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Who’s the greatest American physicist in history?

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Josiah Willard Gibbs, who would be my personal pick for "greatest American physicist in history" (Image: Wikipedia Commons).

A photo of an impish Richard Feynman playing the bongos appears in Ray Monk’s biography of Oppenheimer. It is accompanied by the caption “Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger’s main rival for the title of greatest American physicist in history”. That got me thinking; who is the greatest American physicist in history? What would your choice be?

The question is interesting because it’s not as simple as asking who’s the “greatest physicist in history”. The answer to that question tends to usually settle on Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein; in fact few American physicists if any would show up on the top ten list of greatest physicists ever. But limit the question to American physicists and the matter becomes more complicated. Contrast this to asking who’s the greatest American chemist in history; there the answer – Linus Pauling – appears much more unambiguous and widely agreed upon.

Any discussion of “greatest scientist” is always harder than it sounds. By what measure do you judge greatness?: A single, monumental discovery? Contributions to diverse fields? Theory or experiment? Creation of an influential school of physics? Or by looking at lifetime achievement which, rather than focusing on one fundamental discovery, involves many important ones? There are contenders for “greatest American physicist” who encompass all these metrics of achievement.

Here’s what’s concerning: Even a generous, expansive list of contenders for “greatest American physicist” in history is embarrassingly thin compared to a comparable list of European physicists. For instance, let’s consider the last three hundred years or so and think up a selection which includes both Nobel Laureates and non-Nobel Laureates. The condition is to only include American-born physicists, otherwise the list will start becoming absurd.

Here’s my personal list for the title of greatest American physicist in history, in no particular order: Joseph Henry, J. Willard Gibbs, Albert Michelson, Robert Millikan, Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Julian Schwinger, Ernest Lawrence, Edward Witten, John Bardeen, John Slater, John Wheeler and Steven Weinberg. I am sure I am leaving someone out but I suspect other lists would be similar in length. It’s pretty obvious that this list pales in comparison with an equivalent list of European physicists which would include names like Einstein, Dirac, Rutherford, Bohr, Pauli and Heisenberg; and this is just if we include twentieth-century physicists. Not only are the European physicists greater in number but their ideas are also more foundational; as brilliant as the American physicists are, almost none of them made a contribution comparable in importance to the exclusion principle or general relativity.

Note that I said “almost none”. If you ask who’s my personal favorite for “greatest American physicist in history”, it would not be Feynman or Schwinger or Witten; instead it would be Josiah Willard Gibbs, a man who seems destined to remain one of the most underappreciated scientists of all time but who Einstein called “the greatest mind in American history”. Feynman and Schwinger may have invented quantum electrodynamics, but Gibbs invented the foundations of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, a truly seminal contribution that was key to the development of both physics and chemistry. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of concepts like free energy, chemical potential, enthalpy and the phase rule for physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and everything in between. In fact, so influential was Gibbs’s work that it inspired that of Paul Samuelson, who unlike physicists, is actually agreed upon as the greatest American economist in history. If you really want to throw around lists of great American physicists (or even scientists in general), you simply cannot exclude Gibbs. In my dictionary Gibbs’s contributions are comparable to that of any famous relativist or atomic physicist.

More importantly though, the sparse list of great homegrown American physicists makes two things clear. Firstly, that America is truly a land of immigrants; it’s only by including foreign-born physicists like Fermi, Bethe, Einstein, Chandrasekhar, Wigner, Yang and Ulam can the list of American physicists even start to compete with the European list. Secondly and even more importantly, the selection demonstrates that even in 2013, physics in America is a very young science compared to European physics. Consider that even into the 1920s or so, the Physical Review which is now regarded as the top physics journal in the world was considered a backwater publication, if not a joke in Europe (Rhodes, 1987). Until the 1930s American physicists had to go to Cambridge, Gottingen and Copenhagen to study at the frontiers of physics. It was only in the 30s that, partly due to heavy investment in science by both private foundations and the government and partly due to the immigration of European physicists from totalitarian countries, American physics started on the road to the preeminence that it enjoys today. Thus as far as cutting-edge physics goes, America is not even a hundred years old. The Europeans had a head start of three hundred years; no wonder their physicists feature in top ten lists. And considering the very short time that this country has enjoyed at the forefront of science, we have to admit that America has done pretty well.

The embarrassingly thin list of famous American physicists is good news. It means that the greatest American physicist is yet to be born. Now that’s an event we can all look forward to.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jennifer Ouellette 12:34 pm 05/16/2013

    Poor John Bardeen. Dude only won TWO Nobel Prizes and co-invented the transistor, which apparently isn’t enough to make the list. :) Also: no Robert Wilson? For shame. (Just kidding, lists are always subjective.)

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  2. 2. curiouswavefunction 12:40 pm 05/16/2013

    Uh oh, sorry, I did include John Bardeen in an earlier draft. That’s why you should never make drafts, things tend to disappear! Thanks for the suggestions; Bardeen would definitely be Gibbs’s main rival for the title. Wilson is also a great choice. Also, I just thought of Edwin Hubble who was really an astronomer but whose discoveries are monumental for physics.

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  3. 3. bohredbiologist 1:14 pm 05/16/2013

    As pointed out in the article American physics is still in its early days which has meant that there are not too many great American physicists. But unfortunately American physics became prominent during a time when physics hit a slump. Since no theory that has had the impact of quantum physics or relativity has emerged in the last 3 to 4 decades, American physicists haven’t featured in the list. Once comprehensible and testable theories for dark energy, dark matter or quantum gravity is developed, I think this list would expand rapidly.

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  4. 4. M Tucker 1:21 pm 05/16/2013

    I will not argue with your selection of Gibbs as the greatest American physicists. The man accomplished a great deal and he did have an incredible mind but I think you are more likely to connect him with chemistry than physics. I can easily think of him as a physicist though but it seems the majority of his contributions would be encountered when studying chemistry.

    When I was young it seemed to be assumed that the US was at the forefront of all science and technology. It seemed to be a given. No one brought up obvious contradictions to that belief. Since all those scientists came to America at the beginning of WWII and since the Manhattan project was an American effort it seemed only natural to consider all of them Americans. Since the rocket and space exploration programs and even the development of jet aircraft seemed to be, from my naive perspective, American accomplishments, I thought of the scientists who did the fundamental research, and came to work in America, as Americans. It was only later, after high school, and after I discovered “Issac Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology” that I began to get a concept of connections in history, how scientists influenced each other, and I began to pay attention to the nationalities of the scientists. I had foolishly thought of the Soviet Union as a backward nation, ignoring its obvious firsts in the space race. I have come a long way in my understanding since.

    Besides looking for the great scientists I also look for the great ideas. Your piece mentions some of the very best scientists who were involved in some of the great ideas but some names are missing. I know you do not claim to have a complete list but what of the truly monumental ideas of modern cosmology: nucleosynthesis and the cosmic background radiation. When I was in high school Steady State theory was taught alongside the Big Bang theory. Actually my first science book in grade school did not mention the Big Bang theory at all.

    It is a fun exercise to try to come up with the greatest single scientist or to make a list of the greatest but when you are thinking about physics, and you are using a computer and you probably have your cell phone near by and the TV might be on in the background and you navigate your car by GPS, please don’t forget Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley. Americans all. All won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956, all for what was called the transistor effect and for their work in semiconductors. Bardeen actually won TWO Nobel Prizes in Physics: 1956 and 1972. An historic first! Does anyone remember the tube tester at the local hardware or drug store? Remember when the first color TV came onto the market? Does anyone remember the first transistor radio? Remember when the first pocket digital calculator came out? I already had my introduction to the slide rule and owned several before I could afford a digital calculator.

    America is an embarrassingly young nation when compared with the Old World. Heck even Cambridge University is older by something like 500 years! But we have come a long way baby in that short amount of time.

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  5. 5. curiouswavefunction 1:46 pm 05/16/2013

    M Tucker: Well said. I think the other commenter’s take on this is also quite sensible. So much depends on being at the right place at the right time; who knows what Feynman or Witten might have achieved had they come of age during the golden era of quantum mechanics in the 1930s.

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  6. 6. M Tucker 3:00 pm 05/16/2013

    I want to make a small apology. I did not see the other posts before I submitted my first because I had not refreshed my screen. Then I want to say that if you do look at the list of US Nobel Prize winners in physics a lot of Americans show up. Some of their achievements might now seem to not be as remarkable as what Feynman achieved or you might say Feynman might have been able to accomplish more if he had been born sooner but for me that is not really important. In my post I am not trying to say that Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen did more important work. I am trying to say, sort of in agreement with your take on the matter Ash, that making a definitive list of the greats in some sort of hierarchical order is very, very tough. I kind of think the idea of nucleosynthesis is a bigger deal than the transistor but that is because I like origin stories. Because of my age the transistor was a very big deal now taken for granted. Feynman and Schwinger did get the Nobel together in 1965 for their work so they have not been ignored.

    If you hadn’t come up with this post I would not be having so much fun! I really love science and history.

    My current take on the celebration of American scientific achievement is that scientific achievement itself is the important thing; nationality comes in a distant second. However, if you are going to mention Dirac, and I would too, you ought to mention Anderson. I mean we are talking about anti-matter! Who was it that said that the period between Dirac’s equation and the discovery of the positron was a period of “desperation physics?” And they still can’t figure out why regular matter dominates the cosmos! Since Dirac is buried in Florida I like to think of him as one of ours when I do descend into a nationalistic mood.

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  7. 7. S. N. Tiwary 7:53 am 05/17/2013

    In my personal opinion, the greatest physicist in history is Albert Einstein because he is very popular and famous not only in scientific community but also in non-scientific community. Even a common man knows Einstein.
    His contributions are very fundamental and seminal in several fields, e.g., theory of relativity, Photoelectric Effect, Brownian motion, General theory of relativity, Laser physics, Bose-Einstein quantum statistics, BE condensate, New materials, Unification of fundamental forces, etc.
    S. N. Tiwary
    Former head, Dean, V. C. (acting)

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  8. 8. fowlbruce 6:53 am 05/18/2013

    The Founding Grandfather is the obvious choice. Gibbs is a good runner up although no one remembers him today except the thermochemists.

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  9. 9. tharter 7:24 pm 05/18/2013

    Gibbs is an excellent choice, and while men like Bardeen certainly did great work its mere application by comparison to what Gibbs did. Practically everything we do in modern society today fundamentally depends on an understanding of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. Nor were Gibbs insights in thermodynamics at all obvious, they are as seminal as anything Einstein or Newton did.

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  10. 10. Ajit R. Jadhav 11:10 am 11/18/2013

    Quite late comment, this one, but hope it’s OK.

    >> “Gibbs invented the foundations of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics”

    That’s entirely incorrect. Gibbs didn’t at all invent the foundations. He worked to apply them, esp. to more complex chemical systems, and invented some concepts (such as chemical potential) to deal with the complexity.

    But as far as foundations of thermodynamics go, Sadi Carnot, and before him, actually, his father, came first. Then Joule, Clausius, Kelvin, Helmholtz, Rankine, and all. Similarly, for statistical mechanics, Maxwell and Boltzmann precede. And, before them, Herapath, and then, Waterson (a Brit working in Bombay, India). Even for the relatively more advanced concept of free energy, Helmholtz competes.

    Gibbs was a chemist, not a physicist, though his doctorate was in engg. He sure had a sharp, original mind, and several valuable contributions. But crediting him with inventions of foundations of thermo/stat mech is to misplace his work entirely.

    From the specifically physics viewpoint, his greatest contribution perhaps was the explicit development of vector analysis. In chemistry, what he worked on was not foundations but on the application side. Probably, the even lesser-known Tait would qualify for work on _foundations_, but not Gibbs.

    Americans are known to overblow their horns, or of their compatriots, and the recent/first-generation immigrants as a rule are more American in this respect than the American-borns themselves.


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