APS News

June 2000 (Volume 9, Number 6)

That's It Folks! For the Last Time: Even More Top Ten Physicists

About your list of "top ten physicists": I think that although Heisenberg, Feynman, Schr"dinger were very important, they are in the list because of either their charisma (Feynman - why not Tomonaga or Schwinger, then ?) or because they summed up the advances of debates at their times (Heisenberg and Schroedinger : without de Broglie, Born, Planck, I do not think they would be there). I suggest to replace them with people like Faraday, Ampere, Coulomb, Gauss, who were more "stand-alone" geniuses, working as well in experimental as theoretical physics. The Curies, Fermi, etc, should also belong in the list, which looks Anglo-German, quantum-mechanical, and XXth century biased to me.

Florent Calvayrac
Laboratoire de Physique de l'Etat Condense; Universite du Maine-Faculte des Sciences

The Physics World survey (not only the first 10 physicists) reveals a double bias. First toward modern times and second in favor of theoreticians. Further, while it is in order to make a rank-list after a poll, there is no need for that in an individual choice. Here are my top ten physicists who have contributed to physics the most:

  1. Archimedes (great physicist, engineer, and mathematician), who laid the foundations of statics and hydrostatics.
  2. Isaac Newton (great physicist and mathematician), who laid the foundations of dynamics and hydrodynamics, and the theory of gravitation.
  3. Michael Faraday (arguably the greatest experimentalist of all time), who laid down the foundations (together with James Clerk Maxwell) of the physics of electromagnetism, the cornerstone of modern civilization.
  4. James Clerk Maxwell, who by formulating the electromagnetic theory not only made a unification of two formally disparate fields, but introduced the notion of the physical field, probably the most important concept of modern physics.
  5. Albert Einstein (arguably the greatest theoretical physicist of all time), who has revised at the most fundamental level Newton's concepts of space and time, his dynamics and theory of gravity.
  6. Galileo Galilei (great physicist and astronomer), who laid the foundations of modern science, by introducing both mathematical and experimental methods into science and thus separated it definitely from scholasticism and metaphysics.
  7. Ludwig Boltzmann (great theoretician and epistemologist), who has laid down foundations of thermodynamics, with Maxwell's electromagnetic theory, considered the crown of 19-century physics.
  8. Ernest Rutherford, who has, by elucidating the structure of atomic systems, opened the door of the microworld, previously inaccessible to our experience.
  9. Erwin Schroedinger (great theoretician and polymath), who has formulated his equation, with Newton's one the most important in the history of science and contributed decisively to the overall development of quantum mechanics, arguably the greatest theoretical achievement of science in general.
  10. Paul Dirac (great theoretician), who laid down the foundations of relativistic quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, the latter being, as such, the most advanced achievement of physics of our time.
Petar Grujic
Belgrade, Serbia, Yugoslavia

While the names on the list are certainly among the outstanding physicists in history it seems strange that one name has been left out. A man who discovered not one, not two, but three universal laws, who was as responsible as Maxwell in unifying fields, who outgrew his accomplishments in physics and became a statesman, whose name is familiar among physicists from Seoul to Sao Paulo, who founded an institution which has benefited tens of thousands of the most under-privileged physicists, who kept open a channel to the West to physicists from behind the Iron Curtain when no one else would have them, certainly belongs on any list of ten outstanding physicists in history. I refer of course to Abdus Salam.

Munawar Karim, Professor
Department of Physics, St. John Fisher College

I think it's an omission not to have Enrico Fermi on the list. He made fundamental contributions to both solid state and particle physics. Sometimes, it's hard to believe that the concepts of fermions and Fermi surfaces (as well as a host of others) are attributable to the same physicist. It seems to me that he could replace a number of those on the list: Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Dirac, perhaps even Feynman. The ancients are more sacrosanct, and it's hard to compare their work with that of the modern physicists anyway, so I'd leave Newton and Galileo on.

Bruce Schumm
University of California, Santa Cruz

More on "Who were the top ten physicists?" Don Lichtenberg (April issue) made some good points but, like most others, he neglects experimentalists and underestimates the contributions of prequantum physicists. Was it easier to establish Coulomb's law or discover electricity (both circa 1790) than to observe the scattering of alpha rays (1913) or measure the speed of neutrons (˜1940)? Was it less significant for Laplace (also the inventor of cosmology) to formulate classical mechanics in terms of his equations than to derive a Laplacian formulation of quantum mechanics? What was more astounding: that light could be shown to produce very puzzling shadows indeed when passed through Young's slits, or that "matter waves" also interfered? Inexcusably also, one would get the impression that this most impressive achievement of classical physics, thermodynamics, was not an essential part of physics. Maybe the problem with thermodynamics is that, like quantum mechanics, it was a collective sort of achievement. Don Lichtenberg could not choose between Heisenberg, Schr"dinger and Dirac, similarly after hesitating between Carnot, Clausius, Gibbs, etc., I chose Boltzmann! Experimentalists I order chronologically because the available technologies of their respective times makes them uncomparable.

Here I go then (after much agonizing)

Top five theorists:
  • Newton
  • Einstein
  • Schroedinger
  • Maxwell
  • Boltzmann

Top five experimentalists:

  • Galileo
  • Coulomb
  • Young
  • Faraday
  • Rutherford

And how about old Archimedes? Wasn't he the first of them all?

Bernard Terreault
Universite du Quebec

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

June 2000 (Volume 9, Number 6)

Table of Contents

APS News Archives

Contact APS News Editor

Articles in this Issue
Council Statement Focus on Missile Defense, Science Funding
That's It Folks! For the Last Time: Even More Top Ten Physicists
This Month in Physics History
Re-"Creating Copenhagen" at CUNY Symposium
Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis
March and April 2000 Prizes and Awards Recipients
The Back Page
Scientific Community Speaks Out on Behalf of FY2001 NSF R&D Budget
Editorial Cartoon
Topsy Turvy: Researchers Announce First True "Left-Handed" Material
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Satisfaction High for Undergrad Physics Bachelors
Writing Workshops Teach Basics of Communicating with Public
Career Liaisons Gather for Workshop on Professional Development