Not Stephen Hawking. No disrespect here regarding Hawking’s very substantial contributions to general relativity and cosmology. But were it not for his struggle with ALS, he would not be the public superstar that he is. His contributions certainly make him a top notch, first rate physicist, but there are many top notch, first rate physicists alive.
Assuming our human civilization survives for another 500 years (I have my doubts), Newton will continue to be remembered as the scientist who very much established the modern science that we know as physics today. So he is certainly a top contender.
But let’s not underestimate Einstein’s contributions. In addition to creating the theories of relativity, he was also one of the founding fathers of quantum physics. He was the first to propose that the electromagnetic field itself should be quantized, an idea that was seen as sheer lunacy by many physicists back then. Both relativity theory and quantum physics will continue to play essential roles in the coming centuries, so his name will remain as well known as Newton’s, I suspect.
Elon Musk falls into another category: he is not a scientist, but an entrepreneur/inventor. Many compare him to Edison, and I think the comparison is apt. (Except that Musk, I think, is a much nicer person than Edison. For starters, I don’t think Musk plans to electrocute any animals just to prove a point about the superiority of his technology.) But Elon Musk is also still very much alive, relatively young (damn, he is eight years younger than I!) and the bulk of his contributions may yet be ahead of him. If his dreams are fulfilled and, say, he successfully establishes a permanent Mars settlement before the end of his life (before the end of my life, I hope, being selfish and all), he may very well end up being the best remembered of all, perhaps the person who will have the capital city of Mars named after him.
Author: , Long time resident of San Francisco