“I won’t say was the world’s worst lecturer, but he was certainly in contention.”

-Robert Cole

Lars Onsager, probably mid-giggle.Before I came to Berkeley, I had actually never heard of Lars Onsager, which truly is a shame. His life overflows with intellectual achievement. I would say it culminated in his Nobel Prize in 1968, but the award was for work he did essentially in graduate school (except he didn’t formally ever go to graduate school—the story of his Ph.D. is worth reading), 37 years previous. In the intervening years, his mastery of mathematics, physics, and chemistry brought about foundational breakthroughs in the study of statistical mechanics.

Part of his relative obscurity to non-scientists probably owes to his particularly eccentric nature. He didn’t have the flashiness and genius-everyman aesthetic of a Richard Feynman, nor did he have the iconography and mystery of an Albert Einstein. In fact, his eccentricity derives largely from an almost pathological refusal to present his ideas clearly—he famously wrote down a formula for the solution of an outstanding problem on the board at a conference, leaving the derivation of his formula for the scientific community to figure out themselves (which took a year). He eventually released a sketch of his ideas…twenty years later.
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