The word ‘scientist’ was coined by a philosopher and theologian William Whewell in 1833. It describes someone who carries out scientific research to advance knowledge in a particular field.
Today, most scientists have advanced degrees in one or more areas of science and pursue careers in different sectors, including government, industry, academia and nonprofit environments.
A very few scientists have been able to make a dent in the universe with their extraordinary discoveries. Let’s find out their names and contributions. We’ve made a detailed list of most famous scientists of all time (ranked in no particular order).
10. James Clerk Maxwell
James and Katherine Maxwell in 1869
Most Known For: Maxwell Equations
Accolades: Adams Prize (1857), Rumford Medal (1860)
In 1999, a survey asked respondents to name physicists that they believe have made the most significant contributions to the field. After Newton and Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell was voted the third most popular physicist.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 13 June 1831, James Clerk Maxwell was a child prodigy. By the age of 14, he was able to rediscover some of the key works of René Descartes, a prominent French mathematician in the 1600s, without any prior training.
During his time as a professor at the University of Aberdeen, Maxwell was deeply fascinated by the nature of Saturn’s rings. He was able to accurately predict (mathematically) that they are composed of countless tiny particles, revolving separately around the planet.
He then worked on the kinetic theory of gases and laid the ground for the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution; a law explains the distribution of speeds of idealized gas molecules at a given temperature.
“One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell” — Albert Einstein on Maxwell
Maxwell’s greatest achievement, however, came in 1865 with the completion of his paper on “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field.” He proved that magnetism and electricity are related with help of a set of differential equations, which later became known as Maxwell equations. Maxwell’s pioneering work defined most of modern physics as we know today.
9. Max Plank
Max Plank (in the middle) at a dinner party in Berlin on 12 November 1931
Most Known For: Plank’s constant, Third Law of thermodynamics
Accolades: Nobel Prize (1918), Lorentz Medal (1927)
Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. His work became the foundation on which modern particle physics is based on.
Max Plank was born to a distinguished family. He was taught mathematics and astronomy at a very young age and was also skilled in the field of music. Perhaps his most significant contribution to physics is the law of black body radiation, which many considered as the basis of quantum mechanics.
8. Galileo Galilei
Portrait of Galileo Galilei (cropped) by Justus Sustermans
Known For: Dynamics, Kinematics, Telescopic astronomy
Galileo Galilei was one of the pioneers of science, who made fundamental contributions to the field of physics, mathematics, and astronomy. He played a significant role in the emergence of science as a separate field of study independent of religion and philosophy.
Galileo started his academic career at the University of Pisa in 1580. There he worked on a number of revolutionary ideas including thermoscope, a device that detects changes in temperature and a precursor to the modern-day thermometer. His book, La Bilancetta (or “The Little Balance”) described a more effective way to determine the weight of precious metals.
In 1609, he completed his own version of the telescope (then known as spyglass), which was discovered a year before. Soon, with his telescope, Galileo made close observations of the moon. It was the beginning of observational astronomy.
A year later, he identified Jupiter’s four largest moons, which was earlier thought as fixed stars. He subsequently studied phases of planet Venus, which helped further his support of Copernican heliocentrism.
Do you know: Around the same time, a German astronomer Simon Marius independently discovered the four Jovian satellites. Their respective mythological names; Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede are those given by Marius.
Galileo’s contribution to the field of astronomy is not limited to sky-gazing as he was the first to point out that gravity affects every object the same regardless of their mass. His philosophical views of inertia were also critical.
7. Isaac Newton
Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton (cropped) in 1703 by Godfrey Kneller
Most Known For: Classical mechanics, Law of universal gravitation
Sir Isaac Newton was born in 1642, the same year Galileo died. At the age of 20 years, he went to Trinity College, where he studied Aristotle as well as the works of modern scholars such as Descartes, Kepler, and Galileo. Here, he laid the foundation of Infinitesimal calculus.
Newton extensively studied mathematics and optics for much of the 1660s and ’70s. While working on the prism, he demonstrated the dispersion of light and how to control it (using a second prism). It eventually led him to design the first-ever reflecting telescope.
In 1687, Newton published his work Principia (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica) with the help of his friend and astronomer Edmond Halley. The Principia put forward the universal laws of motion. His work gave birth to what we now know as Classical mechanics.
Newton was also an investor, but unlike science and mathematics, he wasn’t able to master it. He lost more than £20,000 during the South Sea bubble that occurred in 1720.
“I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men”. — Sir Isaac Newton on South Sea bankruptcy
6. Marie Curie
Pierre and Marie Curie in a laboratory
Most Known For: Discovering radioactivity
Accolades: Nobel Prize in 1903 (physics) and in 1911 (chemistry)
Marie Curie was the Wonder Women of science. She did pioneering research in not one but two scientific fields. Born in Warsaw, Poland, Curie’s upbringing was tough having lost most of their family fortunes during the Polish Uprisings of 1865.
Curie, along with her two sisters, was taught mostly at home by their father who was a well-respected teacher of his time. Growing up, she made a pact with her sister Bronisława in which they agreed to help each other financially in their academic quests.
In 1891, she moved to France to study at the University of Paris. There she met her soon to be husband Pierre Curie, who himself was a distinguished physicist.
Intrigued by Henri Becquerel’s discovery of Uranium and its x-rays Esque emissions in 1869, Curie decided to further explore this in her doctoral thesis. She was able to determine that whatever is causing these mysterious emissions was occurring at the atomic level. Her research was an important step towards finding much smaller forms of matter.
Curie, with her husband, then discovered two radioactive elements; polonium and radium. In 1903, Marie Curie became the first female to receive a Nobel Prize and the only female to win it twice.
5. Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein and Richard Tolman (left) at Caltech in 1932
Most Known For: General and; Special Relativity
Accolades: Nobel Prize: (1921), Max Planck Medal (1929)
Albert Einstein was a celebrity in the science world. He was first and perhaps the only scientist who became a household name. At a young age, his mathematical prowess far excelled that of his peers. He not only taught himself geometry and algebra but, by the age of 12, Einstein had developed his proof of the Pythagorean theorem.
In 1900, Einstein got a job as an assistant examiner at the patent office. In the same year, he published his first scientific paper. The golden period in Einstein’s academic career came in 1905, during which he published four papers that shaped most of modern physics.
The first paper was on the Photoelectric effect in which he theorized the existence of photons. It won him the Nobel Prize in 1921. In that year’s third paper, Einstein introduced the Special Theory of Relativity. It gave rise to E = MC2.
In 1915, expanding on the special relativity, Einstein described his theory of gravitation in the general theory of relativity. It basically tells us that anything with mass causes distortion in spacetime. His theory was witnessed by the scientific community during a solar eclipse in 1919.
Einstein, through general relativity, predicted the existence of gravitational waves. About a century later, researchers were finally able to detect these waves directly.
4. Linus Pauling
Linus Pauling in 1955 (his Nobel Prize in the inset)
Most Known For: Molecular biology, Quantum chemistry
Accolades: Nobel Prize 1954 (physics), 1962 (peace)
Linus Carl Pauling was a pioneer of quantum chemistry, a branch of chemistry that studies at quantum levels, who made significant contributions in biology. His early works in alpha-helix and protein structure helped discover the structure of DNA.
In 1926, after receiving his doctorate in physical chemistry from Caltech, Linus Pauling went to Europe to explore a relatively new field of quantum mechanics under the guidance of Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and Erwin Schrödinger.
Upon returning to the United States he took a teaching position at Caltech and did extensive research on chemical bonds. Throughout the 1930s, he published numerous papers and completed his famous book, The Nature of Chemical Bond. It is considered the most influential book in chemistry and is still in popular use.
As it stands, Linus Pauling is one of the only four individuals who have been awarded the Nobel Prize twice and the only person to have two unshared Nobel Prizes in different fields.
3. Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin in around 1874 by Leonard Darwin
Most Known For: The Origin of Species
Accolades: Wollaston Medal (1859), Copley Medal (1864)
Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shropshire county, England in 1809. His father, Robert Darwin, who was a doctor by profession, wanted him to pursue medicine at Edinburgh Medical School.
During his time at the school, rather than focusing on his medical studies, Darwin took more interest in natural history, plant, and marine biology. After Edinburgh, he then went to Cambridge, where one of his cousins informed him about the beetle collection trend.
Darwin’s enthusiasm towards collecting beetles grew so bold that when some of his findings were published in James Stephens’ Illustrations of British entomology, he was beyond thrilled.
At Cambridge, Darwin met John Henslow, a botany professor, who would later become his lifelong mentor. In 1831, Henslow invited Darwin to a world voyage, which eventually made him the father of evolutionary biology.
His findings defied all theories of animal origins at that time and suggested that not only species could change over time, but these changes are driven by various environmental factors.
Darwin’s much-celebrated book, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859, more than 20 years after his famous voyage.
2. Michael Faraday
Micheal Faraday in 1861
Most Known For: Faraday’s law of induction; laws of electrolysis, Electrochemistry
Accolades: Copley Medal (1832 and 1838), Rumford Medal (1846)
Widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time, Michael Faraday didn’t receive much formal education growing up. Whatever he learned was at his job in a bookbinder shop, where is also developed an interest in electricity.
At the age of 21, Faraday landed a job as an assistant to Humphry Davy, a prominent chemist of his time. With unrestricted access to Davy’s lab, Faraday extensively studied chlorine and was able to liquefy it for the first time. In his research paper explaining the laws of electrolysis, Faraday introduced familiar terms such as ion, anode, cathode, and electrode.
His greatest achievement came in 1831 when he discovered electromagnetic induction. His work was mathematically explained by James Clerk Maxwell as Faraday’s Law of Induction.
1. Nikola Tesla
Tesla along with Mark Twain in his Lab
Most Known For: Alternating Current and other power experiments
Ahead of his time, Nikola Telsa was one of the greatest inventors in history, whom we owe most of our electrified lives. His groundbreaking experiments on alternating current made transferring electricity over long ranges possible.
Born in 1856 in Austrian Empire (modern-day Croatia), Telsa was a child genius. After graduating from school a year early, he went to university to study physics and electrical engineering where he excelled. However, he did not receive a degree.
Apart from his contributions to the Alternating current, Nikola Tesla is known for the magnifying transmitter, which he intended to transmit electrical energy over long distances. He also devised a remote-controlled boat and a bladeless turbine.
Tesla was granted more than 300 patents from about 26 different countries.
Other Honorable Mentions
1. Barbara McClintock
Barbara McClintock was one of the pioneers of Cytogenetics; the study of chromosomes in relation to cell behavior. Her work in maize cytogenetics opened doors to several genes modifying techniques including chromosomal crossover.
She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 and remains the only woman to achieve the feat of receiving an unshared Nobel Prize in this category.
2. Erwin Schrödinger
Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist known for his valuable contributions to the fields of thermodynamics, general relativity, and statistical mechanics. The Schrödinger equation, which he developed in 1925, marked a new chapter in the field of quantum mechanics.
One of his thought experiments, Schrödinger’s cat remains popular among the general public. Schrödinger was awarded the Nobel Prize, which he shared with Paul Dirac, in 1933.
3. Antoine Lavoisier
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, widely regarded as the father of modern chemistry, was one of the most famous scientists in 18th century Europe. He was one of the earliest proponents of the metric system, named oxygen ad hydrogen, and hypothesized the existence of silicon (1787).
His most notable contribution to science, however, was discovering the role of oxygen in a combustion process.
4. Carl Sagan
Carl Edward Sagan was perhaps the most influential science popularizer in the 20th century. Throughout his career, Sagan published about 600 papers and 20 books. He advocated for and promoted the search for life outside the Earth. He had an uncanny ability to feed scientific ideas about the human race, earth and universe to the general public.
5. Stephen Hawking
Physicist Stephen Hawking in zero gravity
Stephen Hawking is an inspiration not just for young scientists but for people of all ages and professions. While he was largely known for his success in popular science; a form of scientific literature intended for the general public, Hawking made several important contributions to general relativity including Penrose–Hawking singularity theorems and Hawking radiation.
6. Edwin Hubble
It was Edwin Hubble who first showed us that there are galaxies beyond ours that were previously thought to be gas-filled “nebulae”. Based on prior studies, he was able to conclude that the velocity at which different galaxies are moving away from Earth is almost proportional to the distance between them (Hubble’s Law). The legendary Hubble Space Telescope is named after him.
7. Paul Dirac
Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. He was able to predict the existence of antimatter in the Dirac equation (named after him). His contributions to the quantum field theory are fundamental to modern superstring theories.
Along with Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac was awarded the Nobel physics prize in 1933 for his contribution to the atomic theory.
8. Chien-Shiung Wu
Chien-Shiung Wu, nicknamed the “Queen of Nuclear Research,” was an experimental physicist best known for carrying out the Wu experiment. One of her other significant works includes demonstrating a universal form of beta decay model.
Wu was also involved in the Manhattan Project, in which she worked on gaseous diffusion; a method used to separate enriched uranium.
9. Edward Witten
Edward Witten is a theoretical physicist specializing in the fields of quantum gravity and string theory. In addition to physics, he made significant contributions to pure mathematics.
In 1990, he was awarded the Fields Medal (first physicist to win one) for proving the positive mass conjuncture. While speaking at a conference in 1995, Witten put forward the idea of M-theory, an 11-dimensional theory that basically unifies all versions of the superstring theory.