The Most Famous

PHYSICISTS from United States

Icon of occuation in country

This page contains a list of the greatest American Physicists. The pantheon dataset contains 851 Physicists, 180 of which were born in United States. This makes United States the birth place of the most number of Physicists.

Top 10

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.

Photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer

1. J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904 - 1967)

With an HPI of 80.15, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 96 different languages on wikipedia.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (born Julius Robert Oppenheimer; OP-ən-hy-mər; April 22, 1904 – February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist who served as the director of the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II. He is often called the "father of the atomic bomb" for his role in overseeing the development of the first nuclear weapons. Born in New York City, Oppenheimer obtained a degree in chemistry from Harvard University in 1925 and a doctorate in physics from the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1927, studying under Max Born. After research at other institutions, he joined the physics faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was made a full professor in 1936. Oppenheimer made significant contributions to physics in the fields of quantum mechanics and nuclear physics, including the Born–Oppenheimer approximation for molecular wave functions; work on the theory of positrons, quantum electrodynamics, and quantum field theory; and the Oppenheimer–Phillips process in nuclear fusion. With his students, he also made major contributions to astrophysics, including the theory of cosmic ray showers, and the theory of neutron stars and black holes. In 1942, Oppenheimer was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, and in 1943 was appointed director of the project's Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, tasked with developing the first nuclear weapons. His leadership and scientific expertise were instrumental in the project's success. On July 16, 1945, he was present at the first test of the atomic bomb, Trinity. In August 1945, the weapons were used against Japan in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to date the only use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict. In 1947, Oppenheimer was appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the new United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). He lobbied for international control of nuclear power to avert nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, and opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, partly on ethical grounds. During the second Red Scare, these stances, together with his past associations with the Communist Party USA, led to an AEC security hearing in 1954 and the revocation of his security clearance. He continued to lecture, write, and work in physics, and in 1963 was given the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation. In 2022, the U.S. federal government vacated the 1954 revocation of his security clearance.

Photo of Richard Feynman

2. Richard Feynman (1918 - 1988)

With an HPI of 74.54, Richard Feynman is the 2nd most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 110 different languages.

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 his 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 the wider 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.

Photo of Barry Barish

3. Barry Barish (b. 1936)

With an HPI of 72.72, Barry Barish is the 3rd most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 55 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". He said, "I didn't know if I would succeed. I was afraid I would fail, but because I tried, I had a breakthrough." In 2018, he joined the faculty at University of California, Riverside, becoming the university's second Nobel Prize winner on the faculty. In the fall of 2023, he joined Stony Brook University as the inaugural President’s Distinguished Endowed Chair in Physics. In 2023, Barish was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Biden in a White House ceremony.

Photo of Robert Andrews Millikan

4. Robert Andrews Millikan (1868 - 1953)

With an HPI of 71.34, Robert Andrews Millikan is the 4th most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 91 different languages.

Robert Andrews Millikan (March 22, 1868 – December 19, 1953) was an American experimental physicist who won 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 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 the Planck 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. Millikan was an elected member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the United States National Academy of Sciences.

Photo of Carl David Anderson

5. Carl David Anderson (1905 - 1991)

With an HPI of 70.66, Carl David Anderson is the 5th most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 79 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.

Photo of Ernest Lawrence

6. Ernest Lawrence (1901 - 1958)

With an HPI of 70.36, Ernest Lawrence is the 6th most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 89 different languages.

Ernest Orlando Lawrence (August 8, 1901 – August 27, 1958) was an 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.

Photo of Percy Williams Bridgman

7. Percy Williams Bridgman (1882 - 1961)

With an HPI of 69.74, Percy Williams Bridgman is the 7th most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 74 different languages.

Percy Williams Bridgman (April 21, 1882 – August 20, 1961) was an American physicist who received the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the physics of high pressures. He also wrote extensively on the scientific method and on other aspects of the philosophy of science. The Bridgman effect, the Bridgman–Stockbarger technique, and the high-pressure mineral bridgmanite are named after him.

Photo of John Bardeen

8. John Bardeen (1908 - 1991)

With an HPI of 69.68, John Bardeen is the 8th most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 89 different languages.

John Bardeen (; May 23, 1908 – January 30, 1991) was an American physicist and electrical 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 Ph.D. 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." Bardeen is the first of only three people to have won multiple Nobel Prizes in the same category (the others being Frederick Sanger and Karl Barry Sharpless in chemistry), and one of five persons with two Nobel Prizes.

Photo of Clinton Davisson

9. Clinton Davisson (1881 - 1958)

With an HPI of 69.57, Clinton Davisson is the 9th most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 79 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.

Photo of Willis Lamb

10. Willis Lamb (1913 - 2008)

With an HPI of 68.52, Willis Lamb is the 10th most famous American Physicist.  His biography has been translated into 67 different languages.

Willis Eugene Lamb Jr. (; July 12, 1913 – May 15, 2008) was an American physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1955 "for his discoveries concerning the fine structure of the hydrogen spectrum." The Nobel Committee that year awarded half the prize to Lamb and the other half to Polykarp Kusch, who won "for his precision determination of the magnetic moment of the electron." Lamb was able to precisely determine a surprising shift in electron energies in a hydrogen atom (see Lamb shift). Lamb was a professor at the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences.

People

Pantheon has 205 people classified as American physicists born between 1753 and 2000. Of these 205, 64 (31.22%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living American physicists include Barry Barish, Kip Thorne, and George E. Smith. The most famous deceased American physicists include J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, and Robert Andrews Millikan. As of April 2024, 25 new American physicists have been added to Pantheon including Philip Morrison, Theodore Hall, and Norman Holter.

Living American Physicists

Go to all Rankings

Deceased American Physicists

Go to all Rankings

Newly Added American Physicists (2024)

Go to all Rankings

Overlapping Lives

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