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12/02/1999 08:00:00

Physics World poll names Richard Feynman one of 10 greatest physicists of all time

PASADENA-Richard Feynman, the legendary physicist from the California Institute of Technology, has been named the seventh greatest physicist of all time in a poll taken by the British journal Physics World. The poll surveyed 130 leading physicists worldwide.

Feynman, who died in 1988 after four decades on the Caltech faculty, is the only American to appear on the top 10 list, and the only one who did his most important work in the second half of this century. The others are (1) Albert Einstein, (2) Isaac Newton, (3) James Clerk Maxwell, (4) Niels Bohr, (5) Werner Heisenberg, (6) Galileo Galilei, (8) Paul Dirac, (9) Erwin Schrödinger, and (10) Ernest Rutherford.

"I would have ranked him a bit higher," said Rochus Vogt, a Caltech physics professor, former provost, and former division chair in Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy. "He was certainly the greatest physicist of my age.

"He was not only a top-notch physicist, but he was an artist, a Renaissance type of person," Vogt said. "He had certain insights and perceptions in physics that I have no word to describe other than 'artistic.'"

Robert Christy, a Caltech physicist who worked with Feynman on the Manhattan Project, said he thinks his late colleague richly deserves to be on the list.

"He certainly ranks as one of the great physicists-that's correct," said Christy, who served as Caltech provost during Feynman's later years.

Both Christy and Vogt are surprised that Enrico Fermi was omitted from the list. They are both also a bit wary of the precise order of the rankings.

"As far as I'm concerned, you don't place great people in order," Christy says. "Certain physicists are in a class by themselves, and certainly all of these in the list are in that class."

"I would reorder the list a bit, but I'm not surprised that those particular names are there," Vogt says.

Feynman, a native of New York, won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics. After the war he joined Caltech in 1950 as a visiting professor, became a permanent faculty member the following year, and remained on the faculty the rest of his life.

Quantum electrodynamics was born in the late 1920s, but experiments two decades later showed the weaknesses of the existing theory. Feynman's radical approach to correcting the theory was to reconstruct almost the whole of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics from his own point of view. He treated all events in terms of particles, simplifying the interaction calculations largely through developing his famous diagrams of the interaction trajectories.

By 1965, modern quantum electrodynamics had brought order to that vast part of physics lying between gravity and nuclear forces, and Feynman's simplified rules of calculation had become standard tools of theoretical analysis in both quantum electrodynamics and high-energy physics.

Over the years at the Institute, he worked with Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann on a theory for weak interactions, and also explored the behavior of electrons in high-energy collisions and formulated a mathematical theory that explained a range of properties of liquid helium at very low temperatures.

He became something of a legend for his many hobbies and interests, and particularly for his ability to communicate science to audiences at all levels. He was one of the most popular teachers in Caltech's history, and often attended freshman orientation and appeared in the annual Caltech musicals.

He died February 15, 1988, after an eight-year battle with a rare form of abdominal cancer.

Written by Robert Tindol