Physics Day Poll: Favorite Physicist?

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.

65 Replies to “Physics Day Poll: Favorite Physicist?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. Dirac,
    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?”

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

  11. 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.

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

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

  14. 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.

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