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Most famous physicist ever? Readers disagree

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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Comments (16)

None of the above. The following is quoted from "Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists", Facts on File, Inc.,NY, 1981 by John Daintith, Sarah Mitchell and Elizabeth Tootill: "Galileo Galilei b. Feb. 15, 1564; Pisa, Italy; d. Jan. 8, 1642; Florence, now in Italy, Italian astronomer and physicist. Galileo made major contributions to most branches of physics especially mechanics, invented and so deployed the telescope to change our view of the nature of the universe completely, and became engaged in a highly dramatic confrontation with the Church..."
Galileo is considered the "Father" of the scientific method.
He wondered about almost everything. He even questioned if light traveled infinitely fast and sent his assistant to a mountain top to attempt to measure it, but his equipment was not sensitive enough to detect this value.
There have been many great physicists. Issac Newton is of course one of them and was born Christmas day the year Galileo Galilei died. But virtually all other great achievements in physics rest on the shoulders of this giant scientist. If there is one single greatest physicist and scientist, who risked his very life from the threat of the Catholic Church to burn him at the stake for the sin of holding a scientific view, for science, it must be Galileo Galilei from Italy. It took the Catholic Church about three and a half centuries to admit that Galileo Galilei was right about the planetary motions of the Earth around the Sun after all and the Catholic Church was quite wrong.
Winfield J. Abbe
A.B., Physics, UC Berkeley, 1961
M.S., Physics, California State University at Los Angeles, 1962
Ph.D., Physics, UC Riverside, 1966.

At least a number of readers agree with me, more or less. I have always said that Hawking is a gad-fly. If this guy was a good looking fellow, who drove a nice car full of good looking gals, no one would give him the time of day. His condition is at least 90% of his acceptance. "He deserves to be great". Just look at what he has overcome. Maybe so, but admired for another reason, not for being a great technical mind.

This is easy: Newton. Einstein theory is wrong, Hawkings isn't even considered a good scientist today (have you read a Brief Moment in Time? - OMG). Newton wins hands down.

It's Einstein, no contest.

Jesus, the Christ, the consummate physicist, out did them all. He created all that these distinguished gentlemen are trying to figure out how he did it.

I think it should be Galileo, with Newton and Einstein coming in as close seconds and thirds. I take the first two for granted and prefer Einstein as a continuing source of inspiration.

Many others have exhibited the breadth of interest and depth of analysis defining a great physicist. Gauss, Maxwell, and Archimedes should be included among them.

I think Stephen Hawking is a mystic because he plays with imaginary numbers to concoct wild theories which can't be proven in the lab. I would call him the most famous mystic.

If the question is who is the most famous physicist ever, a simple survey will answer the question. The comments posted here seem to be addressing the question of who is the most important or greatest physicist, which has little to do with who is the most famous. I predict that a survey of a general sample of Americans would find Einstein to be the most famous.

Who cares who is the most famous?

Rate them on their achievements. Newton by far.

You better wait for someone to define terms before you wade in on this argument.
Physicist? Inasmuch as some people have contributed much to the knowledge of physics even though it was not their primary discipline or they made their contributions before the term was defined, what is a physicist for the purposes of this discussion? Greatest? There's a subjective term for you. Maybe we should handle this like the Miss America Pagent. Best known. (Einstein) Most significant. (Newton) Most controversial. (Many candidates here including Hawking)

The difference between Newton and Einstein is that in Newtons time, there were places in the world, that did not know of him. By the time Einstein became known, he was known world wide. Recall that in newtons time, it took three weeks for news to cross the Atlantic to the colonies, and there were certainly many pioneers who had never heard of him. By 1920, probably 80% of the people in the US alone knew who he was.

I would call Stephen Hawking a science fiction writer with that fascinating British twist. He's managed to stay alive longer than most with ALS. What has he contributed to society with that brilliant mind ? A few years back he was said to have had an affair with his care giver violating his marriage commitment. He makes a lot of money doing public appearances leaving people mystified. I wish I could find a way to make money with my poliomyelitis disability.

Personal info:
I look just a little like Hawking in my recilner wheelchair with a ventilator on the back. Nobody pays me for public appearances.

This is about popularity not genius. Most of the commentors seem confused about this.

Since it is about popularity, you'd want someone who has been well known for a long time and in a wide range of cultures.

The answer is Alexander the Great, that great contributor in knot theory. Or his tutor Aristotle.

There is no direct connection between “the most famous” and “the most important”. Angelina Jolie may be the most famous (this week) actress, but
that bears no relationship to the best or most important actress of this week, or any other. Posing the question, even inadvertently, in The Times, is/was a silly thing to start with.

Hawking may be "famous" but far from being the greatest Physicist ever, he is probably not even the best Physicist in Cambridge University. I would make the big three Newton, Maxwell and Einstein. After that places would have to be found for Feynman, Dirac, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Bohr, etc.etc.

Is it a little early when Hawking is still alive? I mean, his theories might be disproved in a few years. Also, his contributions to society might not really be much of anything (or could be huge) but again time is needed.


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