Built on Facts

Greatest Physicists Nominations!

Top 10 lists are silly. But they’re fun, which is why there’s so many of them. In a week or two, I’m going to start a brief biographical series with a little bit of information on the lives and works of the great physicists.

The top 3 are obvious (Well, to me anyway). The top 5 – I think I have a decent idea what my opinions are. The top 10? Things start to get kind of fuzzy. There’s a few dozen people who could make a pretty good case for being considered among the truly great physicists. But these lists are as much about who’s not in them as who is. And heck, maybe we’ll even make it a top 20 list for the educational/entertainment value of having a few more cool guys and gals of physics to talk about.

I’m not ranking according to raw intelligence, but mainly by the importance of their ideas and discoveries to the advancement of our understanding of the universe. And while this won’t make much difference, I’m disqualifying those people who are better known as pure mathematicians – so someone like Gauss won’t be on the list even though he was one of the smartest people of all time and made several notable contributions to physics. Mathematical physicists are fine.

So, time for your suggestions! Let’s have your top 10 physicists, or even just unordered suggestions for who should be on my list.


  1. #1 Waterdog
    August 29, 2008

    Well, two of your top three are obvious: Newton and Einstein. Who’s the third? Maxwell, Bohr, perhaps even Feynman? As for other additions to the top 10, I’ve rather fond of Faraday, as well as Planck. Rutherford of course. I daresay Cavendish’s influence was notably less than it might otherwise have been, due to his peculiar anti-social habits, but even what he bothered to publish was important.

    We’re already up to nine. If I eliminate Leibniz as being more of a mathematician, maybe I’d give the last spot to Huygens. Oh, but what about Galileo? This is hard.

  2. #2 Fergus Gallagher
    August 29, 2008

    What about me? I have a fantastic perpetual motion machine that will change the way we live…

    [details to follow]

  3. #3 Jennifer Ouellette
    August 29, 2008

    Michael Faraday’s gotta be in there somewhere. Marie Curie. J.J. Thomson. Sadie Carnot (laid foundations for thermodynamics). Planck. Heisenberg. Bohr. James Clerk Maxwell (he did a lot more than just Maxwell’s Equations). Honestly, you think you can limit it to just 10??? ­čÖé

  4. #4 Fergus Gallagher
    August 29, 2008

    How about Dirac? Brilliant. Nutter. Fully qualified.

  5. #5 JÚr˘me ^
    August 29, 2008

    The bronze medal probably goes to an older one. Galileo is the obvious choice (for introducing geometry and physics to each other) but Archimedes would also fit. More recent physicists (as Feynman) are a bit too specialized.

  6. #6 6EQUJ5
    August 29, 2008


  7. #7 Matthew
    August 29, 2008

    Top 3: Newton, Einstein, Galileo

    After that it gets a bit tricky. I’m going to base it on people who were mentioned in my undergraduate and graduate physics classes that developed theories or ideas that are still taught and used today.

    In no particular order: Bohr, Noether, Planck, Maxwell, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Helmholtz, Faraday, Gibbs, Dirac, Fermi, Feynman

    It gets even harder when you get to more recent physicists. Increasing specialization and more collaborative efforts make it difficult to single out individuals that have made a large impact on the field as a whole.

  8. #8 Paul
    August 29, 2008

    Top three are the big boys: Galileo, Newton and Einstein. The remaining 7 are a little more tricky but I’m thinking… 4. Faraday (one of the greatest experimentalists of all time) 5. Rutherford (perhaps the founder of nuclear physics) 6. Planck 7. Bohr 8. Pauli ( If he’s not on the list then, “It’s not even wrong”) 9. Feynman and finally 10. Fermi (considered the last true theoretical/experimental physicist, subjective of course.)

  9. #9 Dunc
    August 29, 2008

    Maxwell really has to be one of the top 3. Galileo was just an astronomer… ­čśë

  10. #10 sfcouple
    August 29, 2008

    I would add Stephen Hawking to the above list of names….

  11. #11 Taylor
    August 29, 2008

    I can almost guarantee that he will include Dirac. I know I would.

  12. #12 Uncle Al
    August 29, 2008

    Yesterday’s Nobel Prize is tomorrow’s homework. The trick is to make a Top Ten list of the best future physicists. One could reasonably argue that the greatest contribution to modern science – its entire underpinning – is the ball point pen. Add the HP-35 and the CRC Handbook.

    How would you like to be the poor bastard in the lab who compiled those tables?

  13. #13 David
    August 29, 2008

    I’m always disappointed by how overlooked G.I. Taylor is. A great scientist of classical mechanics, he did groundbreaking research primarily in fluid dynamics, but also in solid mechanics and the diffraction of light. He gets my nomination for one of the top 3 of the 20th century.

    For a nice overview of Taylor’s work, see this article.

  14. #14 killinchy
    August 29, 2008

    “Galileo was just an astronomer’… Huh?

    No, he was a fine physicist who, among other things, discovered the priciple of relativity.

  15. #15 Time
    August 29, 2008

    Garrett Lisi

  16. #16 Eric Lund
    August 29, 2008

    I agree that Newton, Galileo, and Einstein should be the top three.

    After that, it gets much harder as there are many more than seven people who deserve to be in the tier below the big three. In no particular order: Archimedes, Faraday, Maxwell, Bohr, Planck, Feynman, Boltzmann, Fermi, Schrödinger, Bardeen (being the only winner of two Physics Nobels has to count for something), Rutherford, Dirac, Pauli, Kelvin. I’m probably overlooking a few here.

    You’ve disqualified “pure mathematicians”; otherwise Euler as well as Gauss would be in the top 20.

  17. #17 Alex
    August 29, 2008

    How about Gibbs? Carnot?

  18. #18 Eric Johnson
    August 29, 2008

    In order of the degree to which (I think) their ideas changed our view of nature:
    1) Newton
    2) Einstein
    3) Lagrange
    4) Hamilton
    5) Feynman
    6) Maxwell
    7) Rutherford
    8) Bohr
    9) Heisenberg

  19. #19 Graham
    August 29, 2008

    It’s hard to compare people of different times. Also, the study of physics tends to throw up theoreticians rather than experimentalists whose work is often fairly primitive by today’s standards, and thus hardly mentioned. Great physicists don’t necessarily have to change the world.

    My list, for what it is worth: Newton, Einstein, Galileo, Archimedes, Faraday, Maxwell, Huygens, Landau, Bohr, Bardeen.

    Honorable mention for Rutherford and Sommerfeld.

  20. #20 Eric Johnson
    August 29, 2008

    Sorry, I meant to preview but hit ‘Post’ instead. The explanation of my choices (#18 above) are as follows:

    Numbers 1 and 2 need no justification. Numbers 3, 4, and 5 refer to the least-action principle. Number 5, Feynman, also serves as a proxy for the huge number of physicists that together created the basis for the standard model. I could have chosen others (E.g., Schwinger, Tomonaga, etc.), but to me Feynman’s view of Q.E.D. is the most physical, and therefore makes a greater impact on the way we view the laws of nature.

    After Maxwell, whose unifying view of electromagnetic phenomena is so fundamental as to be entirely taken for granted today, the choices are more difficult. I chose the final four for the composite view they offer of the fundamental nature of atomic-scale physics.

    I don’t like that I had to stop at 10 though, because there are a few more that really need to be included. I think Yang and Lee are probably more deserving of a spot than any two of the final four in my list, but I excluded them only because the scale of their contribution hasn’t been appreciated by a large enough audience to really change the way most people think of the laws of nature… I’m not really sure I believe that though, so I could probably be persuaded easily that they deserve a place in the top 10.

  21. #21 Paul Johnson
    August 29, 2008

    Don’t forget Tesla

    also i think alain aspect deserves an honorable mention

  22. #22 steve
    August 29, 2008

    Lise Meitner seems to always be forgotten. Otto Han got the Nobel prize even though she did all of the physics of it. I don’t know enough yet to make a good list though.

  23. #23 Torbj´┐Żrn Larsson, OM
    August 29, 2008

    I’m not raking according to raw intelligence, but mainly by the importance of their ideas and discoveries to the advancement of our understanding of the universe.

    So it’s result, including luck, over solid work? Otherwise I would certainly disqualify Einstein as his productive life was rather short.

    Hmm. Then:

    1 Newton.
    2 Noether.
    3 Boltzmann.
    4 Heisenberg.
    5 Einstein.
    6 Lagrange.
    7 Hamilton.
    8 Maxwell.
    9 Hilbert.
    10 Galilei. (Mainly for his astronomy, as the rest is made superfluous.)

    And since using given names seems popular in this thread, the list in that format:

    1 Isaac.
    2 Emmy.
    3 Ludwig.
    4 Werner.
    5 Albert.
    6 Giuseppe.
    7 William.
    8 James.
    9 David.
    10 Galileo.

    I will defend both Noether and Hilbert as part time mathematical physicists, as they explicitly considered physics of symmetries and energies et cetera.

  24. #24 Torbj÷rn Larsson, OM
    August 29, 2008

    Btw, I see it as a toss up between Carnot and Boltzmann, but one or the other TD personages should be in there early on.

  25. #25 Lassi Hippelńinen
    August 30, 2008

    Incredible… the theme is “the importance of their ideas and discoveries to the advancement of our understanding of the universe”, and nobody mentions Copernicus! Who moved the centre of the Universe away from the Earth?

    Next Newton moved the centre to the Galaxy, and then Einstein showed that it just wasn’t a meaningful concept.

    Defining greatness is difficult, but certainly questioning Truths that are widely accepted in the society should count for something. In that sense Copernicus ranks quite high, even though he didn’t live long enough to receive the society’s punishment (and knew it). It was eventually aimed against Galileo, his follower.

    BTW, philosophers also had big influence (e.g. Hegel and Mach), but I suppose they are as much out of the race as mathematicians.

  26. #26 Thony C.
    August 30, 2008

    Dunc wrote:

    Maxwell really has to be one of the top 3. Galileo was just an astronomer… ­čśë

    Never heard of the Discorsi the foundation stone of modern mathematical physics?

    Lassi wrote:

    Incredible… the theme is “the importance of their ideas and discoveries to the advancement of our understanding of the universe”, and nobody mentions Copernicus!

    Copernicus really was only an astronomer! He only wrote about the mathematical determination of planetary orbits and nothing about the physics of why they move!

    Having said that, a man who should be in any top five is definitely Kepler the “first astro-phycisist”, he was the very first scientist to offer a scientific explanation for the planetary orbits and the first to use the concept of force in the modern sense. Beyond that he discovered the first truely mathematical law of physics, the inverse square law of light propagation.

  27. #27 Lassi Hippelńinen
    August 30, 2008

    What is this “only an anstronomer” meme? If we are discussing about understanding the Universe, astronomy is the most relevant field, because it contains cosmology. Math may be the Queen of Sciences, but astronomy is the Grandmother. Most branches of physics have their roots in astronomy, and pretty much of applied math as well.

    Besides, neither Copernicus nor Galileo were great as astronomers. They were great as thinkers. They broke glass ceilings.

    On the small side, microcosmos has its own heroes (plus Einstein, who was there as well), but even quantum mechanics has connections to astronomy in the field of astrophysics. And neutron stars (remember Chandrasekhar?) aren’t that small…

    Anyway, the greatest physicist of all time was without doubt George Gamow. He was two metres tall.

  28. #28 Thony C.
    August 30, 2008

    Lassi you are running away with yourself. Matt specifically asked for a list of the ten greatest physicists not the ten greatest scientist/thinkers/effecters or change or anything else! In the modern meaning of the word Copernicus was not a physicist. In fact in the meaning of the word in his own time, roughly natural philosopher, he doesn’t qualify as one either. Apart from some short very conventional texts on astrological medicine, he was a practicing doctor, which may or may not be from him and a text on political economy, the only “scientific” works that we have from Copernicus, three in number; are all works of mathematical astronomy. Contrary to what you wrote Copernicus was an excellent mathematical astronomer and the main value of his De revolutionibus was that it was the first major work of mathematical astronomy since Ptolemaeus’ Syntaxis Mathematike but as it turned out not a great improvement being based on the same inaccurate data, cue Tycho Brahe! Galileo was also an excellent observational astronomer as can be seen from his Sidereus nuncius and unlike Copernicus very much a physicist in the modern sense of the word.

  29. #29 Dan Riley
    August 30, 2008

    My top ten:

    Newton, Galileo, Maxwell, Faraday, Fermi, Einstein, Bethe, Landau, Feynman, Gibbs

    In my opinion, the characteristics of a great physicist include contributions to a wide range of problems. In this respect, I’d particularly like to make the case for Hans Bethe and Lev Landau, who made fundamental contributions to an astonishing variety of problems but never achieved the pop-icon status of Einstein or Feynman.

  30. #30 Garbage
    August 30, 2008

    We physicist study five major areas during our bachelors (or should)

    classical mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics/statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and relativity (should know both, special and general).

    These are the things a physicist should know, adding the math. Combinations of these lead to QFT and other areas, so it’s basically down to this 5.

    So, picking 2 guys from each it should be (no particular order and leaving the greeks aside who should get all the gold medals anyway… Archimedes was probably, together with Gauss and Newton, the smartest guy on the block..) including runner ups…

    Classical Mechanics: Galileo-Newton (Lagrange and Hamilton)
    Electromagnetism: Maxwell – Faraday (Helmoltz and Ampere)
    Thermodynamics -StacMach: Carnot – Boltzmann (Gibbs and Kelvin)
    Relativity: Poincare – Einstein (Lorentz and Minkowski)
    Quantum Mechanics: Planck – Heisenberg (Bohr/Einstein and Schroedinger)


  31. #31 Lassi Hippelńinen
    August 31, 2008

    @Thony C: read again the quote in my first comment (#25).

    And you just proved that Copernicus and Galileo weren’t that much in astronomy. They had many other things in their minds going on. In those days (and even today) all bright minds were involved also in astronomy. Even the Popes.

  32. #32 Thony C.
    August 31, 2008

    And you just proved that Copernicus and Galileo weren’t that much in astronomy

    ????????!!!!! How?

    Also in your original quote you perpetuate the myth of religious opposition to Copernicus and his theory. Sorry there wasn’t any or at least any that can be taken seriously. Galileo’s argument with the church was about who has the right to interpret the bible and was by and large a fairly local affair. The story that you still seem to believe is mostly a myth created in the 18th and 19th centuries and which despite the best efforts of the historians of science goes on being repeated ad nauseam!

  33. #33 Taxorgian
    August 31, 2008

    Does anyone think Emmy Noether is a possible candidate? The centrality of the idea that anything, no matter what it is, that is conserved is due to a symmetry in Nature really fundamentally changed the way physics is understood.

    I would understand the argument that she doesn’t count due to being a pure mathematician (rather than someone like Gauss who was both a mathematician and an experimental physicist).

  34. #34 Thony C.
    August 31, 2008

    Emmy counts; the Einstein-Noether theorem is theoretical physics; the boundries are very fluid. Is Schwinger a physicist or a mathematician? His work is purely theoretical and purely mathematical.

  35. #35 Invader Xan
    August 31, 2008

    Well, I’d certainly agree with Einstein, Newton, Hawking and Galileo.

    As for others, Nikola Tesla deserves a mention. Perhaps Ludwig Boltzmann… Erwin Schrodinger… Paul Dirac… Arthur Eddington… Ernest Rutherford…

    And what about Charles Darwin? Or William of Occam? Granted, Occam was a philosopher, but his principle has been used by scientists for hundreds of years. By all accounts, it’s still a good rule of thumb!

    Interesting topic. Difficult choices too!

  36. #36 Kobra
    September 1, 2008

    Just to throw it out there: Nikola Tesla.

  37. #37 Hamsterpoop
    September 1, 2008

    Obvious physicists are obvious. But seriously, don’t miss Tesla.

  38. #38 Frederick Ross
    September 1, 2008

    If you cut Gauss for being a mathematician, that implies we’re looking for people who’s contribution was really only to the physics, not to the mathematics. So I’m cutting Newton and Dirac. My criterion is much more a of a “physicist’s physicist,” not someone who proclaimed one great theory, but someone who mucked about all over the place.

    1. Galileo – one of the few men in history cranky enough to invent physics as we know it
    2. Einstein – wandered widely while he wandered, then got paralyzed into working on “important” problems
    3. Landau – the physicist’s physicist par excellence
    4. Gibbs – statistical mechanics as we know it, published from an obscure university by subscription
    5. Fermi – the last combination calculating machine and lab rat
    6. Feynman – the calculating machine
    7. Taylor – some of the most lovely, broad ranging continuum mechanics in history
    8. Faraday – the lab rat
    9. Zel’dovich – what didn’t he work on?
    10. Wheeler – a source of beautiful, crazy ideas

  39. #39 CCPhysicist
    September 1, 2008

    Most entertaining.

    I rather like the approach of #30, but question including Planck for what is basically a kludge (ditto for Bohr). I’d say Heisenberg and Dirac, particularly for Dirac’s key proof that Heisenberg’s QM reduces to classical mechanics if not for that equation for an electron. And I’d put Pauli with Schroedinger in parentheses. I’d also include Maxwell in brackets for thermodynamics.

    But what if you looked at it from a unification perspective? Newton came up with a theory that unified terrestrial gravity with the actions in the cosmos while inventing classical mechanics as we know it today. Maxwell unified electricity and magnetism and invented a theory for light that is still used today. Weinberg and Salam (independently) unified weak and electromagnetic forces, inventing an entirely new class of particles along the way, yet NO ONE has mentioned them at all! A slightly weaker case can be made to include Feynman, for unifying models for light and the quantum electron, and Dirac for unifying the theories of quantum and classical mechanics for massive particles.

  40. #40 Dunc
    September 2, 2008

    killinchy (#14): I was joking. Hence the smiley.

  41. #41 John Baez
    September 2, 2008

    1) Newton
    2) Einstein
    3) Maxwell
    4) Galileo
    5) Heisenberg
    6) Faraday
    7) Boltzmann
    8) Dirac
    9) Pauli

    I would like to include Gauss, Hamilton, Laplace, Lagrange, or Fourier, but they were good enough at math to not feel too bad about not being on this list.

  42. #42 antonio carlos motta
    November 29, 2009

    6-ed witten
    10-w r hamilton

  43. #43 antonio carlos motta
    November 29, 2009

    greatest mathematicians

  44. #44 John Davis
    December 18, 2009

    Responding to #34: Is Schwinger a physicist or a mathematician?
    His work is purely theoretical and purely mathematical.

    Of course his work was theoretical and mathematical. Not only was
    Schwinger one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th
    century, he was also one of the greatest phenomenologists of the 20th
    century. His contributions to and influence on modern physics is astounding. I rank
    him at or above Pauli and I place Feynman below them.

    December 31, 2009


    This law goes down in history so I should be on the list.

  46. #46 Evidence
    January 9, 2011

    Newton ,Einstein

  47. The trick is to make a Top Ten list of the best future physicists. One could reasonably argue that the greatest contribution to modern science – its entire underpinning – is the ball point pen. Add the HP-35 and the CRC Handbook

  48. #48 SesliALeyram
    May 12, 2011

    Copernicus ger├žekten sadece bir astronom oldu! O sadece gezegen y├Âr├╝ngelerinin matematiksel belirlenmesi ve hi├žbir hareket ettiklerini neden fizik hakk─▒nda yazd─▒!

    Sahip oldu─čumuz be┼č yukar─▒ gereken bir adam kesinlikle Kepler oldu─čunu s├Âyledi “ilk astro-phycisist”, o gezegen y├Âr├╝ngelerinden i├žin bilimsel bir a├ž─▒klama sunan ilk bilim adam─▒ ve kuvvet kavram─▒n─▒ kullanmak i├žin bir ilk oldu Modern anlamda. Bunun ├Âtesinde o fizik ilk ger├žek matematiksel kanunu, ─▒┼č─▒k yay─▒lmas─▒ ters kare yasas─▒n─▒ da buldu.

  49. #49 TAD
    November 25, 2011

    10. Hilbert

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