Over in Twitter-land, there’s a bunch of talk about how this is National Physics Day. I don’t know how I missed that, what with all the media coverage and all.

I have too much other stuff to do to generate any detailed physics content today, so we’ll settle for an informal poll to mark the occasion:

Who is your favorite physicist, other than Einstein, Newton, or Feynman?

The qualifier is just to knock out the too-obvious answers, and force a little more thought. Everybody likes Einstein and Newton and Feynman, but we hear about them all the time. For a major holiday like Physics Day, let’s go a little deeper.

Other than that one restriction, it’s wide open: could be living or dead, theorist or experimentalist, whatever. The definition of “favorite” is open as well– whatever you want that to mean. Though it would be nice if you explained your reasoning in the comments.

Restricting this to historical figured, because while picking living people is allowed, it just feels kind of creepy to me, I’d go with either Ernest Rutherford or Michael Faraday, because experimentalists don’t get enough love. If you put a gun to my head and made me pick only one, I’d probably go with Rutherford, whose experiments launched all of nuclear physics, and revolutionized our understanding of the atom. Plus, he’s more quotable than Faraday.

Some links: a biography of Rutherford, and a write-up of his most famous experiment.


  1. #1 Jennifer Ouellette
    April 24, 2012

    I’ve always been a Michael Faraday fan. But could also cite Sean Carroll. For personal reasons. :)

  2. #2 James
    April 24, 2012

    My father: BS Physics Duke 1953, PhD Physics Pittsburgh 1961.

  3. #3 McLain
    April 24, 2012

    I’m not sure… maybe Heisenberg?

  4. #4 paul
    April 24, 2012

    You missed it the same way we missed it: That link is from 1996.

  5. #5 Jeremy Buchanan
    April 24, 2012

    James Clerk Maxwell.

  6. #6 mark
    April 24, 2012

    Paul Dirac, Steven Weinberg.

  7. #7 AliceB
    April 24, 2012

    Benjamin Franklin. He wasn’t only a physicist, not even primarily one, and you won’t usually find him in a physics textbook, but he helped popularize experimentation and sought to explain the physical world such in a way that it might demystify laymen and find useful applications.

  8. #8 TheDogsMother
    April 24, 2012

    Whoever wrote The Cartoon Law of Physics…

  9. #9 --bill
    April 24, 2012

    Faraday or Planck.

  10. #10 David Owen-Cruise
    April 24, 2012

    Team Curie, because I’m an incurable romantic.

  11. #11 stu
    April 24, 2012

    Enrico Fermi, Otto Stern, and John Bardeen. Probably in that order.

  12. #12 Joshua Perkins
    April 24, 2012

    Enrico Fermi.

  13. #13 HP
    April 24, 2012

    Michael Faraday. His story is a love story, and who doesn’t love a love story?

  14. #14 Mary Kay
    April 24, 2012

    That would be my husband, Jordin.

  15. #15 Andy Perrin
    April 24, 2012

    James Lighthill! I am a big fan of his book on waves in fluids (titled Waves in Fluids). After Lighthill I guess G.I. Taylor for working on so many interesting problems, which reminds me of Feynman.

  16. #16 Paul
    April 24, 2012


  17. #17 miguel
    April 24, 2012


  18. #18 Kevin
    April 24, 2012

    No love yet for Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz? Good thing I got here when I did!

  19. #19 Emil Karlsson
    April 24, 2012

    Clearly, my favorite physicist is Carl Sagan!

  20. #20 John H
    April 24, 2012

    There appears to be some confusion about when or if there is a “National Physics Day” this year, but what the heck – my favorite is definitely Chuck Jones.

  21. #21 myllyla
    April 24, 2012

    Niels Bohr

  22. #22 Evan Berkowitz
    April 24, 2012

    I’m having a hard time choosing from Heisenberg, Schrödinger (who should probably be disqualified for quitting physics in favor of biology when he decided that quantum mechanics was abhorrent), Wigner, Dirac, Oppenheimer, Gell-Mann, Weinberg, and Coleman, so here they all are in a big list. I like Majorana primarily for the story of his mysterious disappearance.

  23. #23 Alex
    April 24, 2012

    Does Oliver Heaviside count? He invented the distortionless transmission line and the coaxial cable, created the Step function (which Dirac later turned into the Delta function), helped to create vector analysis in its current form, reduced Maxwell’s equations from 26 to four equations, and wrote possibly the best books on E&M ever.

  24. #24 colin-loftus
    April 24, 2012

    Brian cox is the best

  25. #25 puzzled
    April 24, 2012


  26. #26 killinchy
    April 24, 2012

    Back in the 70s I knew a physical chemist who did part of his PhD with Arrhenius in Sweden in the 1920s. He later went to the Kaiser Wilhelm in Berlin and met just about everyone. Even later, after he’d returned to Princeton, just about everyone ended up there as well. They included Einstein, Wigner………… you get the picture

    My friend, Hubert, told me years ago that these guys always held Max Planck as the smartest of them all. Over the years I started to wonder if I had made this up. But no, I’ve found a film on which Hubert firmly repeats this.

  27. #27 meeknowit
    April 24, 2012

    Lawrence Krauss is pretty awesome!

  28. #28 Matt Leifer
    April 24, 2012

    Am I allowed to count John von Neumann as a physicist? He is definitely my favorite. True polymath.

  29. #29 Eric Lund
    April 24, 2012


  30. #30 Warren Tyler
    April 24, 2012

    My vote goes to Hans Bethe, an extraordinarily productive, insightful, mentoring genius.
    He explained much of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics (first to calculate, though roughly, the explanation for the Lamb-Retherford shift. His most productive achievement, to me, was the fusion cycle explanation of stellar evolution and life-times.

  31. #31 Ron
    April 24, 2012

    Doug Osheroff, for the great stories he told teaching low temperature lab in the 80s.

  32. #32 Peter Lund
    April 24, 2012

    Cavendish, Heaviside, and Tesla.

  33. #33 Sumantra Sarkar
    April 24, 2012

    Satyendranath Bose, C.V.Raman, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes.

  34. #34 Ken
    April 24, 2012

    Another vote for Maxwell

  35. #35 Dan
    April 24, 2012

    I was always a fan of Rutherford, a great administrator as well as a physicist.

  36. #36 Narad
    April 24, 2012

    Yah, I’ll go with Chandra, but in great part because I know someone who swore he saw him coming out a bathroom stall with his Copley hanging out from his shirt. I’ve got a soft spot for Ernst Mach otherwise.

  37. #37 Aaron
    April 24, 2012

    How has nobody yet said the amazing Chad Orzel?

  38. #38 Jim
    April 24, 2012

    1) He was born within 100m of my house!
    2) The stories about his weirdness…

    Dirac was giving a lecture to students in Cambridge that was to start at 9am, but it had snowed heavily. FInally one student got there at 9:45 to find Dirac 45 mins into the lecture to an empty room.
    … or …
    A student asked Dirac if he could explain something again because the student hadn’t understood. Dirac repeated the exact same explanation as the first time, because that was his best explanation and if the student couldn’t understand that was his problem, not Dirac’s.
    … or …
    Dirac asked for questions at the end of a lecture. A student said “I’m sorry I didn’t understand the last bit”, and got no response. After a long silence Dirac asked “When are you going to ask a question?”

  39. #39 Bill Door
    April 24, 2012

    Josiah Willard Gibbs. That is all.

    Also, surprised I haven’t seen Gauss or Hamilton yet.

  40. #40 Richard
    April 24, 2012

    Anderson! Since he discovered the (Anderson-)Higgs mechanism, and all.

  41. #41 Filip
    April 24, 2012


  42. #42 Alvaro
    April 24, 2012

    Enrico Fermi

  43. #43 Paul
    April 24, 2012


  44. #44 Stu
    April 24, 2012

    Bohr, of course.

  45. #45 Andrew Foland
    April 24, 2012

    Enrico Fermi, for being close to the last one to make major contributions both to theory and experiment.

  46. #46 Sean
    April 24, 2012

    Tesla, all day long.

  47. #47 George
    April 24, 2012

    Maxwell. Mostly because of this story:

    Famous James Maxwell quotes include: “Aye, I suppose I could stay up that late.” – Said after being informed of a compulsory 6 a.m. church service at Cambridge University.

    Among the living I rather like Sir Roger Penrose.

  48. #48 Richard Krueger
    April 24, 2012

    Niels Bohr

  49. #49 Jolyon
    April 24, 2012

    Emmy Noether. There is no other correct answer on this blog!

  50. #50 Joel Martens
    April 24, 2012

    Oliver Heaviside definitely counts and never gets enough love. How many people know and use Maxwells 26 equations?

  51. #51 Mike Olson
    April 24, 2012


  52. #52 Ramu
    April 24, 2012

    Ettore Majorana, the vanished genius.

  53. #53 slw
    April 25, 2012

    I am going to go with Oppenheimer.

  54. #54 Oded
    April 25, 2012

    I kept looking if someone already mentioned Sean Carroll until I noticed the very first comment did…

  55. #55 lucien locke
    April 25, 2012

    Long shot on this one….I agree with most of the comments, have one most will not know.

    Harold Hodges….worked in Bell Labs for most of his life….
    laser, communications, military defense.

  56. #56 K
    April 25, 2012

    Frank Oppenheimer, the younger, and much nicer, brother of J. Robert. Frank was a wonderful teacher.

  57. #57 robert
    April 25, 2012

    Two unsung heroes: Schwinger and Onsager

  58. #58 Ambitwistor
    April 25, 2012

    Roger Penrose.

  59. #59 Paul
    April 25, 2012

    David Bohm.

    59th comment and we’re still listing new ones. Good call excluding the big 3.

  60. #60 Bruce Blackwell
    April 25, 2012

    Josiah Willard Gibbs
    Underrated in my opinion

  61. #61 BM
    April 26, 2012

    Experimentalist: Rabi
    Theorist: Peierls

  62. #62 AJ
    April 26, 2012

    John Stewart Bell. Nominated for a Nobel, but died before the decision was made.

  63. #63 Narad
    April 26, 2012

    How many people know and use Maxwells 26 equations?

    Tom Bearden on line 2.

  64. #64 phayes
    April 28, 2012

    E.T. Jaynes, “The chief architect of a universal Inferential Calculus for science”: http://geocalc.clas.asu.edu/html/Inferential.html

  65. #65 Francesco
    April 29, 2012

    Babbage. Just to name one … Otherwise I have a complete list in mind :)

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