I often check biographies of physicists and at one point or another in the beginning of their careers they have the opportunity to be mentored by other and often also great scientists. But, I know for sure there are scientists who never needed mentors, such as Gauss (correct me if I'm wrong).

Are there famous examples of people who did not need mentors to become great physicists? I'm particularly interested of post WWI science.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Are you asking: "Which physicists learned from books alone?" $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Jul 24, 2017 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ What about Heaviside? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Heaviside $\endgroup$
    – MBN
    Mar 19, 2018 at 17:27

3 Answers 3


"Correct me if I am wrong": Gauss's mentor was Johann Friedrich Pfaff. See, for example https://www.genealogy.math.ndsu.nodak.edu/id.php?id=18231 It is very rare to have no mentor, no teacher and no adviser. I doubt that you will have convincing 20 century examples.

One example which comes to my mind is George Green (Early 19 century). He can be equally qualified as a physicist and mathematician, and he made his main discoveries (Green's identity, Green's function, the notion of potential) before he entered the university. It seems that he was completely self-taught. This is a very exceptional case, indeed. He had no formal education when he made his discoveries. He was a son of a miller and a miller himself. Modern research shows that the only advanced mathematical book available to him was Laplace's Celestial Mechanics which happened to be in the local library in Nottingham. (It is difficult to imagine how a person without preparation can read this book!)

Source: D. M. Cannell, George Green: miller and mathematician, City of Nottingham Arts Dept., 1988.

Remark. English translation of Laplace did not exist at that time, so he could only use an original French copy. Where and how did he learn French? All this story looks very enigmatic.


What of the great British experimentalists: Cavendish and Faraday?

As to post WWI all Nobels were schooled in physics.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer. If you have a source, please reference it. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2017 at 6:48

Perhaps it is not quite the sort of example you are looking for, but Lars Onsager seems not to have had a "mentor" in the classical sense, although early in his career he encountered people like Debye, Weyl and Schrödinger. He wrote his thesis some years after beginning to work and publishing now famous papers on irreversible processes. Bundled together they weren't accepted as a thesis in Norway. Later, after hired at Yale he wrote (entirely on his own) a thesis on Mathieu functions that apparently had to be evaluated by Einar Hille in the math department. See for instance this NAS biographical memoir and the commentaries in his Collected Works.


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