Which Physicist Are You?

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October 22, 2021

Which Physicist Are You?

Have you spent long, sleepless nights wondering which physicist you emulate the most? Maybe you’ve flipped through textbooks and magazines seeking a role model with the same taste in ice cream or home decor style to no avail. Well, the team at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives is here to help. We curated some of our favorite physicists and identified your burning questions so you can finally rest easy. Be sure to click on the pink-outlined portraits to learn more about your inner physicist… and yourself.

Joan HintonLaura BassiAnnie Jump CannonFrank KamenyVera RubinLuis AlvarezBenjamin BannekerChien-Shiung WuAbdus SalamElmer ImesKatherine JohnsonEunice Foote

Biographies

Luis Alvarez (1911-1988)

You’re Luis Alvarez! You love experimental physics, but that’s not all! You strive to try new things and expand your mind and skillsets whenever possible. Your wide range of interests brings you in contact with lots of new colleagues and friends, even though you may describe yourself as an introvert. You cherish your family and enjoy collaborating with them to develop scientific theories.

Luis W. Alvarez was an American experimental physicist and inventor. In 1968, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of the hydrogen bubble chamber. Alvarez is also known for his work on radar systems, the Manhattan Project, and theories on dinosaur extinction which he developed with his son, Walter.

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)

You’re Benjamin Banneker! You love inviting all your friends over for extravagant candlelit dinners. No topic of conversation is off-limits, but you tend to steer it towards something visionary, like interstellar travel.

Benjamin Banneker was a mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, and almanac author. Born in 1731 a free African-American, Banneker is perhaps most famous for his construction of a wooden clock. The clock was built completely from scratch and kept precise time for nearly 40 years.

Laura Bassi (1711-1778)

You’re Laura Bassi! Like this impressive physicist, you charm others easily through your intelligence and charisma and are open-minded to new ideas and perspectives. Your home is full of art and the newest technology. On a hot summer day, you can be found enjoying chocolate gelato with friends, animatedly discussing intellectual topics.

Laura Bassi was an eighteenth-century physics professor and experimental physicist in Bologna, Italy. She was Europe’s first female physics professor and was the second woman to receive a university degree. In addition to lecturing and engaging in public debates, Bassi conducted her own research and opened a school for experimental physics that scholars across Europe attended.

Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) 

You’re Annie Jump Cannon! When it comes to endurance and details, you are a machine. Literally! Your nickname is Computer Cannon! Nothing pleases you more than a warm summer night spent gazing at the stars (preferably with a vanilla milkshake in hand). You collect a little bit of everything, from small dogs (the smaller the better) to the 350,000 stars you classified during your career at Harvard Observatory. People may think you’re sedate and old-fashioned, but you love to embrace the new and exciting, like John Phillips Sousa marches and new stellar classification systems.

Annie Jump Cannon was an astronomer who spent her career doing stellar classification at Harvard with Edward C. Pickering. One of the famous Harvard Computers, she classified 350,000 stars during her career, more than anyone else. The stellar classification system she developed is still used today.

Eunice Foote (1819-1888)

You’re Eunice Foote! There is never a dull moment in your life as you are constantly busy pursuing your goals and passions. Sometimes you don’t receive the recognition you deserve but your contributions will not go unnoticed forever. You love spending time with your close friends and family and love life’s simple pleasures, like a nice stroll on a summer day.

Eunice Foote was an American scientist who discovered the heat-absorbing properties of water vapor and carbon dioxide in 1856. She predicted climate change when she concluded: “an atmosphere of that gas [carbon dioxide] would give to our earth a high temperature.” Until 2011, however, she was unrecognized for her scientific contributions. Foote was also an inventor and suffragette, fighting for women’s right to vote.

Joan Hinton (1921-2010)

You’re Joan Hinton! You don’t need fancy houses, items, or titles to be happy and are strongly led by your morals. You use your scientific mindset to help make the world a better place to live, whether it’s making dairy farms more efficient or participating in political movements.

Joan Hinton’s career in physics began in 1944 when she was in graduate school; she was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project with Enrico Fermi. Assuming the bomb would just be used in a demonstration explosion, she was shocked when the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and became an enthusiastic peace activist. She moved to China in 1948 during the Communist revolution, where she lived and worked until her death in 2010.

Elmer Imes (1883-1941)

You’re Elmer Imes! You’re a successful academic but you also appreciate the importance of celebrating culture and the arts. You enjoy a night of music with close friends as much as you love experimentally proving groundbreaking quantum theories.

Experimental spectroscoper Elmer Imes was the second African American to earn a doctorate in physics. He worked in spectroscopy and quantum mechanics, was involved in New York City’s Harlem Renaissance, and later went on to establish Fisk University’s Physics Department.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

You’re Katherine Johnson! You are passionate about your work, and you don’t let anyone or anything get in your way when it comes to achieving your goals. You don’t do it for the recognition, but when people see how you excel when doing what you love, they can’t help but admire you. You’re a tech whiz but can just as easily keep yourself busy solving equations manually by the light of a lovely summer-scented candle. You like to focus on the little details that all work together and keep everything running smoothly, and for this reason, everyone knows they can count on you. And of course, like all NASA employees, you love to travel by spaceship whenever you can (an indisputable fact).

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician and computer for NASA. Her manual calculations were a vital part of the science that made the Apollo missions possible. Johnson, an African American woman, was not widely recognized for her contributions for many decades. A 2016 novel and film, both titled Hidden Figures, told the story of Katherine and other NASA computers, which educated the public on the significant role they had in the success of the famous missions.

Frank Kameny (1925-2011)

You’re Frank Kameny! You embrace the KonMari approach to material goods and you hate clutter. You stay up late working through those cold winter nights on your political activism, perched under your favorite electric task light and petting your rescue tabby cat. You’re a trend-setter, not a trend-follower, so when someone asks you whether you’d like chocolate or vanilla ice cream, you say both. Astronomy is all in the details, but you’re focused on the big picture goals of equality and respect for all.

Frank Kameny was an astronomer and gay rights activist. Early in his career, he was fired from a position as an astronomer in the US Army’s Map Service (and barred from any future government positions) due to his homosexuality. He petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn this decision, though they refused to take up the case. Denied a career in astronomy, he spent the rest of his life advocating for gay rights.

Vera Rubin (1928-2016)

You’re Vera Rubin! Your curiosity about our existence in space and time and your love of the stars are both insatiable. As you ponder the questions of the universe, you will use whatever technology works best to look for answers. Or, you might discuss your thoughts with your family and friends.

American astronomer Vera Rubin was one of the most influential scientists of her era for her monumental contributions to dark matter research and her advocacy efforts for women in the sciences.

Abdus Salam (1926-1996)

You’re Abdus Salam! Your heart thrills as you contemplate the small mysteries of the universe, which you prefer to do on a cold, brisk morning walk with your old English bulldog pup. Better yet, you are excited to share your knowledge and enthusiasm with the world on any morning.

Abdus Salam was a renowned theoretical physicist who made major efforts toward increasing the physics community in his native Pakistan and in other underrepresented countries. He became a Nobel Laureate in 1979 for his contributions to the electroweak unification theory.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

You’re Chien-Shiung Wu! You love waking up on cold December mornings to enjoy a warm cup of coffee, but you’re very particular about the roast. You usually opt for a heavy-bottomed mug so your Norwegian Forest cat can’t knock it off the table.

Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese- American physicist known for her work on the Manhattan Project and contributions to experimental and particle physics. Wu’s experiments confirming the invalidity of the conservation of parity law led to the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics. However, Wu was notably snubbed, as only her colleagues, Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, received the Prize. In her retirement, Wu regularly lectured to promote STEM education for young women.

Disclaimer:

The purpose of this post is to introduce you to some amazing scientists. These answers are speculative and based on what we know of these physicists. For example, we have no documentation showing Laura Bassi did not like jazz, however as an 18th-century Italian physicist, she would not have ever heard jazz. Some answers are just for fun, and for the purpose of the diagram. It’s possible Frank Kameny’s favorite ice cream was rocky road and we might never know. If you happen to know the real answer to any of these questions about any of these physicists, we would love to hear from you!

*Special thanks to Tom Connell, Abigail Malate, Sam Holland, Sarah Weirich, Allison Rein, Audrey Lengel, Joanna Behrman, and Corinne Mona for their contributions to this post.

About the Author: 

Maura Shapiro

Maura interned with the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and Center for History of Physics in the summer of 2021. She earned degrees in both Physics and Communication & Rhetoric from the University of Pittsburgh and loves hiking, biking, and almost anything outdoors! 

Caption: An artist's concept of NASA Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, one half of the twin rover mission, on the surface of Mars. Opportunity diligently worked for almost fifteen years, surpassing its 90 sol (martian day) lifespan by 5,262 sols or almost 6,000 percent.

See all articles by Maura Shapiro

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