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Physics Top Fifty

July 19, 2011

Society is a popularity contest, and the winners reap large rewards. A quantitative measure of popularity is a person's ranking with respect to other people. For most scientists, those whom Kuhn would call "normal" scientists, such ranking is derived only from scores on proposals and citation indices. For scientists of Nobel Laureate status, it means much more. They've become part of popular culture and they share print pages and web pages with Lady Gaga and Johnny Depp.

I discussed the "culturomics" concept in a previous article (Culturomics, January 13, 2011). It's possible to establish ranking of the cultural significance of items by using word frequency analysis of Google's huge digitized corpus of books and other works.[1] This is made all the easier by a tool at Google Labs called the Ngram Viewer. It's also possible to analyze the frequency of appearance of words and phrases as a function of time. Culturomics has its own web site at www.culturomics.org.

John Bohannon, a molecular biologist and a contributing correspondent for Science, and Adrian Veres, a Harvard University undergraduate who is interested in culturomics and systems biology, have used these techniques to rank the popularity of scientists.[2-3] These rankings are nicely organized at their Gonzolabs web site, a project that's hosted by Science.[4] Unfortunately, their FAQ doesn't explain whether "Gonzo" refers more to Hunter S. Thompson or the Muppet character.

Determining word frequency is one thing, but how do you determine whether or not a person is a scientist? For that piece of the puzzle, Bohannon and Veres rely on the opinion of Wikipedia authors and editors, which is likely quite reliable in the case of the more famous. The ranking, of course, is just a count of the number of times the scientist's name has appeared in books. It is not a measure of the person's "science," however that might be measured. Also, since the Google corpus contains many more recent books than those that appeared centuries ago, the ranking is not the "greatest of all time."

Charles Darwin is arguably one of the most prominent scientists of recent time, so it was decided to normalize the ranking on a scale of milliDarwins. Darwin's name. which appears 148,429 times in 69,048 books, appears with a frequency of 0.0004653, which is remarkable in itself. A scientist with the same ranking as Darwin would be scored at 1000 milliDarwins.

Interestingly, there's one scientist who trumps even Darwin. That's Bertrand Russell, who scores 1500 milliDarwins. If we consider all individuals, and not just scientists, John Dewey ranks as 1753 milliDarwins, and Sigmund Freud ranks as 1293 milliDarwins

There is a category selection on the web site, and these categories are biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. Many scientists appear under more than one category. Marie Curie (189) and Linus Pauling (146) are in both the chemistry and physics lists.

The method by which the rankings are generated take into account more than just scientific reputation. Thus, on the chemistry list, Marie Curie (189) is sandwiched between Chaim Weizmann (236), a chemist who was the first president of Israel, and Isaac Asimov (183), a chemist who was a popular science fiction author. I must admit that I do have quite a few books by Azimov on my bookshelf, but none by Curie. I have a special connection to Weizmann, since I was awarded a fellowship that was named in his honor.

Having a Nobel Prize does not assure your having a high milliDarwin score. I once surprised one of my professors by knowing about Charles Édouard Guillaume. Guillaume received the 1920 Nobel Physics Prize for his invention of the invar temperature-stable alloys. Invar has a nearly zero coefficient of thermal expansion, which is of much practical importance, but Guillaume ranks just one milliDarwin. About eighty percent of Nobel Prize Laureates in the science rank less than ten milliDarwins.

Matematicians are not famous in their own age. This might be because their discoveries are not found to be useful for hundreds of years. Paul Erdös, of the eponymous mathematics ranking system known as the Erdös number, has only 3.5 milliDarwins. This might be because Erdös left his simpler discoveries unpublished to give the younger guys a chance at fame. Edward Witten's papers are highly cited, but he has just eight milliDarwins, perhaps because his papers are understood by just a few.

One trick to a high ranking is by writing popular pieces. I mentioned Isaac Asimov (183), and falling also into this class are Carl Sagan and Rachel Carson, both of whom have 152 milliDarwins. Richard Feynman, who was awarded the 1965 Nobel Physics Prize, was well known among physicists, but not the public at large until his participation on the commission that studied the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

I've chosen just the top fifty on the physics list to create the ring of physics shown below. It's evident by the segment size, which is the proportion of rank out of these fifty, that something close to the Pareto distribution is in full force here. You can get a PDF file of the data, here.

Culturomics ranking of physicists.

Top fifty culturomics ranking of physicists. Data from Ref. 4, graphing via Gnumeric. The top ten includes Albert Einstein (878), Oliver Lodge (394). Niels Bohr (289), Alexander Graham Bell (274), Max Planck (256), J. Robert Oppenheimer (252), Marie Curie (189), Carl Sagan (152), Linus Pauling (146) and John von Neumann (137). Fiftieth place is held by Hermann von Helmholtz (40).

The first observation is the obvious absence of Isaac Newton in the top ten. The reason, of course, is that Newton did his work too long ago to have a popular impact today. This observation, alone, should indicate that such an analysis, while entertaining, is not that useful when you're looking for the top ten, or top hundred, people who shaped physics. Oliver Lodge is well known to me for his work in radio, and he was certainly a prolific contributor to many fields; but, second only to Einstein and ahead of Niels Bohr?


  1. Jean-Baptiste Michel, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden, "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books," Science vol. 331 no. 6014 (January 14, 2011) pp. 176-182 .
  2. John Bohannon, "The Science Hall of Fame," Science, vol. 331, no. 6014 (January 14, 2011), p. 143.
  3. John Bohannon, "The Science Hall of Fame (Interactive Dataset)," Science, vol. 331, no. 6014 (January 14, 2011), p. 143.3.
  4. Complete dataset, 5387k CSV File.                               Release notes are here.

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