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Sunday, 6 March 2016

What Makes a Great Physicist?

The latest issue of Fortean Times (FT338, March 2016) includes my review of the book pictured above (the one in the middle – the other two are shameless self-promotion): 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.

17 comments:

Brian Clegg said...

Thanks, Andrew - I would note that in the final chapter we point out that we don't agree with the list either! Rhodri can comment better why that list was used as it was his decision, but for me the sheer fact that it was bound to cause disagreement was part of his appeal...

Andrew May said...

Yes, I got the impression the list was meant to provoke discussion rather than claiming to be a definitive top ten.

Kid said...

'Though I like to consider myself a bit of a genius (with absolutely no reason to do so), this subject is well over my head. So at the risk of dumbing down, Andrew, what would be your top ten list of Marvel creators?

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid. I saw a similar question online a few years ago, and after thinking about it for a while I realized I'm really not qualified to answer. For one thing, my knowledge of Marvel's output is very patchy (confined to the relatively few periods I was buying comics), but also my memory is even patchier! You, on the other hand, are much better qualified in both respects - so do let me know your top ten and I'll see what I think of it!

I could just about hazard a personal top ten, if it's limited to the 60s and 70s: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Rich Buckler, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Frank Brunner.

Kid said...

I'd say (off the top of my head) Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, John Buscema, Roy Thomas, Gene Colan, Larry Lieber, Barry Smith, Jim Starlin. Which only makes me realize I need a bigger list than just ten.

Andrew May said...

So you're thinking about the same period as I was! I'm sure you're right that you can't do justice to the whole 50+ years of Marvel in just ten names. Even with that expanded timescale, the six people common to both our lists really need to be on it.

Colin Jones said...

A few weeks ago I was listening to Stephen Hawking's Reith Lectures on Radio 4 about black holes. They were very interesting but at the end there was a Q&A session and I was surprised to hear Hawking say that Mankind will eventually depart Earth for other stars...oh, come on that's just sci-fi claptrap (as much as I enjoy sci-fi). The way we are going this planet will be wrecked within a couple of centuries and we'll be back in the Stone Age.

Andrew May said...

Sadly I agree with you, Colin, except that I wouldn't say Stone Age but Iron Age or Dark Ages. I think the kind of subsistence culture that existed between circa 1000 B C and 1000 AD is the only really natural, stable state for Homo sapiens.

Kid said...

It's interesting that spaceships, 'phones, televisions, cars, trains even, and just about every other form of modern technology would once have been considered claptrap, CJ. And while I can't imagine a mass exodus to other planets being likely, I'm smart enough not to be dogmatic on the matter. One never can tell. Talking to someone on the other side of the world via a little box called a 'mobile'? Sci-Fi claptrap, surely? Oh, wait a minute - it's a reality.

Andrew May said...

I think you both have good points. Kid is right that travel to the stars might be technically feasible one day, and in fact probably seems less far-fetched to us today than a lot of modern technology did 50 or 100 years ago.

On the other hand, I understood Colin's point to be about sociology/politics/economics rather than scientific feasibility. Modern technological society is much more vulnerable to instability and collapse than many people realise. A social revolution by anti-caitalist anarchists or religious fundamentalists leading back to a quasi-medieval society is probasbly more likely than all the world pooling its resources and building a multi-zillion dollar starship.

Kid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kid said...

And I don't necessarily disagree with any of that, Andrew. However, if some of those nutters were to get their hands on nuclear weapons and decide to commit planetary suicide, the idea that survivors might set their sights on the stars seems somehow less unlikely than it might at first appear. I remember someone I know proposing the notion that one day the people of Earth would move to other planets and my reaction was much like CJ's. However, very often the ridiculous only seems so because it hasn't yet been done. The idea of some kind of 'skycraft' which could carry hundreds of people (and even machinery) must've seemed absurd (if not totally mad) to people less than a couple of centuries ago, yet today we have aeroplanes. Of course, the biggest obstacle of any kind of mass exodus would be the expense, so if it were ever possible, it would only be the obscenely rich and our political masters who would be likely to take such a trip. Yes, even if it became possible, it's yet a very long way off, but I'm always wary of saying 'never' about anything.

Andrew May said...

Very good point, Kid. Sometimes it's worth saying things are "impossible" just in the hope of being proved wrong.

Colin Jones said...

Even if such an "ark" could be built it would have to be multi-generational and of course it would require the convenient discovery of an Earth-like planet that Mankind could settle on. But that planet's ecosystem would be completely alien to us and would contain micro-organisms in the air/water etc that would be fatal to humans as we'd have no defence against them (like the Martian invaders are killed in War Of The Worlds). Even if all these problems could be overcome there's the moral question of what right do we have to just take another planet as our own after we've f**ked up this one ? Anyway, I still believe that the most likely future for Mankind is the collapse of civilisation after we've inevitably trashed this planet's environment.

Kid said...

You're assuming on what a planet might be like, CJ, based on what you've seen or read in SF books, comics and movies, which is hardly a sound basis to pronounce as fact what an Earth-like planet might be like. And man is adaptable to his environment on this planet, remember, so it's not out of the question that he'd be on another. For myself, I don't have a scooby as to what the future holds, but neither does anyone else, so I prefer to avoid making rash or dogmatic statements on the as yet unknown. However, I will say this - a planetary exodus seems unlikely to me too, but I would never say with any certainty that the idea is 'claptrap'. Nobody knows.

Colin Jones said...

Kid, I don't use science-fiction to assume what alien planets are like ! To me it seems like common sense that an alien planet (even an Earth-like one) would have an equally alien ecosystem teeming with micro-organisms against which humans would have evolved no protection. You don't need to go to alien planets to see examples of this - when Europeans conquered the Americas they took viruses with them which killed millions of native Americans and nowadays we live with the real possibility of a mutated bird-flu virus becoming a global pandemic. Surely on an alien planet with a totally alien ecosystem it would be far worse.

Kid said...

I'd say you do, CJ, because, quite naturally, people form opinions based on what they read in popular culture, as well as what they experience in real life. And your own example counts against you, as the Native Americans must've built up an immunity to 'European' viruses or they'd all have been wiped out. (And did the Europeans catch any viruses from the Native Americans?) Again, you're making an assumption, as while it's perfectly possible that an alien planet could exist like you describe, it's also possible that a planet with an ecosystem entirely beneficial to human beings could likewise exist. I know enough to know that I don't know everything - you don't seem to let that hold you back.