The 10 Most Famous Physicists

  • Helena Kudiabor
  • May 24 2022

If you’re interested in a career in physics, you should know that you’re entering into a field full of amazing people. This article will teach you about the ten most famous physicists, and the contributions they made to science.


Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

Galilei is most famous for improving the telescope, to be used to study the planets and stars. In Galilei’s time, there weren’t ‘really’ scientists as we now know them. People studied the works of classic philosophers like Plato, but didn’t run experiments to test out their theories.  

Galilei wanted to test the principles and see if he could observe them, laying the foundation for the scientific method. In 1609, Galilei heard of an invention from the Netherlands called the telescope, that could make far away objects appear much closer. 

He made great improvements to the original telescope, and his version was eventually used throughout Europe. Using his telescope, he made many discoveries, such as the four large moons around Jupiter, the phases of the planet Venus, and the existence of craters on the moon. 

Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Isaac Newton was a scientist, mathematician and astronomer, and developed a number of scientific theories. Einstein himself said that Newton was the smartest person who ever lived.

In 1687, Newton published his most important work, Principia, which used mathematics to explain gravity and motion. In this work, he detailed his three laws of motion, which lie at the heart of the science of movement. 

He also detailed his discovery of the law of universal gravitation, which helps to understand the movements of the planets and the Sun. In addition to this, he built the world’s first working reflecting telescope, and proved that sunlight is made up of all the colours of the rainbow. 

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Marie Curie grew up in Poland, but eventually moved to France, studying at the Sorbonne. After earning her degree in physics, she entered the world of scientific research. One day, she was examining a material called pitchblende, expecting there to be few rays from the uranium present. Instead, she discovered several rays. 

From this, she realised there must be an undiscovered element in pitchblende, and set about discovering it. Eventually, she discovered that there were two new elements in pitchblende, radium and polonium. She named radium so because of its strong rays, and polonium after her homeland Poland. 

She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work in radiation, becoming the first woman to receive the prize. With her receipt of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, she was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes. 

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Albert Einstein made some of the most important discoveries and developed some of the most crucial theories in all of science. His face and name are often seen as the picture of the ultimate scientist. He is most known for his Theory of Relativity, which transformed the way scientists look at the world. 

One equation from the theory is E=mc2, in which ‘c’ is the constant speed of light, and E (energy) is related to mass (m.) The theory explains how time and distance may change due to the ‘relative’ or different speed of the object and the observer. It has been used to develop many modern inventions, such as the atomic bomb and TVs. 

Einstein also came up with many other discoveries, such as the fact that light is made up of particles called photons. Even though scientists at the time didn’t believe him, later experiments proved his theory and he was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Many of his papers helped move forward our understanding of the world. 

Niels Bohr (1885-1962)

Bohr is generally regarded as one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, for his work on atoms. He designed his own model of the atom, combining the ideas of the British scientist Ernest Rutherford with the theories of physicists Max Planck and Albert Einstein. 

His model helped to understand how atoms are structured and how the parts of atoms behave. For this work he received a Nobel Prize in Physics. He also helped with the war effort, by helping Jewish scientists escape from Germany and working at his institute in Copenhagen. Bohr even helped scientists in the United States to develop their own atomic bomb, as they feared Germany was trying to develop one. 

Alan L Hart (1890-1962)

An American physician and radiologist, Hart pioneered revolutionary TB screening programmes while dealing with homophobia and transphobia. After completing his medical degree, Hart specialised in the treatment of tuberculosis, which had been killing countless Americans. He pioneered the use of x-ray photography for early diagnosis, using his knowledge of radiation physics to develop these life-saving technologies. This discovery is even more impressive considering the discrimination he faced. Hart made history as the first trans man to undergo a hysterectomy in the US, but faced ridicule for being who he was.

When he set up his first practice, a former classmate outed him as transgender, forcing him to move. This happened several times over the course of his career, yet he continued to persevere and continue with his life-saving research. The chest x-rays Hart pioneered are still used today to diagnose tuberculosis. 

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

Wu was a Chinese-American physicist renowned for her work within nuclear and particle physics. After receiving her PhD in Physics, she lectured at universities across the United States, and made history as the first female faculty member at Princeton’s physics department.

Following this, she joined the Manhattan Project, a government initiative helping to produce atomic weapons. Wu is most famous for the Wu experiment, a complex experiment which proved that identical nuclear particles don’t always act the same during beta decay. The experiment was groundbreaking at the time, given that it contradicted the conservation of parity theory. 

Wu also applied her physics knowledge to the field of medicine, conducting important research about sickle cell disease. Wu faced a number of challenges during her life, such as sexism, not hearing from her family in China during WW2, and not receiving the recognition her work deserved, but she persevered and made amazing discoveries.

As a result of her success, she is commonly referred to as the ‘First Lady of Physics.’

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

Katherine Johnson was an African-American physicist and mathematician. She was an incredibly gifted student, graduating from college at just 18 years old! In her adulthood she was employed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now NASA). Johnson and her colleagues were nicknamed ‘human computers,’ solving complex calculations to help send astronauts to space. 

Although she faced racial and gender-based discrimination, she persevered, and had an incredibly successful career. Her groundbreaking accomplishments include: helping calculate the path of the first human spaceflight, and calculating the path of Armstrong’s historic Apollo 11 mission. 

In 2016, the movie Hidden Figures, was released, which documented her path to fame, and gave her widespread recognition. NASA has even named a research facility after her, to honour her and her work. 

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

A physical chemist and researcher, Franklin made a vital contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA. A trailblazer in the field, she earned a PhD in physical chemistry at a time when few women worked within the industry. By 30, she was widely recognised as an authority in her speciality of crystallography, with several publications in peer-reviewed journals. 

Due to her success, Franklin was invited to King’s College London, where her experience proved essential to our understanding of the double-helix structure of DNA molecules. Despite her hard work, Franklin was the victim of sexism and anti-Semitism. Even as she rose to the top of her field and was a highly valued speaker, she still struggled with job security and obtaining funding. 

Nevertheless, her tireless research led to many developments in molecular biology, technology, and physical chemistry. 

Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

Hawking, a scientist and astrophysicist, was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo Galilei. While completing his PhD at Cambridge, he began to become clumsy, and noticed his speech was slurred. A doctor diagnosed him with ALS, and gave him over a few years to live; a prophecy that turned out to be false. 

Although he couldn’t talk for much of his life and had to use a wheelchair, he could communicate via a touch pad computer and voice synthesiser. He spent much of his academic work researching black holes and space-time theories, and became a noted expert on relativity and black holes. His most famous theory was when he proved that black holes emit some radiation, with this radiation becoming known as Hawking Radiation. 

Hawking also wrote several books, such as A Brief History in Time. He wrote about subjects like the big bang and black holes so that the average reader could understand.