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Monday, 29 November, 1999, 16:21 GMT
Einstein the greatest
Einstein changed physics for ever Einstein changed physics for ever

Albert Einstein has been voted the greatest physicist of all time in an end of the millennium poll, pushing Sir Isaac Newton into second place.

The survey was conducted among 100 of today's leading physicists.

All-time top ten
1. Albert Einstein
2. Isaac Newton
3. James Clerk Maxwell
4. Niels Bohr
5. Werner Heisenberg
6. Galileo Galilei
7. Richard Feynman
8= Paul Dirac
8= Erwin Schrödinger
10. Ernest Rutherford
"Einstein's special and general theories of relativity completely overturned previous conceptions of a universal, immutable space and time, and replaced them with a startling new framework in which space and time are fluid and malleable," said physicist Brian Greene from Columbia University, US, who participated in the poll for Physics World magazine.

Peter Rodgers, Editor of Physics World, said: "Einstein and Newton were always going to be one and two but what was surprising about the top 10 was that there were seven out and out theorists."

The top 10 includes three British scientists: Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Paul Dirac. New Zealander Ernest Rutherford, who did much of his work in the UK, also makes the list, at 10.

Hawking and Archimedes

A parallel survey of rank-and-file physicists by the site PhysicsWeb gave the top spot to Newton and also included Michael Faraday.

Hawking: 'Discovered' that black holes are not always black Hawking: 'Discovered' that black holes are not always black
Neither list included any living scientist, but Stephen Hawking was rated at 16 by PhysicsWeb users, just behind Archimedes.

Paul Guinnessy, editor of PhysicsWeb, said: "My two biggest surprises were the inclusion of Stephen Hawking, as I think more time is needed to see whether his scientific contributions will last, and the low number of votes for Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford.

"Both these physicists had a dramatic impact not only on scientific achievements but in the students they taught and drew into physics. Rutherford's lab in particular had a number of students who were awarded Nobel prizes at a later date."

Big science

The three most important discoveries in physics are quantum mechanics, Einstein's theory of general relativity and Newton's mechanics and gravitation.

Quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch of Oxford University said: "In each of these three cases, the discovery in question not only revolutionised the branch of physics that it nominally addressed, but also provided a framework so deep and universal that all subsequent theories in physics have been formulated within it."

Asked about their careers, the physicists said they were mostly happy. Over 70% of respondents said they would study physics if they were starting university this year. But 17% said they would not, with one Japanese researcher commenting: "I worked too hard. I want to enjoy life next time."

Newton: Einstein's favourite physicist Newton: Einstein's favourite physicist
However, asked for the biggest problem in physics, one respondent joked "getting tenure or quantum gravity".

As is traditional, the physicists had a high opinion of their subject, calling it "the most grandiose science", "the most fascinating activity for our brain" and "still the most fundamental of all sciences".

But the biological sciences did appeal to some. Michael Green, a particle theorist at Cambridge University, said: "There is something attractive about a subject that is still in a relatively primitive state."

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26 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Science: Story of the century
18 Dec 98 |  Sci/Tech
Top of the science class

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