The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary American Physicists of all time. This list of famous American 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 American Physicists.
With an HPI of 80.61, Richard Feynman is the most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 105 different languages on wikipedia.
Richard Phillips Feynman (; May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an American theoretical physicist, known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as his work in particle physics for which he proposed the parton model. For contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 jointly with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichirō Tomonaga. Feynman developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions describing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams. During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal Physics World, he was ranked the seventh-greatest physicist of all time.He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and became known to a wide public in the 1980s as a member of the Rogers Commission, the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Along with his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. He held the Richard C. Tolman professorship in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. Feynman was a keen popularizer of physics through both books and lectures, including a 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology called There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom and the three-volume publication of his undergraduate lectures, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman also became known through his autobiographical books Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?, and books written about him such as Tuva or Bust! by Ralph Leighton and the biography Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick.
With an HPI of 77.75, Robert Andrews Millikan is the 2nd most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 85 different languages.
Robert Andrews Millikan (March 22, 1868 – December 19, 1953) was an American experimental physicist honored with the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1923 for the measurement of the elementary electric charge and for his work on the photoelectric effect. Millikan graduated from Oberlin College in 1891 and obtained his doctorate at Columbia University in 1895. In 1896 he became an assistant at the University of Chicago, where he became a full professor in 1910. In 1909 Millikan began a series of experiments to determine the electric charge carried by a single electron. He began by measuring the course of charged water droplets in an electric field. The results suggested that the charge on the droplets is a multiple of the elementary electric charge, but the experiment was not accurate enough to be convincing. He obtained more precise results in 1910 with his famous oil-drop experiment in which he replaced water (which tended to evaporate too quickly) with oil. In 1914 Millikan took up with similar skill the experimental verification of the equation introduced by Albert Einstein in 1905 to describe the photoelectric effect. He used this same research to obtain an accurate value of Planck’s constant. In 1921 Millikan left the University of Chicago to become director of the Norman Bridge Laboratory of Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. There he undertook a major study of the radiation that the physicist Victor Hess had detected coming from outer space. Millikan proved that this radiation is indeed of extraterrestrial origin, and he named it "cosmic rays." As chairman of the Executive Council of Caltech (the school's governing body at the time) from 1921 until his retirement in 1945, Millikan helped to turn the school into one of the leading research institutions in the United States. He also served on the board of trustees for Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1921 to 1953.
With an HPI of 77.39, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the 3rd most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 82 different languages.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (; April 22, 1904 – February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist who was professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Oppenheimer was the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and is among those who are credited with being the "father of the atomic bomb" for their role in the Manhattan Project – the World War II undertaking that developed the first nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer was among those who observed the Trinity test in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated on July 16, 1945. He later remarked that the explosion brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." In August 1945, the weapons were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war ended, Oppenheimer became chairman of the influential General Advisory Committee of the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission. He used that position to lobby for international control of nuclear power to avert nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb during a 1949–1950 governmental debate on the question and subsequently took stances on defense-related issues that provoked the ire of some factions in the U.S. government and military. During the Second Red Scare, those stances, together with past associations Oppenheimer had with people and organizations affiliated with the Communist Party, led to him suffering the revocation of his security clearance in a much-written-about hearing in 1954. Effectively stripped of his direct political influence, he continued to lecture, write and work in physics. Nine years later, President John F. Kennedy awarded (and Lyndon B. Johnson presented) him with the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation. Oppenheimer's achievements in physics included the Born–Oppenheimer approximation for molecular wave functions, work on the theory of electrons and positrons, the Oppenheimer–Phillips process in nuclear fusion, and the first prediction of quantum tunneling. With his students he also made important contributions to the modern theory of neutron stars and black holes, as well as to quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and the interactions of cosmic rays. As a teacher and promoter of science, he is remembered as a founding father of the American school of theoretical physics that gained world prominence in the 1930s. After World War II, he became director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
With an HPI of 75.57, Arthur Compton is the 4th most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 79 different languages.
Arthur Holly Compton (September 10, 1892 – March 15, 1962) was an American physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927 for his 1923 discovery of the Compton effect, which demonstrated the particle nature of electromagnetic radiation. It was a sensational discovery at the time: the wave nature of light had been well-demonstrated, but the idea that light had both wave and particle properties was not easily accepted. He is also known for his leadership over the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago during the Manhattan Project, and served as chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis from 1945 to 1953. In 1919, Compton was awarded one of the first two National Research Council Fellowships that allowed students to study abroad. He chose to go to the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory in England, where he studied the scattering and absorption of gamma rays. Further research along these lines led to the discovery of the Compton effect. He used X-rays to investigate ferromagnetism, concluding that it was a result of the alignment of electron spins, and studied cosmic rays, discovering that they were made up principally of positively charged particles. During World War II, Compton was a key figure in the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear weapons. His reports were important in launching the project. In 1942, he became head of the Metallurgical Laboratory, with responsibility for producing nuclear reactors to convert uranium into plutonium, finding ways to separate the plutonium from the uranium and to design an atomic bomb. Compton oversaw Enrico Fermi's creation of Chicago Pile-1, the first nuclear reactor, which went critical on December 2, 1942. The Metallurgical Laboratory was also responsible for the design and operation of the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Plutonium began being produced in the Hanford Site reactors in 1945. After the war, Compton became chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. During his tenure, the university formally desegregated its undergraduate divisions, named its first female full professor, and enrolled a record number of students after wartime veterans returned to the United States.
With an HPI of 75.50, Carl David Anderson is the 5th most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 69 different languages.
Carl David Anderson (September 3, 1905 – January 11, 1991) was an American physicist. He is best known for his discovery of the positron in 1932, an achievement for which he received the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physics, and of the muon in 1936.
With an HPI of 75.18, Barry Barish is the 6th most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 49 different languages.
Barry Clark Barish (born January 27, 1936) is an American experimental physicist and Nobel Laureate. He is a Linde Professor of Physics, emeritus at California Institute of Technology and a leading expert on gravitational waves. In 2017, Barish was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves".In 2018, he joined the faculty at University of California, Riverside, becoming the university's second Nobel Prize winner on the faculty.
With an HPI of 74.95, Joseph Henry is the 7th most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 56 different languages.
Joseph Henry (December 17, 1797– May 13, 1878) was an American scientist who served as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was the secretary for the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, a precursor of the Smithsonian Institution. He was highly regarded during his lifetime. While building electromagnets, Henry discovered the electromagnetic phenomenon of self-inductance. He also discovered mutual inductance independently of Michael Faraday, though Faraday was the first to make the discovery and publish his results. Henry developed the electromagnet into a practical device. He invented a precursor to the electric doorbell (specifically a bell that could be rung at a distance via an electric wire, 1831) and electric relay (1835). His work on the electromagnetic relay was the basis of the practical electrical telegraph, invented by Samuel F. B. Morse and Sir Charles Wheatstone, separately. In his honor the SI unit of inductance is named the henry (plural: henries; symbol: H).
With an HPI of 74.91, Clinton Davisson is the 8th most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 72 different languages.
Clinton Joseph Davisson (October 22, 1881 – February 1, 1958) was an American physicist who won the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of electron diffraction in the famous Davisson–Germer experiment. Davisson shared the Nobel Prize with George Paget Thomson, who independently discovered electron diffraction at about the same time as Davisson.
With an HPI of 74.73, Ernest Lawrence is the 9th most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 79 different languages.
Ernest Orlando Lawrence (August 8, 1901 – August 27, 1958) was a pioneering American nuclear physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939 for his invention of the cyclotron. He is known for his work on uranium-isotope separation for the Manhattan Project, as well as for founding the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. A graduate of the University of South Dakota and University of Minnesota, Lawrence obtained a PhD in physics at Yale in 1925. In 1928, he was hired as an associate professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, becoming the youngest full professor there two years later. In its library one evening, Lawrence was intrigued by a diagram of an accelerator that produced high-energy particles. He contemplated how it could be made compact, and came up with an idea for a circular accelerating chamber between the poles of an electromagnet. The result was the first cyclotron. Lawrence went on to build a series of ever larger and more expensive cyclotrons. His Radiation Laboratory became an official department of the University of California in 1936, with Lawrence as its director. In addition to the use of the cyclotron for physics, Lawrence also supported its use in research into medical uses of radioisotopes. During World War II, Lawrence developed electromagnetic isotope separation at the Radiation Laboratory. It used devices known as calutrons, a hybrid of the standard laboratory mass spectrometer and cyclotron. A huge electromagnetic separation plant was built at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which came to be called Y-12. The process was inefficient, but it worked. After the war, Lawrence campaigned extensively for government sponsorship of large scientific programs, and was a forceful advocate of "Big Science", with its requirements for big machines and big money. Lawrence strongly backed Edward Teller's campaign for a second nuclear weapons laboratory, which Lawrence located in Livermore, California. After his death, the Regents of the University of California renamed the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory after him. Chemical element number 103 was named lawrencium in his honor after its discovery at Berkeley in 1961.
With an HPI of 74.67, John Bardeen is the 10th most famous American Physicist. His biography has been translated into 83 different languages.
John Bardeen (; May 23, 1908 – January 30, 1991) was an American physicist and engineer. He is the only person to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics twice: first in 1956 with William Shockley and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor; and again in 1972 with Leon N Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer for a fundamental theory of conventional superconductivity known as the BCS theory.The transistor revolutionized the electronics industry, making possible the development of almost every modern electronic device, from telephones to computers, and ushering in the Information Age. Bardeen's developments in superconductivity—for which he was awarded his second Nobel Prize—are used in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR), medical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and superconducting quantum circuits. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Bardeen received a PhD in physics from Princeton University. After serving in World War II, he was a researcher at Bell Labs, and a professor at the University of Illinois. In 1990, Bardeen appeared on Life magazine's list of "100 Most Influential Americans of the Century."
Pantheon has 167 people classified as physicists born between 1753 and 2000. Of these 167, 56 (33.53%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living physicists include Barry Barish, Kip Thorne, and Ben Roy Mottelson. The most famous deceased physicists include Richard Feynman, Robert Andrews Millikan, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. As of October 2020, 17 new physicists have been added to Pantheon including Harold Agnew, Robert R. Wilson, and Alvin M. Weinberg.
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Which Physicists were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Physicists since 1700.