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Top Ten Lists

October 12, 2011

Practitioners of LISP have a valid claim to priority when it comes to lists, but it's David Letterman who enhanced their popularity in the form of the Top Ten List. The archetypal top ten list in materials science would likely be the Mohs hardness scale, which I wrote about in a previous article (Scratching Diamond, December 6, 2010).

Lists such as the Mohs hardness scale are easy to compile, since the ranking is by a quantitative property. Top ten lists of individuals are more difficult to compile, since they usually rely on qualitative measures of importance. When the ranking is for sports teams, or their players, things start to get really interesting, since the Internet is open to instant comment.

An assessment of the popularity of physicists is possible through the use of "Culturomics." The table below is a top ten list of physicists, which I reviewed in a previous article (Physics Top Fifty, July 19, 2011). The popularity assessment is by milliDarwins, which is a measure of the mentions in all printed media normalized to those for Darwin.[1-3]

1.Albert Einstein878
2.Oliver Lodge394
3.Niels Bohr289
4.Alexander Graham Bell274
5.Max Planck256
6.J. Robert Oppenheimer252
7.Marie Curie189
8.Carl Sagan152
9.Linus Pauling146
10.John von Neumann137

The absence of Isaac Newton from the top ten is a consequence of fewer mentions of him in recent years when the number of printed books and articles has increased. Newton did his work too long ago to have a popular impact today. Note that preeminent chemist, Linus Pauling, is considered to be a physicist for the purpose of this study.

This list can be justified in its reliance on the impartial measure offered by the milliDarwin concept, but when you're compiling a list of the "most important" events in a scientific field, things are more subjective.

In 2008, the editor of Materials Today presented his a list of what he called the top ten advances in materials science of the last fifty years. Here's the list, which I reviewed also in a previous article (Materials Top Ten, January 21, 2008).
1.International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors
2.Scanning probe microscopy
3.Giant magnetoresistive effect
4.Semiconductor lasers and light-emitting diodes
5.National Nanotechnology Initiative
6.Carbon fiber reinforced plastics
7.Materials for lithium-ion batteries
8.Carbon nanotubes
9.Soft lithography
Items one and five are unusual, since they are "programmatic," and not technological. Their inclusion on the list shows the popular fixation on process, rather than discovery. Item eight should be revised to include graphene as well as carbon nanotubes.

Quite a few years ago, I was asked to give a broad overview of my research to an audience of materials scientists. Since I was among friends, I decided to open with the Top Ten Reasons to Choose Materials Science as a Profession. In Letterman fashion, these were in reverse order of importance (10 to 1, instead of 1 to 10).
10.When you can't turn lead into gold, you can still find useful things to do with the lead.
9.You're able to build yourself an armored suit to protect against the ray weapons of space aliens, just in case.[4]
8.Your superalloy barbecue grill will be the envy of the neighborhood.
7.The constant excitement of the columbium vs niobium debate.
6.TEM images, when viewed at the proper angle, look just like Elvis.
5.You can hot press, cold roll and ball peen without getting into trouble.
4.When someone says that you should have your head examined, you have the Xray equipment with which to do it.
3.Good resting place on the way to your MBA.
2.Women are attracted to men with heavy ingots.
1.Engineering discipline with the least math.

Here's another that I wrote on the occasion of a colleague's getting his advanced degree in physics, part time while he was still working. This achievement is a tour de force by any standard. The list is Top Ten Reasons Why (Name Withheld) Took so Many Years to Get His Degree."
10.The ghost of Albert Einstein convinced him that time is only relative.
9.His promised 1/4% pay raise wasn't that much of an incentive.
8.Insisted on checking his computer models with a slide rule.
7.Fruitless year of research on "five day" epoxy.
6.Thought Rudolph Clausius was one of Santa's reindeer.
5.Took the Least Action Principle too literally.
4.Delays caused by coin-operated lasers installed in university laboratories to allay budget shortfalls.
3.Kept asking himself, "What would Richard Feynman do?" The answer - Drink Beer.
2.Inadvertent hand gesture while explaining the "Right-Hand Rule."
1.His thesis advisor - Roy G. Biv.


  1. John Bohannon, "The Science Hall of Fame," Science, vol. 331, no. 6014 (January 14, 2011), p. 143.
  2. John Bohannon, "The Science Hall of Fame (Interactive Dataset)," Science, vol. 331, no. 6014 (January 14, 2011), p. 143.3.
  3. Complete culturomic scientist dataset, 5387k CSV File. Release notes are here.
  4. The Mercury Men Trailer, YouTube Video

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