The Most Famous

PHYSICISTS from United Kingdom

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This page contains a list of the greatest British Physicists. The pantheon dataset contains 851 Physicists, 88 of which were born in United Kingdom. This makes United Kingdom the birth place of the 3rd most number of Physicists behind United States, and Germany.

Top 10

The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary British Physicists of all time. This list of famous British Physicists is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of British Physicists.

Photo of Isaac Newton

1. Isaac Newton (1643 - 1726)

With an HPI of 97.67, Isaac Newton is the most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 225 different languages on wikipedia.

Sir Isaac Newton (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1726/27) was an English polymath active as a mathematician, physicist, astronomer, alchemist, theologian, and author who was described in his time as a natural philosopher. He was a key figure in the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment that followed. His pioneering book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), first published in 1687, consolidated many previous results and established classical mechanics. Newton also made seminal contributions to optics, and shares credit with German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for formulating infinitesimal calculus, though he developed calculus years before Leibniz. In the Principia, Newton formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation that formed the dominant scientific viewpoint for centuries until it was superseded by the theory of relativity. He used his mathematical description of gravity to derive Kepler's laws of planetary motion, account for tides, the trajectories of comets, the precession of the equinoxes and other phenomena, eradicating doubt about the Solar System's heliocentricity. He demonstrated that the motion of objects on Earth and celestial bodies could be accounted for by the same principles. Newton's inference that the Earth is an oblate spheroid was later confirmed by the geodetic measurements of Maupertuis, La Condamine, and others, convincing most European scientists of the superiority of Newtonian mechanics over earlier systems. He built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a sophisticated theory of colour based on the observation that a prism separates white light into the colours of the visible spectrum. His work on light was collected in his highly influential book Opticks, published in 1704. He formulated an empirical law of cooling, which was the first heat transfer formulation, made the first theoretical calculation of the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. Furthermore, he made early investigations into electricity, with an idea from his book Opticks arguably the beginning of the field theory of the electric force. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician, he contributed to the study of power series, generalised the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed a method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves. Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian who privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. He refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, unlike most members of the Cambridge faculty of the day. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of alchemy and biblical chronology, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death. Politically and personally tied to the Whig party, Newton served two brief terms as Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge, in 1689–1690 and 1701–1702. He was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705 and spent the last three decades of his life in London, serving as Warden (1696–1699) and Master (1699–1727) of the Royal Mint, as well as president of the Royal Society (1703–1727).

Photo of Stephen Hawking

2. Stephen Hawking (1942 - 2018)

With an HPI of 82.87, Stephen Hawking is the 2nd most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 147 different languages.

Stephen William Hawking, (8 January 1942 – 14 March 2018) was an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author who was director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge. Between 1979 and 2009, he was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, widely viewed as one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world. Hawking was born in Oxford into a family of physicians. In October 1959, at the age of 17, he began his university education at University College, Oxford, where he received a first-class BA degree in physics. In October 1962, he began his graduate work at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where, in March 1966, he obtained his PhD degree in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, specialising in general relativity and cosmology. In 1963, at age 21, Hawking was diagnosed with an early-onset slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease that gradually, over decades, paralysed him. After the loss of his speech, he communicated through a speech-generating device, initially through use of a handheld switch, and eventually by using a single cheek muscle. Hawking's scientific works included a collaboration with Roger Penrose on gravitational singularity theorems in the framework of general relativity, and the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation, often called Hawking radiation. Initially, Hawking radiation was controversial. By the late 1970s, and following the publication of further research, the discovery was widely accepted as a major breakthrough in theoretical physics. Hawking was the first to set out a theory of cosmology explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. He was a vigorous supporter of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Hawking achieved commercial success with several works of popular science in which he discussed his theories and cosmology in general. His book A Brief History of Time appeared on the Sunday Times bestseller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. Hawking was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. In 2002, Hawking was ranked number 25 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. He died in 2018 at the age of 76, having lived more than 50 years following his diagnosis of motor neurone disease.

Photo of Michael Faraday

3. Michael Faraday (1791 - 1867)

With an HPI of 82.73, Michael Faraday is the 3rd most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 146 different languages.

Michael Faraday (; 22 September 1791 – 25 August 1867) was an English scientist who contributed to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. His main discoveries include the principles underlying electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis. Although Faraday received little formal education, as a self-made man, he was one of the most influential scientists in history. It was by his research on the magnetic field around a conductor carrying a direct current that Faraday established the concept of the electromagnetic field in physics. Faraday also established that magnetism could affect rays of light and that there was an underlying relationship between the two phenomena. He similarly discovered the principles of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, and the laws of electrolysis. His inventions of electromagnetic rotary devices formed the foundation of electric motor technology, and it was largely due to his efforts that electricity became practical for use in technology. As a chemist, Faraday discovered benzene, investigated the clathrate hydrate of chlorine, invented an early form of the Bunsen burner and the system of oxidation numbers, and popularised terminology such as "anode", "cathode", "electrode" and "ion". Faraday ultimately became the first and foremost Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, a lifetime position. Faraday was an experimentalist who conveyed his ideas in clear and simple language. However, his mathematical abilities did not extend as far as trigonometry and were limited to the simplest algebra. James Clerk Maxwell took the work of Faraday and others and summarized it in a set of equations which is accepted as the basis of all modern theories of electromagnetic phenomena. On Faraday's uses of lines of force, Maxwell wrote that they show Faraday "to have been in reality a mathematician of a very high order – one from whom the mathematicians of the future may derive valuable and fertile methods." The SI unit of capacitance is named in his honour: the farad. Albert Einstein kept a picture of Faraday on his study wall, alongside pictures of Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell. Physicist Ernest Rutherford stated, "When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and of industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time."

Photo of James Prescott Joule

4. James Prescott Joule (1818 - 1889)

With an HPI of 80.53, James Prescott Joule is the 4th most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 116 different languages.

James Prescott Joule (; 24 December 1818 – 11 October 1889) was an English physicist, mathematician and brewer, born in Salford, Lancashire. Joule studied the nature of heat, and discovered its relationship to mechanical work. This led to the law of conservation of energy, which in turn led to the development of the first law of thermodynamics. The SI derived unit of energy, the joule, is named after him. He worked with Lord Kelvin to develop an absolute thermodynamic temperature scale, which came to be called the Kelvin scale. Joule also made observations of magnetostriction, and he found the relationship between the current through a resistor and the heat dissipated, which is also called Joule's first law. His experiments about energy transformations were first published in 1843.

Photo of Robert Hooke

5. Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703)

With an HPI of 80.46, Robert Hooke is the 5th most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 93 different languages.

Robert Hooke (; 18 July 1635 – 3 March 1703) was an English polymath who was active as a physicist ("natural philosopher"), astronomer, geologist, meteorologist and architect. He is credited as one of the first scientists to investigate living things at microscopic scale in 1665, using a compound microscope that he designed. Hooke was an impoverished scientific inquirer in young adulthood who went on to became one of the most important scientists of his time. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Hooke (as a surveyor and architect) attained wealth and esteem by performing more than half of the property line surveys and assisting with the city's rapid reconstruction. Often vilified by writers in the centuries after his death, his reputation was restored at the end of the twentieth century and he has been called "England's Leonardo [da Vinci]". Hooke was a Fellow of the Royal Society and from 1662, he was its first Curator of Experiments. From 1665 to 1703, he was also Professor of Geometry at Gresham College. Hooke began his scientific career as an assistant to the physical scientist Robert Boyle. Hooke built the vacuum pumps that were used in Boyle's experiments on gas law and also conducted experiments. In 1664, Hooke identified the rotations of Mars and Jupiter. Hooke's 1665 book Micrographia, in which he coined the term cell, encouraged microscopic investigations. Investigating optics – specifically light refraction – Hooke inferred a wave theory of light. His is the first-recorded hypothesis of the cause of the expansion of matter by heat, of air's composition by small particles in constant motion that thus generate its pressure, and of heat as energy. In physics, Hooke inferred that gravity obeys an inverse square law and arguably was the first to hypothesise such a relation in planetary motion, a principle Isaac Newton furthered and formalised in Newton's law of universal gravitation. Priority over this insight contributed to the rivalry between Hooke and Newton. In geology and palaeontology, Hooke originated the theory of a terraqueous globe, thus disputing the Biblical view of the Earth's age; he also hypothesised the extinction of species, and argued hills and mountains had become elevated by geological processes. By identifying fossils of extinct species, Hooke presaged the theory of biological evolution.

Photo of James Clerk Maxwell

6. James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879)

With an HPI of 76.55, James Clerk Maxwell is the 6th most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 128 different languages.

James Clerk Maxwell (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879) was a Scottish physicist with broad interests who was responsible for the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, which was the first theory to describe electricity, magnetism and light as different manifestations of the same phenomenon. Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism have been called the "second great unification in physics" where the first one had been realised by Isaac Newton. With the publication of "A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field" in 1865, Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space as waves moving at the speed of light. He proposed that light is an undulation in the same medium that is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena. The unification of light and electrical phenomena led to his prediction of the existence of radio waves. Maxwell is also regarded as a founder of the modern field of electrical engineering. Maxwell was the first to derive the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution, a statistical means of describing aspects of the kinetic theory of gases, which he worked on sporadically throughout his career. He is also known for presenting the first durable colour photograph in 1861 and for his foundational work on analysing the rigidity of rod-and-joint frameworks (trusses) like those in many bridges. He is responsible for modern dimensional analysis. Maxwell is also recognized for laying the groundwork for chaos theory. His discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics. Many physicists regard Maxwell as the 19th-century scientist having the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. His contributions to the science are considered by many to be of the same magnitude as those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. In the millennium poll—a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists—Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein. On the centenary of Maxwell's birthday, Einstein described Maxwell's work as the "most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton". Einstein, when he visited the University of Cambridge in 1922, was told by his host that he had done great things because he stood on Newton's shoulders; Einstein replied: "No I don't. I stand on the shoulders of Maxwell." Tom Siegfried described Maxwell as "one of those once-in-a-century geniuses who perceived the physical world with sharper senses than those around him".

Photo of Paul Dirac

7. Paul Dirac (1902 - 1984)

With an HPI of 74.58, Paul Dirac is the 7th most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 102 different languages.

Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (; 8 August 1902 – 20 October 1984) was an English mathematical and theoretical physicist who is considered to be one of the founders of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. He is credited with laying the foundations of quantum field theory. He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a professor of physics at Florida State University and the University of Miami, and a 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics recipient. Dirac graduated from the University of Bristol with a first class honours Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1921, and a first class honours Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics in 1923. Dirac then graduated from the University of Cambridge with a PhD in physics in 1926, writing the first ever thesis on quantum mechanics. Dirac made fundamental contributions to the early development of both quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, coining the latter term. Among other discoveries, he formulated the Dirac equation in 1928, which describes the behaviour of fermions and predicted the existence of antimatter, which is one of the most important equations in physics, and is regarded by some physicists as the "real seed of modern physics". He wrote a famous paper in 1931, which further predicted the existence of antimatter. Dirac shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics with Erwin Schrödinger for "the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory". He was the youngest ever theoretician to win the prize until T. D. Lee in 1957. Dirac also contributed greatly to the reconciliation of general relativity with quantum mechanics. His 1930 monograph, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, is one of the most influential texts on quantum mechanics. Dirac's contributions were not only restricted to quantum mechanics. He contributed to the Tube Alloys project, the British programme to research and construct atomic bombs during World War II. Dirac made fundamental contributions to the process of uranium enrichment and the gas centrifuge, and whose work was deemed to be "probably the most important theoretical result in centrifuge technology". He also contributed to cosmology, putting forth his large numbers hypothesis. Dirac also anticipated string theory well before its inception, with work such as the Dirac membrane and Dirac–Born–Infeld action, along with other contributions important to modern-day string and gauge theories. Dirac was regarded by his friends and colleagues as unusual in character. In a 1926 letter to Paul Ehrenfest, Albert Einstein wrote of a Dirac paper, "I am toiling over Dirac. This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful." In another letter concerning the Compton effect he wrote, "I don't understand the details of Dirac at all." In 1987, Abdus Salam declared that "Dirac was undoubtedly one of the greatest physicists of this or any century . . . No man except Einstein has had such a decisive influence, in so short a time, on the course of physics in this century." In 1995, Stephen Hawking stated that "Dirac has done more than anyone this century, with the exception of Einstein, to advance physics and change our picture of the universe". Antonino Zichichi asserted that Dirac had a greater impact on modern physics than Einstein, while Stanley Deser remarked that "We all stand on Dirac's shoulders." Dirac is widely considered to be on par with Sir Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Einstein.

Photo of J. J. Thomson

8. J. J. Thomson (1856 - 1940)

With an HPI of 73.42, J. J. Thomson is the 8th most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 104 different languages.

Sir Joseph John Thomson (18 December 1856 – 30 August 1940) was a British physicist and Nobel Laureate in Physics, credited with the discovery of the electron, the first subatomic particle to be found. In 1897, Thomson showed that cathode rays were composed of previously unknown negatively charged particles (now called electrons), which he calculated must have bodies much smaller than atoms and a very large charge-to-mass ratio. Thomson is also credited with finding the first evidence for isotopes of a stable (non-radioactive) element in 1913, as part of his exploration into the composition of canal rays (positive ions). His experiments to determine the nature of positively charged particles, with Francis William Aston, were the first use of mass spectrometry and led to the development of the mass spectrograph. Thomson was awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the conduction of electricity in gases. Thomson was also a teacher, and seven of his students went on to win Nobel Prizes: Ernest Rutherford (Chemistry 1908), Lawrence Bragg (Physics 1915), Charles Barkla (Physics 1917), Francis Aston (Chemistry 1922), Charles Thomson Rees Wilson (Physics 1927), Owen Richardson (Physics 1928) and Edward Victor Appleton (Physics 1947). Only Arnold Sommerfeld's record of mentorship offers a comparable list of high-achieving students.

Photo of William Gilbert

9. William Gilbert (1544 - 1603)

With an HPI of 73.20, William Gilbert is the 9th most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 63 different languages.

William Gilbert (; 24 May 1544? – 30 November 1603), also known as Gilberd, was an English physician, physicist and natural philosopher. He passionately rejected both the prevailing Aristotelian philosophy and the Scholastic method of university teaching. He is remembered today largely for his book De Magnete (1600). A unit of magnetomotive force, also known as magnetic potential, was named the Gilbert in his honour; it has now been superseded by the Ampere-turn.

Photo of William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

10. William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824 - 1907)

With an HPI of 72.70, William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin is the 10th most famous British Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 85 different languages.

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, (26 June 1824 – 17 December 1907) was a British mathematician, mathematical physicist and engineer born in Belfast. He was the professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow for 53 years, where he undertook significant research and mathematical analysis of electricity, was instrumental in the formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and contributed significantly to unifying physics, which was then in its infancy of development as an emerging academic discipline. He received the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1883 and served as its president from 1890 to 1895. In 1892, he became the first scientist to be elevated to the House of Lords. Absolute temperatures are stated in units of kelvin in Lord Kelvin's honour. While the existence of a coldest possible temperature, absolute zero, was known before his work, Kelvin determined its correct value as approximately −273.15 degrees Celsius or −459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. The Joule–Thomson effect is also named in his honour. Kelvin worked closely with mathematics professor Hugh Blackburn in his work. He also had a career as an electrical telegraph engineer and inventor which propelled him into the public eye and earned him wealth, fame, and honours. For his work on the transatlantic telegraph project, he was knighted in 1866 by Queen Victoria, becoming Sir William Thomson. He had extensive maritime interests and worked on the mariner's compass, which previously had limited reliability. Kelvin was ennobled in 1892 in recognition of his achievements in thermodynamics, and of his opposition to Irish Home Rule, becoming Baron Kelvin, of Largs in the County of Ayr. The title refers to the River Kelvin, which flows near his laboratory at the University of Glasgow's Gilmorehill home at Hillhead. Despite offers of elevated posts from several world-renowned universities, Kelvin refused to leave Glasgow, remaining until his retirement from that post in 1899. Active in industrial research and development, he was recruited around 1899 by George Eastman to serve as vice-chairman of the board of the British company Kodak Limited, affiliated with Eastman Kodak. In 1904 he became chancellor of the University of Glasgow. Kelvin resided in Netherhall, a redstone mansion in Largs, which he built in the 1870s and where he died in 1907. The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow has a permanent exhibition on the work of Kelvin, which includes many of his original papers, instruments, and other artefacts, including his smoking pipe.

People

Pantheon has 91 people classified as British physicists born between 1544 and 1988. Of these 91, 13 (14.29%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living British physicists include Roger Penrose, Brian Josephson, and Anthony James Leggett. The most famous deceased British physicists include Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, and Michael Faraday. As of April 2024, 5 new British physicists have been added to Pantheon including Frederick Guthrie, Alan Cottrell, and Gilbert Walker.

Living British Physicists

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Deceased British Physicists

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Newly Added British Physicists (2024)

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Overlapping Lives

Which Physicists were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Physicists since 1700.