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Most famous physicist ever? Readers disagree

January 20, 2011 |  3:11 pm

Newton If you were asked to name "probably the most famous physicist ever," whom would you choose?

Sir Isaac Newton? His theories of gravity and motion were groundbreaking.

Albert Einstein? His Theory of General Relativity changed our fundamental understanding of gravity and the universe.

Stephen Hawking? He is known for his work on black holes, his bestselling “A Brief History of Time” and the disease that has robbed him of movement and speech.

If you read Wednesday's LATExtra section, you may have seen that this description was bestowed upon Hawking, who spoke Tuesday evening at Caltech. It was the photo caption that called Hawking "probably the most famous," while the article used "perhaps the best-known."

Einstein Either way, readers took issue.

"Hawking, the most 'famous' or 'best known' physicist ever. Come on. You don't have to be an Einstein or a Newton to know that ain't so," Stan Hunter wrote in an e-mail to reporters Eryn Brown and Thomas Maugh.

On Twitter, Ted Rogers wrote, "@latimes calls Stephen Hawking 'perhaps the best-known physicist ever.' Einstein who?"

And John Nichols e-mailed, "The statement 'probably the most famous physicist ever' is ridiculously asinine. Newton will spin in his grave."

 "How embarrassing," Health and Science Editor Rosie Mestel said in an e-mail. "We carelessly wrote in the article 'Hawking is perhaps the best-known physicist ever' when we meant to say 'perhaps the best-known physicist ALIVE.' (We were moving fast.) When the caption for the photo was written, much like in a game of telephone, our misstatement was ramped up to 'probably the most famous.' We certainly meant no disrespect to Einstein and Newton, of whom we have indeed heard."

Hawking Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who oversees the copy editors who write the headlines and captions and perform the final editing, likewise expressed regret:

"This was a good example of how superlatives such as 'best-known' or 'most famous' should always be questioned, even when we qualify them with 'perhaps' or 'probably.' But like the reporters filing from Pasadena, our folks were working fast on a tight deadline and didn’t detect the problem. Once they had a chance to think things through, they realized that an adjustment was in order."

In fact, after the page was first sent to press, a copy editor changed the text to say that Hawking was "one of the best-known" physicists ever and also corrected the caption. That "replated" version of the story made it into 32% of the papers printed and is the one posted online.

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photos (from top): Sir Isaac Newton. Credit: Library of Congress; Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Credit: Getty Images

 

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