A physicist is a scientist who works across a broad range of research fields to understand how matter and energy behave. This includes studying things at all scales, from sub-atomic levels to cosmological length.
Since matter and energy are the fundamental constituents of the universe, discoveries made by physicists find applications throughout the natural sciences and technology.
Although the branch of physics is very broad, physicists are usually categorized into two groups:
- Theoretical physicists: who use mathematical models of physical systems to predict and describe natural phenomena.
- Experimental physicists: who utilize various tools and techniques to probe these phenomena.
Both apply their knowledge to better understand the universe, solve some of the most complex problems on our planet, and develop new technologies.
“Sometimes the best physicist is one that’s able to take us in a new direction, to see a new way where you might be more successful.”– Anne-Marie Magnan, an experimental physicist at Imperial College London.
Below, we have listed 13 of the most famous physicists over the past few decades. Some of them have appeared in the news and speaking events multiple times, while some have popularized physics in the form of public lectures, broadcasting, and books. The common thing among them is they all have made significant contributions to science.
13. Lisa Randall
Famous for: 5-dimensional warped geometry theory
Accolades: Lilienfeld Prize (2007), Sakurai Prize (2019)
Lisa Randall has spent most of her career studying the nature of the universe and becoming one of the leading experts on cosmology and particle physics. She investigates the possibilities of extra dimensions in our universe other than the four dimensions that we are already aware of.
Her work extends to analyzing the interactions of particles and strange phenomena that come along with them. She also explores the Standard Model of particle physics, dark matter, cosmological inflation, supersymmetry, and baryogenesis.
In 2004, Randall was recognized as the world’s most cited theoretical physicist with nearly 10,000 citations on her research. In 2007, she was listed in the 100 most influential people by Time magazine.
Randall also maintains a public presence through her lectures, writing, radio shows, and TV appearances. In 2015, she published a book named Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.
12. Arthur Bruce McDonald
Famous for: discovering that neutrinos have mass
Accolades: Benjamin Franklin Medal (2007), Nobel Prize in Physics (2015)
Arthur McDonald is an astrophysicist with a reputation for inspiring leadership and technical innovation. In 2001, he made a ground-breaking discovery that neutrinos have mass.
His work modified the existing Standard Model of Particle Physics framework, providing new insights into the evolution of the universe and confirming models of the Sun that transformed our knowledge of the basic laws of physics.
In 2001, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), led by McDonald, showed evidence supporting the notion that electron neutrinos from the Sun were oscillating into muon and tau neutrinos. For this work, McDonald was awarded the 2015 Noble Prize in Physics, which he shared with Japanese physicist Takaaki Kajita.
McDonald continues to work at Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Collaboration (SNOLAB), an expansion of the existing facilities developed for the original SNO solar neutrino experiment.
11. Stephen Wolfram
Famous for: WolframAlpha answer engine
Accolades: MacArthur Fellowship (1981)
Stephen Wolfram is known for his work in theoretical physics, computer science, and mathematics. By the age of 14, he had written three books on particle physics.
At 15, he started focusing on applied quantum field theory and published several scientific papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, such as Physical Review, Australian Journal of Physics, and Nuclear Physics.
At the age of 18, Wolfram published ten papers. One of them was on heavy quark production. At 20, he got his Ph.D. in particle physics.
Wolfram, along with physicist Geoffrey Fox, worked on the strong interaction theory, which is often utilized in experimental particle physics.
Between 1992 and 2002, Wolfram spent a lot of time on his controversial book A New Kind of Science. It elaborates an empirical and systematic study of computational systems such as cellar automata.
In 2009, Wolfram launched an answer engine, WolframAlpha. Unlike search engines that provide a list of web pages, it answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from externally sourced ‘curated data.’
10. Donna Strickland
Famous for: Implementing chirped pulse amplification and research on ultrafast optics
Accolades: Nobel Prize in Physics (2018), Member of the National Academy of Sciences (2020)
Donna Strickland is an optical physicist who thinks lasers are cool. She has worked very hard to create high-intensity laser pulses.
In 1985, Strickland discovered a technique of producing ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses without destroying the amplifying material. She stretched the laser pulses in time to decrease their maximum power, then amplified them, and finally compressed them. This resulted in a very high-intensity pulse.
The process is called “chirped pulse amplification,” where an ultrashort laser pulse is amplified up to petawatt level. It has numerous uses, including corrective eye surgeries.
Strickland won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for implementing this process, which she shared with her colleague Gérard Mourou. Donna Strickland was the third female to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, after Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963).
Her recent research focuses on pushing the boundaries of ultrafast optical physics to broader wavelength ranges, including ultraviolet and mid-infrared, using multi-frequency techniques.
9. George Smoot
Famous for: his work on Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite
Accolades: Nobel Prize in Physics (2006), Albert Einstein Medal (2003)
George Smoot is an astrophysicist who made significant contributions to the development of the COBE satellite for NASA. The satellite operated between 1989 and 1993, measuring the cosmic microwave background radiation formed during the early stages of the universe’s formation.
The data gathered from the satellite showed that our universe was formed in a primordial explosion known as the big bang. For his work on the COBE satellite, Smoot was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics. He shared the prize with John Mather, who worked on the same project.
More than one thousand scientists and engineers were involved in the COBE project. Smoot was responsible for measuring tiny fluctuations in the temperature of the radiation.
He was involved in various other projects, including the Millimeter Anisotropy eXperiment IMaging Array experiment, Planck space observatory, and Joint Dark Energy Mission.
In 2021, Smoot joined Viomi Technology, a leading IoT home technology company, as a chief scientist for their AI development.
8. David Gross
Famous for: Asymptotic freedom and Heterotic string
Accolades: Dirac Medal (1988), Nobel Prize in Physics (2004)
David Gross is a theoretical physicist and string theorist. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, he joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1969.
While working with his first graduate student, Frank Wilczek, he discovers asymptotic freedom, a phenomenon in which the nuclear force weakens at short distances. This discovery led Gross and Wilczek to formulate quantum chromodynamics (QCD), a theory of the strong interaction between quarks and gluons.
Almost 30 years after discovering asymptotic freedom, Gross and Wilczek received the Noble Prize in Physics in 2004. They shared the prize with physicist Frank Wilczek, who was working independently on the same topic.
Gross, along with three other scientists, also derived the heterotic string theory (In string theory, heterotic string is a closed string). He continues to focus on string theory.
7. Curtis Gove Callan
Famous for: Callan–Symanzik equation and his leading contributions to string theory and quantum field theory
Accolades: Sakurai Prize (2000), Dirac Medal (2004)
Curtis Callan is a theoretical physicist at Princeton Univerity. He has dedicated his career to understanding the workings of the quantum field theories underlying the phenomena of particle physics.
Callan has conducted research in quantum gravity, gauge theory, and string theory. More specifically, he has studied:
- The problem of Hawking radiation and the endpoint of black hole evaporation
- Instanton, which is a classical solution to the equations of motion with a finite, non-zero action, either in quantum field theory or in quantum mechanics.
- The construction of conformal field theories corresponding to solutions of numerous kinds.
Callan has also been focusing on theoretical problems in cellular biology. He has extensively studied DNA sequence data, which might work on a broad range of problems, from the regulation of genes in bacteria to the working of the immune system in humans.
6. Andre Geim
Famous for: Discovering graphene and developing gecko tape
Accolades: Nobel Prize in Physics (2010), Ig Nobel Prize (2000), Niels Bohr Medal (2011), EuroPhysics Prize (2008)
Andre Geim has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers, of which more than 30 papers are cited over 1,000 times and 6 are cited over 10,000 times.
In 2000, he was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize (devoted to silly science) for using a magnet to levitate a frog. In 2004, he successfully created a two-dimensional material called graphene. It’s an allotrope of carbon with incredibly unique properties. For this work, he won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with his colleague and former student Konstantin Novoselov.
Greim is the only individual to have won both Noble and Ig Noble prizes.
Graphene is an incredibly strong, transparent, and an excellent conductor of electricity. It may surpass silicon to form the next generation of computer chips. It could also become an ideal material for solar cells and touchscreens.
Thoman-Reuters, a multinational media conglomerate, has named Greim among the world’s most active scientists multiple times and attributes to him the initiation of the three new research fields: graphene, gecko tape, and diamagnetic levitation. He has also worked on superconductivity and mesoscopic physics.
5. Roger Penrose
Famous for: Twistor theory, Geometry of space-time, and Blackhole bomb
Accolades: Nobel Prize in Physics (2020), Wolf Prize in Physics (1988), De Morgan Medal (2004)
Roger Penrose is a mathematical physicist who has made incredible contributions to general relativity and cosmology. He started his career in the 1950s by focusing on E. H. Moore generalized matrix inverse. He reintroduced the matrix to what is today known as Moore–Penrose inverse.
In 1964, Penrose developed mathematical tools to describe black holes. Using Einstein’s general theory of relativity, he proved that the formation of black holes is the natural process in the development of the universe. For this work, he won a 2020 Noble Prize in Physics, which he shared with two other physicists.
Penrose, along with Stephen Hawking, studied black holes in detail. He was able to prove that all matter within a black hole collapses to a singularly, a geometric point in space where all known laws of nature cease to exist.
He also developed a map called a Penrose diagram that makes it easy to visualize the gravitational effects of a black hole. His other great discovery is Penrose tilling, in which certain shapes can cover a plane without using a repeating pattern.
Penrose has written two books explaining why quantum mechanics is required to define consciousness. He also wrote one book on modern physics, The Road to Reality, and one book on the Conformal Cyclic Cosmology model, Cycles of Time.
4. Edward Witten
Edward Witten (center) with Stephen Hawking and David Gross at the 2001 Strings Conference
Famous for: M-theory, Topological string theory, Positive energy theorem
Accolades: Nemmers Prize (2000), Lorentz Medal (2010), Kyoto Prize (2014), Albert Einstein Award (2016)
Edward Witten’s early research interests were in electromagnetism, which later shifted to what is now called superstring theory in mathematical physics. He did a lot of work in knot theory, Morse theory, and supersymmetry.
Witten studied the connection between quantum field theory and the differential topology of manifolds of two and three dimensions. In collaboration with Nathan Seiberg, Witten developed a set of partial differential equations that simplified Simon Donaldson’s way of classifying four-dimensional manifolds.
He coined the term topological quantum field theory for a specific kind of physical theory where the expectation values of observable quantities encode data about the topology of spacetime.
He also introduced the M-theory, which unifies all consistent versions of superstring theory. This initiated a storm of research activities known as the second superstring revolution.
Witten has also published influential work in several aspects of mathematical physics, including the mathematics and physics of anomalies, dualities, integrability, localization, and homologies. Most of his findings have significantly influenced topics like quantum gravity, string theory, and topological condensed matter.
3. Kip Stephen Thorne
Known for: his work on LIGO and gravitational waves
Accolades: Albert Einstein Medal (2009), Kavli Prize (2016), Nobel Prize in Physics (2017)
A longtime friend and colleague of Carl Segan and Stephen Hawking, Kip Thorne has made several contributions to astrophysics and gravitational physics. His work has principally focused on black holes, gravitational waves, and relativistic stars.
Thorne is among the leading experts on the practical implications of relativity theory. One consequence of this theory is the existence of gravitational waves. To detect these waves, Thorne started a LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) project in 1984.
In 2015, LIGO detected the gravitational waves for the first time, confirming Einstein’s general theory of relativity. These waves came from two black holes colliding 1.3 billion light-years away.
In 2017, Thorne was awarded the Noble Prize in Physics for his contributions to the LIGO detector. He shared the prize with two other physicists, Barry Barish and Rainer Weiss.
Thorne is also known for his book The Science of Interstellar. It’s a follow-up text for Christopher Nolan’s 2014 movie Interstellar.
2. Alain Aspect
Known for: his experiments on quantum entanglement
Accolades: Wolf Prize (2010), Niels Bohr International Gold Medal (2013), UNESCO Niels Bohr Medal (2013), Balzan Prize (2013)
Alain Aspect has performed numerous experiments describing the most intriguing characterizing of quantum mechanics. In 1982, he conducted series of inequalities tests with pairs of entangled photons, which eventually helped in settling a debate between Nils Bohr and Albert Einstein, started in 1935.
Aspect has also demonstrated the wave-particle duality for a single photon. The photons analyzed in these experiments come from a single atom and form an “entangled” state. The utilization of entanglement in computation, communication, and quantum radar is a very active area of research and development.
The quantum state (qubit), for example, is the fundamental object of information in quantum computing, a notion developed at the same time as Aspect’s experiments.
Aspect’s work has attracted vast attention from scientists all over the world, triggering an avalanche of research on quantum entanglement. This opened new avenues to implement quantum algorithms and generate entangled states of photons, electrons, and neutrons in the laboratory.
Overall, the early tests conducted by Aspect started a new era of Quantum Information Science.
1. Steven Weinberg
Photo taken by: Matthieu Sontag
Known for: Electroweak force, Asymptotic safety, Axion model, and Weinberg angle
Accolades: Nobel Prize in Physics (1979), National Medal of Science (1991), Benjamin Franklin Medal (2004)
Steven Weinberg is a theoretical physicist and a graceful writer with a sophisticated grasp of history and philosophy.
In 1967, Weinberg’s research on current algebra, broken symmetries, and renormalization theory shifted to another interesting topic: the unification of weak and electromagnetic interactions. He proved that photons and bosons are members of the same family of particles.
In 1979, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with two other physicists for their contributions to the theory of unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles.
He has received dozens of honors and awards for his research in quantum field theory, superstrings, supersymmetry, and Technicolor theories that address electroweak gauge symmetry breaking.
In his career, Weinberg not only studied elementary particles and physical cosmology but also wrote articles for the New York Review of Books, testified before Congress in support of the particle accelerator Superconducting SuperCollider, and gave numerous lectures on the broader meaning of science.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is the greatest physicist of all time?
Every now and then, a physicist comes along who completely changes our understanding of the Universe and everything in it. The top five who have made the most impact and become a household name are:
- Albert Einstein
- Isaac Newton
- Niels Bohr
- Erwin Schrodinger
- James Clerk Maxwell
Who is the father of physics?
The title of ‘Father of Physics’ isn’t given to any single individual. Physics is a very broad subject and has multiple sub-branches. Issac Newton is considered the father of physics, Galileo Galilei is the father of Observational Physics, and Albert Einstein is the father of Modern Physics.
Do physicists make good money?
Yes. The average salary of physicists is $122,000 per year. Wages typically start from $60,000 and go up to $210,000 in the United States.
Who is the richest scientist?
Gordon Moore is one of the richest scientists in the world, with a net worth of $12.5 billion. He minored in physics and received a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1954. His source of income is Intel Corporation, which he co-founded in 1968.
In 1965, Moore published an article stating that the number of components (such as capacitors, resistors, diodes, and transistors) in an integrated circuit doubles every year. A decade later, he revised the estimation rate to every two years. The observation is famously known as Moore’s law.