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The World’s Greatest Physicists (as Determined by the Wisdom of Crowds)

No prizes for guessing who gets top billing. But who comes in at the bottom?

Who are the most accomplished physicists of the 20th century?

There’s no real dispute over the top berth: Einstein trumps all comers. But the rest of the list is harder to draw up.

Of course there are various ways of measuring performance–by the number of published papers or by citations, for example. But these have well-known drawbacks.

Now Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury at the University of California, Los Angeles, have come up with a way of ranking physicists by equating their achievements with their fame as measured by hits on Google. (We’ve come across these guys before here.)

They’ve tried their idea using a list of Nobel Prize winners for physics from before the Second World War. Top of the Google hit list is Einstein, with almost 23 million hits–easily the most famous physicist of his generation and probably of all time. At the bottom with only 4,490 hits is the Swedish physicist Nils Dalen, who won the prize in 1912 for inventing an automatic gas valve.

The question is whether the intervening list is an accurate ranking of achievement. Simkin and Roychowdhury say that it is, because it matches, with reasonable accuracy, a list drawn up by the Soviet physicist Lev Landau, who ranked theoretical physicists using a logarithmic scale of his own invention.

Simkin and Roychowdhury say that the correspondence between Google hits and Landau’s list is an example of the wisdom of crowds. Google hits are simply pages that mention the names in question. “Every Web page about a particular person expresses its creator’s opinion that the person in question is worthy of it,” they say. “Thus, the fact that our estimate of achievement of Nobel Prize-winning physicists based on statistical analysis of numbers of Web pages mentioning them agrees fairly well with an expert’s [Landau’s] opinion may be another demonstration of the wisdom of crowds.”

Before you judge for yourself, spare a thought for Charles Wilson, who won the prize in 1927 for his development of the cloud chamber. Wilson has such a common name that Simkin and Roychowdhury could not determine his fame using Google hits and so had to exclude him from the survey. So we’ll never know where Wilson ranks.

Here’s the top 10 (minus Wilson). The full list is in the paper linked to below.

1. Albert Einstein
2. Max Planck
3. Marie Curie
4. Niels Bohr
5. Enrico Fermi
6. Guglielmo Marconi
7. Werner Heisenberg
8. Erwin Schrodinger
9. Pierre Curie
10. Wilhelm Rontgen

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0906.3558: Estimating Achievement from Fame

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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