1
    That's a great example, but it doesn't seem quite to meet the requirement. The question asks for a scientist who was alive "at the time", which I take to mean the time the story was written. Brahe had been dead for several years when Somnium was written. Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 16:14
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There is always a question of what counts as SF when you start to consider literature from more than a few centuries back. Do you count the section of Plato's Republic (c. 375 BCE) that describes a hypothetical Utopian city-state Kallipolis? There is no plot line to speak of, but its world-building is arguably SF and it places Socrates as narrator while name dropping many other real-world figures including philosophers (the "scientist" of the era).

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    Socrates himself doesn't count because he had died in 399 BCE. The others might, though. Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 5:10
  • Aristophanes' The Clouds was produces during Socrates' lifetime (423 BC), but I don't know if you can call it SF.
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 7:39
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If Tycho Brahe in Kepler's Somnium in Laurel's answer doesn't count because he was too early and pre scientific I have some more recent examples to suggest.

In Robert a. Heinlein's "Requiem", Astounding Science Fiction, January, 1940 Delos D. Harriman remembers his boyhood dream of studying Astronomy under Moulton at the University of Chicago and working for Dr. Frost at the Yerkes observatory.

Forrest Ray Moulton (1872-1952) was Professor of Astronomy at the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1926, and Edwin Brant Frost was director of the Yerkes Observatory from 1905 to 1932.

How old was Delos D. Harriman in Heinlein's "Requiem"?

My answer to this question First story to mention the speed of light?

shows that Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was mentioned at least two times in the first publication of The Skylark of Space in 1928.

Garrett Putnam Serviss (March 24, 1851 – May 25, 1929) was an American astronomer, popularizer of astronomy, and early science fiction writer. Serviss was born in Sharon Springs, New York1 and majored in science at Cornell University.

And fortunately, the Wikipedia article on Serviss identifies his mention in an early Lovecraft story.

A quotation from Serviss' Astronomy with the Naked Eye (1908) appears at the end the short story Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919) written by H. P. Lovecraft.4

The most famous science fiction novel by Serviss was probably:

Edison's Conquest of Mars, 1898 novel (written on commission from The Boston Post as a sequel to "Fighters from Mars", an un-authorized and heavily altered version of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garrett_P._Serviss

In Edison's Conquest of Mars Earth strikes back against the Martians.

An early example of what would later be called space opera,2: 69  Edison's Conquest of Mars was also a particularly literal "Edisonade". The book contains some notable "firsts" in science fiction: alien abductions, spacesuits (called "air-tight suits": see Spacesuits in fiction), aliens building the Pyramids, space battles, oxygen pills, asteroid mining and disintegrator rays.4

Serviss wrote himself into the story as a professor whom Edison consults; also appearing are scientists such as Edward Emerson Barnard, Lord Kelvin, Wilhelm Röntgen, and Silvanus P. Thompson, and heads of state such as Queen Victoria, U.S. President William McKinley, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Emperor Mutsuhito.1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edison%27s_Conquest_of_Mars

Edward Emerson Barnard lived from 1847-1923, Lord Kelvin from 1824-1907, Wilhelm Rontgen from 1845-1923, and Silvanus P. Thompson from 1851-1916.

I find it easy to believe that some of the characters in some of Jules Verne's more science fictional novels might have mentioned the observations and theories of some real contemporary scientists. But I don't remember any examples.

Edgar Allen Poe's story "Mellonta Tauta" (1849), consisting of letters supposedly written in 2848, mentions famous German astronomer Johann Heinrich Madler (1794-1874) in this passage:

April 6.—Last night had a fine view of Alpha Lyrae, whose disk, through our captain's spy-glass, subtends an angle of half a degree, looking very much as our sun does to the naked eye on a misty day. Alpha Lyrae, although so very much larger than our sun, by the by, resembles him closely as regards its spots, its atmosphere, and in many other particulars. It is only within the last century, Pundit tells me, that the binary relation existing between these two orbs began even to be suspected. The evident motion of our system in the heavens was (strange to say!) referred to an orbit about a prodigious star in the centre of the galaxy. About this star, or at all events about a centre of gravity common to all the globes of the Milky Way and supposed to be near Alcyone in the Pleiades, every one of these globes was declared to be revolving, our own performing the circuit in a period of 117,000,000 of years! We, with our present lights, our vast telescopic improvements, and so forth, of course find it difficult to comprehend the ground of an idea such as this. Its first propagator was one Mudler. He was led, we must presume, to this wild hypothesis by mere analogy in the first instance; but, this being the case, he should have at least adhered to analogy in its development. A great central orb was, in fact, suggested; so far Mudler was consistent. This central orb, however, dynamically, should have been greater than all its surrounding orbs taken together. The question might then have been asked—"Why do we not see it?"- we, especially, who occupy the mid region of the cluster—the very locality near which, at least, must be situated this inconceivable central sun. The astronomer, perhaps, at this point, took refuge in the suggestion of non-luminosity; and here analogy was suddenly let fall. But even admitting the central orb non-luminous, how did he manage to explain its failure to be rendered visible by the incalculable host of glorious suns glaring in all directions about it? No doubt what he finally maintained was merely a centre of gravity common to all the revolving orbs—but here again analogy must have been let fall. Our system revolves, it is true, about a common centre of gravity, but it does this in connection with and in consequence of a material sun whose mass more than counterbalances the rest of the system. The mathematical circle is a curve composed of an infinity of straight lines; but this idea of the circle—this idea of it which, in regard to all earthly geometry, we consider as merely the mathematical, in contradistinction from the practical, idea—is, in sober fact, the practical conception which alone we have any right to entertain in respect to those Titanic circles with which we have to deal, at least in fancy, when we suppose our system, with its fellows, revolving about a point in the centre of the galaxy. Let the most vigorous of human imaginations but attempt to take a single step toward the comprehension of a circuit so unutterable! I would scarcely be paradoxical to say that a flash of lightning itself, travelling forever upon the circumference of this inconceivable circle, would still forever be travelling in a straight line. That the path of our sun along such a circumference—that the direction of our system in such an orbit—would, to any human perception, deviate in the slightest degree from a straight line even in a million of years, is a proposition not to be entertained; and yet these ancient astronomers were absolutely cajoled, it appears, into believing that a decisive curvature had become apparent during the brief period of their astronomical history—during the mere point—during the utter nothingness of two or three thousand years! How incomprehensible, that considerations such as this did not at once indicate to them the true state of affairs—that of the binary revolution of our sun and Alpha Lyrae around a common centre of gravity!

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Mellonta_Tauta

https://hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/12911/was-the-sun-assumed-to-be-at-rest-aether-frame/12914#12914

Poe's future character calls Madler Mudler.

In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's travels (1726) there is mention of the law of gravitation in the account of Laputa:

They have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars; whereof the innermost is distant from the centre of the primary planet exactly three of his diameters, and the outermost, five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half; so that the squares of their periodical times are very near in the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the centre of Mars; which evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation that influences the other heavenly bodies.

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/829/829-h/829-h.htm#part03

But Swift doesn't name Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726/27), so that doesn't count.

And those are the examples I could think of at the moment.

Added 02-16-2023:

In Poe's "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade", Godey's Lady's Book, February 1845, The eighth voyage of Sinbad is described. And there are notes explaining that that the strange wonders Sinbad describes are actually known to (then) modern science.

Another of these magi constructed (of like material) a creature that put to shame even the genius of him who made it; for so great were its reasoning powers that, in a second, it performed calculations of so vast an extent that they would have required the united labor of fifty thousand fleshy men for a year.[22]

Babbage's Calculating Machine.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Works_of_the_Late_Edgar_Allan_Poe/Volume_1/The_Thousand-and-Second_Tale_of_Scheherazade

So if the notes were in the first publication, Charles Babbage was mentioned in a humorous science fiction or fantasy story in 1845.

Added 02-14-2023.
User14111's answer mentions Sir John Herschel as the the alleged discover of life on the Moon in "The Great Moon Hoax". Does "the Great Moon Hoax" count as science fiction?".

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  • i recall the edison war of the worlds "sequel" -- how weird to see names of people in fiction whose genealogies include countless live academics. there are perhaps living but old people today who met edison. also: perhaps not. but tons of people when i was growing must have seen edison in person. just 20 years is enough to make someone seem very remote.
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 6:39
  • 1
    What does "pre scientific" mean in your first sentence?
    – Stef
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 9:37
  • @Stef We gave rather strong ideas of what a proper scientist today should be. But Tycho Brahe and Kepler didn't fit all those ideas of a proper scientist. Both of them sometimes cast horoscopes, for example. Maybe they only did it for the money and didn't believe in astrology. If you accept Brahe as a scientist by your definition then he is probably the answer. Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 17:58
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1835: "Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope" by Richard A. Locke, a.k.a. The Great Moon Hoax.

The "Great Moon Hoax", also known as the "Great Moon Hoax of 1835", was a series of six articles published in The Sun, a New York newspaper, beginning on August 25, 1835, about the supposed discovery of life and even civilization on the Moon. The discoveries were falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, one of the best-known astronomers of that time.

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    I upvoted. I can't believe I forgot Sir John Herschell in the "Great Moon Hoax:. Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 18:00
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The Consolidator by Daniel Defoe (1705) mentions (by surname only) Isaac Newton (alive at that time) and (presumably) Robert Boyle (had been dead for a few years).

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  • i will look at this book.
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 13:13
1

This answer suffers from the same issues as Ethan's and it should be consumed with a grain of salt. But nonetheless, it might be worth mentioning as a different perspective. If the definition of scientist is loosen a bit, the Persian polymath and physician Ibn Sina (10th century CE) has been the subject of some ancient fictional stories in which he has extraordinary powers in healing people. Some may regard it as magic and not science fiction, but others might argue that the border between these two is not that clear.

There is a book by Nizami Aruzi titled Chahár Maqála, or Four Discourses (circa 1110). In the fourth discourse, he has written some stories about magical healing abilities of Ibn Sina. The stories are either highly exaggerated or totally fictional as they seem far-fetched. I might add a rough summary of those stories later if my abilities in translating ancient Persian are not exhausted.

0

Avicenna was encountered by Dante in the Divine Comedy in the 14th century.

There might be others in the Divine Comedy, Avicenna was merely the first one I found who was indubitably a scientist.

You might argue that the Divine Comedy is not science fiction, but consider that many things we now consider fantasy were once thought to be literal truths. Just because it would not now be considered science fiction doesn't mean it didn't qualify at the time. And the boundary between science fiction and fantasy is squishy anyways.

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  • Oh, whoops, I missed the "living" criteria. Leaving my answer up anyways, even though it's wrong Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 6:51

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