Sunday, December 05, 1999

The Top Ten Physicists

The top-ten physicists in history according to two polls have been announced. Can you guess the names in the lists? Is Richard Feynman in the lists? If so, what is his ranking?

One of the polls was conducted by Physics World magazine, published by the Institute of Physics (IOP), the British professional organization of physicists celebrating its 125th anniversary this year [1]. The other was made by PhysicsWeb, also published by IOP on the web [2]. We can extract another top-ten list from John Simmons' book [3], which gives a ranking of 100 most influential scientists from the past to the present.

The three lists are combined in the table below.

Ranking PhysicsWeb survey Physics World survey Simmons
1 Isaac Newton Albert Einstein Isaac Newton
2 Albert Einstein Isaac Newton Albert Einstein
3 James Clerk Maxwell James Clerk Maxwell Niels Bohr
4 Galileo Galilei Niels Bohr Galileo Galilei
5 Paul Dirac Werner Heisenberg Johannes Kepler
6 Niels Bohr Galileo Galilei Nicolaus Copernicus
7 Max Planck Richard Feynman Michael Faraday
8 Richard Feynman Paul Dirac
Erwin Schrödinger
James Clerk Maxwell
9 Michael Faraday   Werner Heisenberg
10 Erwin Schrödinger Ernest Rutherford Erwin Schrödinger

Six physicists are present in all the three lists: Newton, Einstein, Maxwell, Galilei, Bohr and Schrödinger. Four physicists appear twice: Dirac, Feynman, Faraday and Heisenberg. Planck, Rutherford, Kepler and Copernicus are found in a single list. Among the physicists of the 20th century, the number of theorists is overwhelmingly larger than that of experimentalist.

PhysicsWeb also gives the names that followed the top ten. Among those, the names not included in the other top ten lists either are: Ludwig Boltzmann, Enrico Fermi, Archimedes, Stephen Hawking, Lev Landau, J. J. Thomson, Marie Curie, Lord Rayleigh, Aristotle, Wolfgang Pauli, John Bardean, Edwin Hubble, Charles Townes and Abdus Salam.

In the ranking chosen by Simmons from all the fields of science, Schrödinger, 10th among physicists, is 18th, and Feynman comes at the 52nd. It is to be noted that all these lists are biased to the Western world, though it is true that there are not much candidates in the Eastern world.

Girls and boys, be ambitious to place your own name in such a list in the next century!
  1. Physics World, December issue (1999); cited by Physics News Update, No. 459 (1999).
  2. PhysicsWeb News, November issue (1999).
  3. J. Simmons, "The Scientific 100" (Carol Publishing Group, 1996).
Read essays related to Richard Feynman: "What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?"


  1. where is ed witten? newton was the greatest physicists of all the times.i accord with the others...
    and freeman dyson,chen ning yang,

    antonio carlos pocobi motta

  2. Anonymous4:44 AM

    Einstein was the greatest physicist of all-time. GR supplanted Newton's law of gravity; calculus was co-invented with Leibniz (and till this day we still use Leibniz's standard notations not Newton's); and lastly, Einstein was essentially the father of Quantum Theory. Ed Witten and a few others have good arguments for them as well.