Ten Physicists Who Transformed Our Understanding of Reality by Rhodri Evans and Brian Clegg. As I say in the review, it’s an excellent choice of title. Far too many people dismiss physics as boring and irrelevant, without stopping to think how much it’s changed the Western World’s collective view of reality. If you think of a “planet” as a world like the Earth, rather than a tiny dot of light in the sky, then you’re subscribing to a worldview that simply didn’t exist before Galileo and Newton came onto the scene. The everyday technology most people take for granted – wifi, capacitive touch screens, GPS, fibre broadband, lithium-ion batteries – could never have been developed without the groundwork laid by physicists like Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein.
One thing I nobly refrained from doing in my review was to criticize Rhodri and Brian’s choice of “top ten”. I honestly don’t think that’s a particularly worthwhile thing to do. On the other hand, once a challenge like that has been laid down it’s difficult to resist – so I’m going to rise to it anyway (this is my blog, after all).
As it happens, the ten physicists in the book weren’t chosen by the authors – they’re taken from a top ten list published in the Observer newspaper in 2013. If the aim is simply to produce a list, rather than to write a book, then maybe you can just go for the people you think did more than anyone else to “transform our understanding of reality”. Even by that criterion, though, I’m not sure I agree with everyone on the list (and neither does Nobel-prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg, in his foreword to the book). When you’re writing a book, however, there are potentially other criteria to consider besides how important a person’s contribution was.
Another thing I said in the review was that “any book of this type is going to involve a mix of biography and popular science” … and if anything, this book is biased toward the former rather than the latter. If you’re writing biographies, you really want subjects who are “interesting” as well as “important”. The two physicists in my Pocket Giants books – Newton and Einstein – certainly fall in both categories. I can’t imagine they would be missing from anyone’s top ten – and the same is true of Galileo, Faraday and Marie Curie.
The only name that is unambiguously up there with those five in terms of importance is James Clerk Maxwell. As I pointed out not long ago, Maxwell is strangely unknown to the public at large, even though the modern high-tech world arguably owes more to him than any of the other five. The fact is, though, Maxwell simply wasn’t very interesting. He didn’t argue with the Pope (like Galileo), didn’t dabble in alchemy (like Newton), wasn’t the son of a blacksmith (like Faraday), didn’t have a sex life that made tabloid headlines (like Marie Curie) and wasn’t an outspoken political campaigner (like Einstein).
Boring or not, no top ten list can seriously omit Maxwell. On the other hand, I would replace another notoriously boring physicist – Paul Dirac – with his much more exciting contemporary Erwin Schrödinger (who I wrote about for 30-second Quantum Theory). Not only was Schrödinger a nicer and more interesting person than Dirac, but I can just about understand his version of quantum theory (which is more than can be said for Dirac).
Replacing Dirac with Schrödinger addresses another mildly embarrassing thing about Rhodri and Brian’s list – six of their ten are from English-speaking countries. Partly for that reason (and also because he wasn’t so much a great physicist as “in the right place at the right time”) I would ditch Lord Rutherford. It’s not obvious who to replace him with, but Steven Weinberg’s suggestion of Ludwig Boltzmann is as good as any. That would address another deficiency of the list, namely that it focuses exclusively on reductionist physics rather than the equally important physics of macro-systems.
Finally, I would reinstate the person who is most conspicuously absent from the list – Stephen Hawking. He is far and away the best known physicist of modern times, even if not the most significant (the authors say “there are a whole host of other physicists who didn’t make the cut who would be placed above Hawking by anyone who knows the field”). But as I said, my criteria include “interesting” as well as “important” … so Stephen Hawking pushes Richard Feynman out of the chronological tenth spot.
To summarise (if anyone cares) my list is: Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Boltzmann, Marie Curie, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Hawking.