In contemplating this topic we encountered a quandary: how best to list them?
Chronologically – starting with the very first ones and working my way forward? Or, conversely, starting with known physicists living today and working my way back?
How far back should we go... there’s a question whose answer risks expanding this list ad infinitum!
Maybe we should select a few fields of study: quantum physics, theoretical physics and astrophysics, find suitable candidates whose remarkable contributions to those fields make for fascinating reading.
Physics, by definition, is knowledge of nature, a literal translation from Greek.
The field being all-encompassing, how could one select only a couple of disciplines to highlight? The thinking continues...
Should we consider only British physicists – there are plenty of them! But then, what about the amazing discoveries made elsewhere, by scientists and cosmologists in other lands?
Besides, the scientific community knows no borders or patriotic pride; listing them by country would actually be a slight to their very ethos.
Even now the conundrum persists, but we have finally settled on how to start this article: by listing a most under-represented demographic in any field of science, let alone physics.
Here’s hoping that Newton’s First Law of Motion will apply to my thoughts, making them cascade into a full summary of the most remarkable minds of all time to define our world.
Famous Physicists who are Female
The list of women in physics is exceedingly short for more reasons than one. Still, there are those pioneers who blazed trails in all disciplines, including Marie Curie, who stopped at nothing in her quest for knowledge.
We accord her the honour of heading our list of female physicists no longer living.
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Female Physicists in the Ago
Marie Curie is the first woman to have ever been awarded a Nobel Prize and the only woman to have twice been accorded that coveted award.
Although she is most renown for her contributions to the field of chemistry for discovering and naming two elements, her first Nobel, awarded jointly to her husband and Henri Becquerel in 1903, was for research of radiation phenomena.
She was initially left off of the award but Swedish mathematician Magnus Mittag-Leffler alerted Pierre Curie to the omission, who pointed out the mistake to the Nobel committee.
Still, the Curies, totally committed to their work, did not make the trip to Sweden until 1905, and only because being present to accept the award and giving a speech was mandatory.
Even today, Marie Curie is revered as one of the greatest scientific minds of all time.
Amalie Emmy Noether – March 1882 to April 1935
Primarily known as a mathematician, Emmy, as she signed all of her documents, made fantastic contributions to the field of theoretical physics.
A pioneer in abstract algebra, she refused to accept that women should not pursue knowledge so, when she was barred from teaching in Nazi Germany, she went underground, continuing to enrich her students’ minds and the field of physics.
Noether’s Theorem explains the connection between symmetry and conservation laws.
Many prominent physicians of her day labelled her the most important woman in the history of mathematics; a distinction that holds true still today.
Math is but one key concept in Physics...
Chien Shiung Wu – May 1912 to February 1997
Nicknamed the Chinese Marie Curie, The First Lady of Physics and the Queen of Nuclear Research, Ms Wu’s works include separating uranium by gaseous diffusion and the Manhattan Project.
However, she is best known for the Wu Experiment, which contradicted the conservation of parity laws.
The Nobel prize for that discovery went to her colleagues but she was awarded the first-ever Wolf Prize in Physics.
She is also the only woman to have won it!
Maria Goeppert Mayer – June 1906 to February 1972
The second woman ever to win a Nobel, theoretical physicist Maria Mayer is renown for the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.
She is also memorialised for her graduate thesis on two-photon absorption by atoms – a theory that was difficult to prove when published but, with the advent of lasers, could easily be substantiated.
Today, the Goeppert-Mayer unit (GM, for short) represents the unit for two-photon absorption cross-section.
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Lise Meitner - November 1878 to October 1968
She is equally famous for helping discover nuclear fission as for having been snubbed by the Nobel committee, who awarded only her long-time collaborator the prize for their joint discovery.
Born in Germany, she was the first female professor and department head at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut... although she was booted from her position during the rise of Nazism.
She ultimately fled to Sweden, making it her permanent home.
These brilliant minds set a standard that other female physicists today are eagerly following. You can read about them and their accomplishments in this table.
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Today’s Women of Physics
|Jocelyn Bell Burnell||Astrophysicist||The first person to observe pulsars|
|Sandra Faber||Astrophysicist||pioneering studies in the evolution of galaxies|
|Fabiola Gianotti||Particle Physicist||Director-General of CERN|
|Joan Feynman||Astrophysicist||The study of solar wind particles and fields; also discovering the origin of auroras|
|Lene Hau||Quantum Physicist||Slowing, and ultimately stopping a beam of light|
The Men of Physics
As the discipline is overwhelmingly male, it is much harder to select significant accomplishments for highlight in this article – for one, because every contribution is significant.
For now, we will disregard the huge names - Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking to focus on those who made their mark in other ways, often based on the works of the greats.
Niels Bohr (October 1885 – November 1962) gave foundational input into understanding the structure of the atom and quantum theory but it was the principle of complementarity that cemented his legacy.
Not the least because his father and younger brother were also men of science, young Nils, still at university, won a prize for finding a way of measuring the surface tension of liquids... by first creating his own test equipment!
Today, the Nils Bohr Institut in Copenhagen encourages study in biophysics, particle physics, quantum mechanics and nanotechnology, among other disciplines.
Learn what all of this science verbiage means in our physics glossary!
Max Planck (April 1858 – October 1947) won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics for his assertion of the quantum field theory.
He came from a family of intellectuals; however, their interests were more focused on theology than science. His high school teacher, Hermann Müller ignited his curiosity and his lifelong love of science by mentoring him in astronomy, mechanics and mathematics.
Today, his name is given to no fewer than 83 scientific institutions that study a variety of disciplines.
Paul Dirac (August 1902 – October 1984) quickly came to the attention of the established physics community for his work on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics.
However, it is the Dirac Equation that immortalises him. Through it, one could understand fermion behaviour and, even though it had not yet been postulated, the existence of antimatter.
Coming from an ordinary Bristol background with not a hint of scientific aptitude, he nevertheless applied himself so that he would earn successive scholarships that would permit his enroling at Cambridge, where he studied mathematics and indulged his fascination with the General Relativity Theory.
After his death, the Institute of Physics (UK) founded the Paul Dirac medal for outstanding contributions to theoretical physics.
The first three recipients of that award were Stephen Hawking, John Stewart Bell and Roger Penrose – go figure!
Richard Feynman (May 1918 – February 1988) pioneered the field of quantum computing and introduced the concept of nanotechnology.
Although his father was not involved in science – he was a sales manager, he encouraged his son to question everything. As a child, that fostered curiosity played itself out in his home laboratory, tinkering with radios and even building a home alarm system.
His sister, nine years his junior, was discouraged from any scientific pursuit by their mother – because that was the way it was back then. Nevertheless, the siblings were very close and, through her older brother’s mentoring, Joan Feynman became a noted astrophysicist (see table above).
Along with our next venerable physicist (and several others), Richard worked on the Manhattan Project.
Enrico Fermi (September 1901 – November 1954)
Here was a mind that was comfortable working both sides of the aisle.
Equally at home with theoretical physics as with experimental physics, he had no problem designing equations that might satisfy any theory and then heading into the lab to prove them.
Born in Rome and the youngest of three children, Enrico shadowed his brother constantly; both seemed to have a passion for building things, including electric motors.
And then, from a book found by happenstance in a market, young Fermi latched firmly onto a fascination with physics, conducting experiments with his friend Enrico Persico.
Years later, upon prefacing Fundamentals of Einstein Relativity, he pointed out the tremendous amount of potential nuclear energy within that equation.
Fermi is revered today as the architect of the nuclear age and the architect of the atomic bomb.
He also identified and named the neutrino and, after expounding on theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s exclusion principle, was further honoured by having particles – fermions, named after him.
Quite naturally, such a mind was needed on the Manhattan Project, and Fermi joined in.
His contribution was vital to building the atom bombs that ended WWII, but the human toll weighed heavily on him.
He later campaigned against building the hydrogen bomb but his entreaties were ignored.
Such an intellect married to an unshakable sense of ethics is what our scientific community needs more than anything today.
Fortunately, we find it in these physicists still working today and, more importantly, teaching the next generation of explorers all about physics!
|Edward Witten||Theoretical Physicist||researches string theory, quantum theory and other areas of mathematical physics|
|Steven Weinberg||Theoretical Physicist||unifying the weak force and electromagnetism|
|Roger Penrose||Mathematical Physicist||Renown for exploring the link between physics and consciousness|
|Alan Guth||Theoretical physicist and cosmologist||Pioneer of the cosmic inflation theory|
|Peter Higgs||Theoretical Physicist||Understanding subatomic particles; the Higgs boson bears his name.|
Do you aspire to be such a scientist?