In a recent article Robin McKie presents his list of the 10 best physicists. Such lists are essentially meaningless – but it’s fun to argue and think about them! So here’s my own list of the 10 greatest physicists.
Isaac Newton – couldn’t not be on the list. Calculus, gravitation, laws of motion, optics, reflecting telescope and so on and so on and so on. I’m not ordering this list, but if I were Newton would be top.
Albert Einstein – special relativity, mass-energy equivalence, photoelectric effect, Brownian motion – all in one year! And general relativity on top of that. If I were ordering this list, which I’m not, Einstein would be second.
James Clerk Maxwell – electromagnetism, one of the great unifications in physics. Shame he’s not more widely known.
Galileo Galilei – Einstein called him the father of modern science. Galileo has to be on the list.
Archimedes – he doesn’t often appear on these “top-10” lists, but Archimedes was the leading scientist of antiquity.
Michael Faraday – discoveries include electrolysis, diamagnetism, electromagnetic induction; his experimental work formed the basis for Maxwell’s theories. One of the greatest experimentalists of all time.
Ernest Rutherford – the greatest experimentalist since Faraday. The father of nuclear physics.
Paul Dirac – early fundamental work in quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics; predicted the existence of antimatter; the Dirac equation describes the behaviour of fermions.
Enrico Fermi – one of my favourite physicists. He was the last of the great physicists who excelled in both experiment and theory.
John Bardeen – the only person to have one the Nobel prize for physics on two occasions. His work has had a huge impact on all our lives.
Three or four of the names can’t be argued with. After that, it gets more tricky. Cases can be made for Bohr, Schrödinger, Pauli, Heisenberg, Curie, Wigner… I could mention a dozen more.