How do you attempt listing the greatest scientists? If you were to do it chronologically the list would be infinite!

So instead we’ll look at the scientific heroes of some of the most relevant fields of physics to date:

Traditionally esteemed and popular scientists were from European descent and quite often British, a direct result of centuries of privilege that was afforded to the white male.

But in truth, the scientific community is represented by people from all nations, genders and walks of life.

And many “European” discoveries were enabled by knowledge that was gleaned from ancient civilisations, indigenous cultures and unsung heroes that weren’t given the honour of being mentioned in print.

So, let’s begin by focusing on a particular niche of physicists who triumphed against the odds!

Women of Physics

To say that the list of groundbreaking female scientists is short would be a major understatement. But despite their voices being stifled and their education impeded a number of phenomenal women pioneered in science and made a lasting impact on the field of physics.

female and male scientists in laboratory
In the past, for women, pursuing science meant breaking moulds and challenging patriarchal ideas of femininity. - Unsplash

Female Scientists Who Made History

 

Marie Curie, 1867 - 1934

Not only was she the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize but she was the first ever person to win the prize in two different fields of science.

Marie is best known for her work in chemistry and her discovery of the two elements, polonium and radium. As well as her extensive work on radioactivity.

Marie Curie is in fact credited with coining the very phrase “radioactivity”.

Initially not even included on the award for the work that she and her husband Pierre Curie had accomplished in radiation, it was thanks to Magnus Mittaglefer, a Swedish mathematician that the mistake was pointed out and corrected by the Nobel committee.

Even so, the Curies took two years to make the trip to Sweden because they were so focused on their work and research.

radiation warning sign
Marie Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anaemia, likely caused by years of exposure to radiation. - Unsplash

According to the Nobel Foundation, "Marie Curie’s relentless resolve and insatiable curiosity made her an icon in the world of modern science."

 

Amalie (Emmy) Noether, 1882 - 1935

Despite being best known as an incredible mathematician, developing the Noether’s Theorem in 1915, she also made phenomenal advances in the area of theoretical physics.

Refusing to adhere to society's constraints on women’s pursuit for knowledge, Emmy continued teaching mathematics even when she was barred by the Nazi government in Germany.

Respected physicists of her era regarded her as the most important female mathematician in the history of maths and this view is still upheld today.

 

Chien Shiung Wu, 1912 - 1997

Ms Wu has churned up an impressive list of nicknames from “the Chinese Marie Curie”, “The First Lady of Physics” and “The Queen of Nuclear Research”. Some of her most well known accomplishments are separating uranium via gaseous diffusion while working on The Manhattan Project.

But her greatest achievement is considered to be the Wu Experiment where she disproved the law of parity.

It was Wu’s colleagues that ultimately received the Nobel Prize for this discovery but she went on to be the first-ever winner of the Wolf Prize in Physics and became the first ever female president of the American Physical Society.

She is also the only woman to have won it!

 

Maria Gowppert Mayer, 1906 - 1972

Nobel laureate and the second ever woman to receive a Nobel, Ms Mayer is most famous for developing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.

Maria wrote her graduate thesis on two-photon absorption by atoms which was a groundbreaking step at the time because it was so challenging to prove in a time before lasers were invented.

She has forever left her mark on the world of science and her name has been used to label the unit for two-photon absorption cross-section (the Goeppert-Mayer unit or GM).

 

Lise Meitner, 1878 - 1968

Assisting in the discovery of nuclear fission she was unduly snubbed by the Nobel committee and excluded from sharing the prize that was awarded to her colleague for their joint discovery.

Lise was the first woman to become a professor as well has a department head in the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institut.

However she was removed from her position when the Nazis came to power and later fled her homeland finding refuge in Sweden where she settled for the remainder of her life.

These pioneering women set a benchmark for their successors and continue to inspire new scientists to follow in their groundbreaking footsteps.

Celebrating Today’s Female Physicists

 

Jocelyn Bell BurnellAstrophysicistWas a co-discoverer of the first radio pulsars in 1967.
Sandra FaberAstrophysicistA pioneer when it comes to studying how galaxies evolve.
Fabiola GianottiParticle PhysicistThe first woman to be Director-General of CERN.
Joan FeynmanAstrophysicistAn important contributor towards understanding solar wind particles, sun/earth relations and magnetospheric physics and making the discovery of where auroras originate.
Lene HauQuantum PhysicistLed the team who succeeded in slowing and then completely stopping a beam of light.

Prominent Male Physicists

Let’s have a look at some of the lesser known scientists who made extremely important contributions to physics and paved the way for heroes like Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

 

Niehls Bohr, 1885 - 1962

Niehls Bohr developed foundational contributions that helped to comprehend the atom’s structure and the quantum theory. Bohr went on to create the principle of complementarity which became his greatest achievement.

When he was still a university student he received an award for measuring the surface tension of liquids which was successfully achieved because he developed his own testing equipment.

 

Max Planck, 1858 - 1947

Planck received a Nobel prize in 1918 for his confirmation of the quantum field theory.

Hailing from a long line of intellectuals, Max Planck broke away from the family trait of studying theology and pursued his burning interests in science. It was mostly thanks to his high school science teacher who mentored him in astronomy, mathematics and physics that his passion for science was sparked.

 

Paul Dirac, 1902-1984

Paul Dirac swiftly grew to become a respected physicist among his more established peers. His research into the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics put him on the physics map.

But he is most widely known for developing the Dirac Equation whereby a better understanding of fermion behaviour was gained. It’s through this discovery that the existence of antimatter was in fact hypothesised.

Dirac began his journey in physics study purely driven by determination. It’s claimed that at first he didn’t display any natural aptitude for science but this didn’t deter him. He went on to earn numerous scholarships which paved the way for him to be accepted into Cambridge.

The Institute of Physics in the UK established the Paul Dirac medal for outstanding contributions to theoretical physics to commemorate his invaluable contribution to physics.

To illustrate just how prestigious this award is, to date there have only been three recipients: Stephen Hawking, John Steward Bell and Roger Penrose.

 

Richard Feynman, 1918 – 1988

Brother to the famous astrophysicist previously mentioned, Joan Feynman, Richard was a pioneer in the field of quantum computing and is credited for introducing the idea of nanotechnology.

young boy at table making a small model
Given the freedom to tinker and the encouragement to inquire was the greatest gift Feynman's father could have given him - Unsplash

It was Feynman’s father, a humble sales manager, who motivated his son to question all things and pursue knowledge. This intellectual nurturing encouraged him to begin doing science experiments at home from a young age and Richard succeeded in building a home alarm system in his makeshift lab.

 

Enrico Fermi, 1901 – 1954

Coincidentally Richard Feynman actually worked with Fermi on the Manhattan Project.

Fermi was the ultimate scientific multitasker, just as deft in the laboratory as he was in his office. He would design equations and then prove his physics theories by heading to the lab.

Enrico spent his days with his older brother as they both had a keen interest in building things such as electric motors. But then by sheer chance young Fermi came across a book on physics and never looked back.

Enrico Fermi recognised the potential nuclear energy within Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and is known today as the architect of the nuclear age and atomic bomb.

It was Fermi who identified neutrinos and was given the honour of having the Fermion particle named after him thanks to the manner in which he expounded Wolfgang Pauli’s exclusion principle.

Inevitably, someone with Fermi’s mind for physics could not be excluded from an undertaking like the Manhattan Project.

It was his contributions that made the atom bomb a reality but despite the bomb being credited for ending WWII, the loss of lives and devastation was a heavy weight for him to bear and he did all he could to campaign against the hydrogen bomb but to no avail.

demonstration for using science for good
Ethics and science must go hand in hand - Unsplash

Enrico Fermi’s drive for scientific breakthrough was equalled by his strong sense of ethics, an invaluable trait in this day and age that is still displayed in these notable physicists:

Modern Men in Science

 

Edward WittenTheoretical PhysicistHe has made significant contributions to knot theory, supersymmetery and Morse theory through his research on string theory.
Steven WeinbergNuclear PhysicistShared the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in formulating the electroweak theory which enhanced our understanding of electromagnetism.
Roger PenroseMathematical PhysicistRespected for his work on black holes and the Big Bang as well as his valuable contributions to cosmology and general relativity theory.
Alan GuthTheoretical physicist and cosmologistKnown mainly for his work on elementary particle theory and for the idea of cosmic inflation which he developed.
Peter HiggsTheoretical PhysicistUnderstanding subatomic particles; the Higgs boson bears his name.

He won a Physics Nobel Prize for discovering the Higgs boson. The subatomic particle is thus named after him.

We have only mentioned a few influential scientists in this article, but the list is endless.

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Kyla

Born from a family of creatives, Kyla has a passion for the arts and interior design.