The Greatest Physicists

Over at Built om Facts, Matt is working toward a Tope Ten list of physicists. He says the top three are obvious, but he's soliciting nominations for the rest.

Back in the early days of this blog, I ran a poll for the greatest experiment in physics, and there are worse places to start. Newton and Galileo are two of the obvious three (Einstein is the third), and I think Rutherford and Faraday absolutely belong on the list (Faraday gets bonus points for his interest in outreach to a wide audience). If you want to keep astronomy in with physics, Hubble belongs as well.

Broadening things to include theorists, James Clerk Maxwell and Niels Bohr deserve spots. Feynman would be a pretty good choice, and I'd say Dirac probably belongs in that company as well.

That's nine (not counting Hubble), leaving me one more choice. There are a lot of names still out there, though-- Bardeen, Bell, Curie, Fermi, Heisenberg, Kelvin, Millikan, Planck, Rayleigh, Schrödinger, Wheeler-- and that's without going much outside my own areas of physics. There are lots of high energy types out there that I haven't even begun to try to sort out. Gell-Mann, anyone?

It's a good question, and fun to think about. Who would you put in the all-time top ten?


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Perhaps I'm biased by my long affiliation with Cornell, but I think Bethe deserves some consideration (so far no one has mentioned him over at Built on Facts). I'd also put Fermi higher on my list--certainly ahead of Bohr, and probably ahead of Dirac. Fermi and Bethe were both notable for the extraordinary breadth of their work, which I weight heavily in evaluating greatness. Fermi, of course, was a superb experimenter as well as a great theorist, perhaps the last physicist to have easily deserved a Nobel prize as either. Both were also known as great teachers and mentors who literally changed the face of physics at their respective institutions, and contributed mightily to the 20th century rise of American physics via substantial legacies of students and postdocs.

By Dan Riley (not verified) on 30 Aug 2008 #permalink

Over at "Not Evern Wrong" right now is a great summary of a conference at Harvard this week celebrating (somewhat early) the 60th birthday of the geometer Shing-Tung Yau (you've heard of Calabi-Yau spaces as essntial to String Theory and the Anthropic Landsacpe, and perhaps caught the fight between Yau and the New Yorker about Grigori Perelman's breakthrough in Thurston's geometrization conjecture, which solved in the affirmative the famous Poincaré conjecture, posed in 1904, regarded as one of the most important and difficult open problems in mathematics until it was solved. and how derivative or not were Chinese clarifications).

"Iz Singer's talk was entitled 'The Interface between Geometry and Physics, 1967-2007', and summarized some of the advances in this area that he has been involved with over the years. 1967 was the year of a Battelle conference in Seattle on the intersection of mathematics and physics, organized by deWitt and Wheeler. Singer displayed a copy of a 1966 letter from Feynman to Wheeler turning down an invitation to attend, with the explanation

"I am not interested in what today's mathematicians find interesting."'"

My comment did not make it through moderation, but here's its core.

Feynman had good reason to valorize Physics above pure Mathematics. Richard Feynman, as his biographer James Gleick reports, "believed that the inefficiency, the guessing of equations, the juggling of alternative physical viewpoints were, even now, the key to discovering new laws." As opposed to using a given mathematical idea as a solution searching for a problem.

"Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, 'How did he do it? He must be a genius!'"

Thinking about this further, Lev Landau also deserves mention as a physicist of extraordinary breadth and impact. So, here's my list as posted at "Built on Facts":

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

By Dan Riley (not verified) on 30 Aug 2008 #permalink

I'm reminded of a similar essay in the magazine "Fantasy &Science Fiction", by Isaac Asimov, many years ago. He called them the "ISAAC" awards, (similar to Oscar, Peabody, etc). He acknowledged that it was an exercise in playing god, raising up one physicist to the heights, while ruling another as overrated.

Here's my input at playing god- Archimedes should be up there, not only for principle named after him, based on floating and immersed bodies, but for his work on the lever. Of course most of his work was in mathematics, the "queen" of the sciences. Maybe he should be on the list of all around best scientists ever, rather than being restricted to the "physicists" list. - Alan McIntire

By Alan D. McIntire (not verified) on 30 Aug 2008 #permalink

In the spirit of the modern Olympics, perhaps Chad Orzel would like to suggest the top 10 gold medalist Physicists who were (or are) women? I am not joking. The case can be made that (in the USA at least) Physics is the most male-dominated of all major academic disciplines. I have some clue as to what my wife went through to even get her PhD in Physics, let alone become a professor. Greg Benford classic novel "Timescape" nicely illustrates this with a nice old lady Physics professor who wanders in and out of several scenes, is pretty well ignored by the men, and Greg has explained which actual Nobel laureate this was based upon, who was likewise ignored by the Old Boy Network even after her Nobel. Note that there were women who got no share of the Nobel to which they were entitled (i.e. Jocelyn Bell for discovering the first Pulsar).

Top 10 lists are useful to teachers, for lesson planning purposes, and assigning biographical essays as homework. But if 10 men are assigned to be biographized by a class, it would be an important message to have 10 women likewise assigned to be biographized. Nor are the gold medalists from the men's team to compete directly against those of the women's team, even though some of the women might medal in any case.

A tope ten list? Is that anything like taupe? :-)

what about Kepler? His Three Laws of Planetary Motion are the first predictive scientific laws. Call him an astrophysicist is you must.

Definitely think astrophysics should get included as part of physics (and should be allowed to bring astronomers along as plus-ones :-) ).

I'd rank Newton and Einstein as the top two (not sure about the order). Galileo is also a good call. For me, Paul Dirac would be up there. Richard Feynmann, too. Fred Hoyle?

How about Pierre-Simon Laplace. Huge contributions to maths, astronomy and probability theory (stats underpins most science, nowadays!)

Many of the others people have suggested are also great calls!

In my opinion there is an unquestionable group of Top 5:


and the next are more or less a matter of choice; my picks are:


In other words, now that I reread more carefully the post, I see my list is exactly equal to Chad's (except for putting Maxwell slightly above Rutherford) and the tenth spot goes to Archimedes, as blf suggested. Archimedes's statics was the first physical theory formulated in a mathematical way.

By Alejandro (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

I was, following JVP's suggestion, thinking of Hypatia, Wu, Meitner, Mme Curie, etc.
I got a slight memory leak between Wu and Lee and so typed 'hypatia lee' into a web search, with hilarious consequences.

Top 10 lists are useful to teachers, for lesson planning purposes, and assigning biographical essays as homework.