We don't have a lot of students reading here but if we did, I would tell them not to sweat the letter grades too much. You can be a 'C' student at Yale and be President of the United States.

Heck, you can be an even worse student and be his Democrat opponent in 2004.

You can even be regarded as a brilliant physicist - eventually. Werner Heisenberg - you've heard of him, he's that uncertainty principle guy who came up with the notion that at the small level the measurement of position disturbs a particle's momentum, often confused with the observer effect rather than being a manifestation of it, though that's a column for another time.

He's famous for getting kicked around by Einstein and Popper and everyone else of his day, but they weren't the first. Heisenberg was a thinker and not a doer and theoretical physicists back then were still not all that well regarded, what with old school professors not being happy with people who just make things up. While writing his dissertation in Munich, part of his final semester was a four-hour laboratory course in experimental physics offered by Prof. Wilhelm Wien. Wien felt that all physicists needed a deep understanding of experimental physics.

Heisenberg, it turned out, knew little about experimental physics. And he had no intention of learning it. How had he gotten that far in the physics world of 1923? I have no idea. He wrote a paper on hydrodynamics, "On the Stability and Turbulence of Fluid Flow," which was apparently quite well regarded, at least by his mentor(1):
In the handling of the present problem, Heisenberg shows once again his extraordinary abilities: complete command of the mathematical apparatus and daring physical insight. --Arnold Sommerfeld
but when it came time to do the orals, his lack of experimental physics knowledge tripped him up. Wien threw a few tough questions at Heisenberg, which the young man could not answer and then he threw an easy one, how a storage battery works. He couldn't answer that either. Sommerfeld and Wien had one of those legendary arguments but they had to agree on a grade, so Heisenberg got a III/C - Sommerfeld's A and Wien's F averaged out, we have to assume.

So if you want to talk about someone who must be really smart but is not famous at all, consider Wilhelm Wien, one-time professor of experimental physics at Munich - not just anyone can flunk Heisenberg. And if you get a "C" or two, don't worry about that either. You could still one day be the basis for any number of Star Trek fictional inventions and at least one episode of Futurama.(2) 

Yes, I actually made this t-shirt.


(1) Dr. David Cassidy, Professor, Department of Chemistry at Hofstra University, writing in American Institute of Physics, provided the quote and some of the awe and wonderment that Heisenberg could get such a crap grade.

(2) The Luck of the Fryrish - when the Professor loses at the horse track in a "quantum finish" he complains, "No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!" Though that would be the observer effect again. Heisenberg can never catch a break.