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It’s the end of summer (even though it may not feel like it) and holidaymakers are returning home in droves, reminding us that it’s time to turn our heat-addled brains once again to Serious and Important Matters. In this regard, Britain’s BBC may serve as an inspiration to us all. Last week, in the depths of August’s dog days, it came up with a plan to get the British public thinking about weighty issues again right into autumn.

What did the BBC do? It published its highly anticipated, poll-based list of the Top 100 Britons of all time. And to ensure that the public’s attention is not diverted, it announced that a new rolling poll designed to determine the single greatest Briton will be held concurrently with a BBC fall television series featuring profiles of the top 10.

It’s all very clever, when you think about it. Not only does it introduce the British to some local heroes they may never even have heard of (television inventor John Logie Baird, aircraft and bomb designer Neville Barnes Wallis), thereby greatly expanding their mental horizons, it makes them feel good about themselves. Look! We produced Shakespeare, Ms. J.K. (“Harry Potter”) Rowling and Boy George! What nation can compete with that?

Actually, the quest for the greatest Briton has been in the works for some time. BBC viewers were first polled last winter and came up at that time with some 800 names. What was revealed last week was the closely guarded list of the top 100 vote-getters — not in order, mind you, but alphabetically, though rumor has it that the late Prime Minister Winston Churchill was No. 1, fairly predictably followed by Shakespeare and Lord Nelson. You certainly have to give the BBC credit for getting the best possible mileage out of a simple idea.

The idea’s appeal is not just domestic, either. From an outsider’s point of view, the list of Britain’s self-selected best and brightest is surprisingly interesting. First, it has to be admitted that for a small nation, or cluster of nations, Britain really does boast a glittering galaxy of stars. (They cheated a bit by including Ireland in their definition of Britain, but voters oddly enough overlooked such really great Irishmen as writers James Joyce and W.B. Yeats in favor of contemporary nobodies like Mr. Bob Geldof and U2’s Bono, so it doesn’t affect the point.)

Think about it. From the arts, Britain has produced the likes of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, William Blake, Chaucer, Charlie Chaplin, J.R.R. Tolkien, Edward Elgar and the Beatles. Its statesmen and politicians included not just Churchill, but Alfred the Great, King Arthur, Elizabeth I, Robert the Bruce and Mrs. Margaret Thatcher. The list includes great soldiers — William (“Braveheart”) Wallace, Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Lawrence of Arabia — and, naturally for a former empire, heroic navigators and explorers — James Cook, Francis Drake, David Livingstone, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

But most impressive of all is the depth and longevity of Britain’s scientific achievement. Yes, we knew about such luminaries as Charles Darwin, the father of evolution; Sir Isaac Newton, the father of modern mathematics; inventors James Watt, George Stephenson and Michael Faraday; and contemporary physicist/guru Mr. Stephen Hawking. But it’s worth being reminded as well that our modern wired world owes more to Britain than to any other single country, including Japan and the United States. The roll-call of 100 great Britons includes Charles Babbage, the early 19th-century inventor of a crude but seminal computing machine, Alan Turing, who laid the theoretical foundations of modern computing before World War II, and Mr. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989. For techies, that’s an awe-inspiring list.

It is not just who’s on the list that’s interesting, though. There’s also the matter of who’s missing. A compilation such as this serves as a kind of national self-portrait, and Britons might well be sobered to realize that their top 100 includes a mere 13 women, one fewer than royals (of course, some, like Elizabeth I and, yes, Princess Diana, fall into both categories). The pressing question is: Does Britain really boast so few great women, or did voters chauvinistically overlook them? Also seriously under-represented are poets, novelists, playwrights, painters and athletes (though, incredibly, Mr. David Beckham makes the cut). Yet pop stars are there in relative abundance.

While Britons ponder the meaning of all this — including the meaning of “great” — the rest of us might profit from asking ourselves how different our own top 100 lists, or mirrors, would look. Sorry, but we’re with the BBC: Vacation time 2002 is over!

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