Our list of influential Black physicists is as diverse as the field of study. These leaders in the field of physics are conducting research in areas like nuclear research, medicine, astronomy, and more. They are paving the way for the next generation of physicists.
Physics is one of the oldest disciplines and is still seen as foundational for all other areas of science. Among those on our list of influential Black physicists are people who make discoveries in areas such as nuclear power, semiconductors, medicine, astronomy, and more. Physicists who achieve a high degree of influence do so by making breakthroughs and by mentoring younger scientists.
Physicists are people who study matter and energy. This includes the motion and properties of physical objects and the properties of waves and states of matter. Physicists analyze and predict the behavior of the physical world by making mathematical models, and often work with engineers and those in other fields to develop useful devices. Solid state physicists, also known as condensed matter physicists, study the properties of materials, particularly the materials we need to operate our computers and devices. Medical physicists apply physics to the needs of medicine, and develop the technical foundations of radiology and nuclear medicine. These are just two of the many physics-related subfields that prospective physicists might consider studying.
While many important advances in the field of physics have been made by Black physicists, the number of college degrees awarded to Black people in the discipline of physics remains fairly low. According to the American Physicists Society, the number is around 3% of the total physics degrees awarded in the United States. In fact, the numbers have worsened over time.
According to Forbes, Black Americans earned more than twice as many STEM degrees as they did 20 years ago. But in physics, the percentage of Black Americans earning Bachelor’s degrees has plummeted over that same interval.
To discover the reason behind the lack of Black representation in the field of physics, the American Institute of Physics developed a task force called TEAM-UP and conducted their own study of the phenonmenon. The task force identified six major findings and developed recommendations to help boost the number of Black physicists. Essentially, a sense of belonging and a supportive environment were two missing pieces to the puzzle. The report calls for action at every level to affect real positive change.
Black Physicists Making Important Contributions to the Field
Below are highlights of the accomplishments of a few of the 25 influential Black physicists in our ranking:
Prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has done research in cosmology, stellar evolution and formation, and galactic astronomy. He is the current director of the Hayden Planetarium, and is known for his popular books on astronomy, his work with NASA, hosting PBS series and talk shows, and developing a space themed video game.
Shirley Ann Jackson has served on several advisory boards to the government, has been a delegate to the General Conference of the International Atomic Industry Agency, and has done research in condensed matter physics. Her work is well known in the nuclear research.
Sylvester Gates was a pioneering researcher in supersymmetry and supergravity, related to the study of string theory.
Medical physicist Hadiyah-Nicole Green specializes in the development of targeted cancer therapies using lasers and nanoparticles. She has been awarded a grant by the Department of Veteran Affairs, and is the founder of a non-profit cancer research foundation.
25 Influential Black Physicists From the Last 30 Years
The Black scholars in our list were identified as highly cited and searched people using our machine-powered Influence Ranking algorithm, which produces a numerical score of academic achievements, merits, and citations across Wikipedia/data, Crossref, Semantic Scholar and an ever-growing body of data.
George Edward Alcorn Jr. is an American physicist, engineer, inventor, and professor. He taught at Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia, and worked primarily for IBM and NASA. He has over 30 inventions and 8 patents resulting in his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.
Herman Russell Branson was an American physicist, chemist, best known for his research on the alpha helix protein structure, and was also the president of two colleges. He received a fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation.
George Robert Carruthers was an African American inventor, physicist, engineer and space scientist. Carruthers perfected a compact and very powerful ultraviolet camera/spectrograph for NASA to use when it launched Apollo 16 in 1972. He designed it so astronauts could use it on the lunar surface, making all adjustments inside their bulky space suits. Upon instructions from Carruthers, they used the camera to record the Earth’s outermost atmosphere, noting its variations, and also mapped portions of the far-ultraviolet sky recording stars and galaxies, and the gaseous media between them. In 197...
James Clinton Davenport is an American physicist and physics professor. He specializes in condensed matter physics and is known for his contributions to physics education. He is one of the founders of the National Society of Black Physicists .
Njema Frazier is a nuclear physicist at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C. Frazier has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Carnegie Mellon University and a PhD in nuclear physics from Michigan State University.
Sylvester James Gates Jr. , known as S. James Gates Jr. or Jim Gates, is an American theoretical physicist who works on supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. He currently holds the Clark Leadership Chair in Science with the physics department at the University of Maryland College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. He is also affiliated with the University Maryland’s School of Public Policy. He served on former President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Meredith Charles “Flash” Gourdine was an American athlete, engineer and physicist. Education Gourdine graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School. He earned a BS in Engineering Physics from Cornell University in 1953, where he was selected for membership in the Quill and Dagger society. In 1960 he earned a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics from the California Institute of Technology while working as a Senior Research Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1958-60.
Hadiyah-Nicole Green is an American medical physicist known for the development of a method using laser-activated nanoparticles as a potential cancer treatment. She is one of 66 black women to earn a Ph.D. in physics in the United States between 1973 and 2012, and is the second black woman and the fourth black person ever to earn a doctoral degree in physics from The University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Warren Elliot Henry was an American physicist, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his work in the fields of magnetism and superconductivity. He made significant contributions to the advancement of science and technology and education, training and mentoring several generations of physicists.
Shirley Ann Jackson, is an American physicist, and was the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is the first African-American woman to have earned a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics, and the first African-American woman to have earned a doctorate at MIT in any field. She is also the second African-American woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in physics.
Mae Carol Jemison is an American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. She became the first African-American woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. Jemison joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1987 and was selected to serve for the STS-47 mission, during which the Endeavour orbited the Earth for nearly eight days on September 12–20, 1992.
Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. During her 33-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist”.
Willetta Greene-Johnson was one of the first African-American women to complete a Ph.D. degree in theoretical physics. Currently, Greene-Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in the physics and chemistry departments at Loyola University Chicago. Greene-Johnson is also a Grammy award winning musician for her song “Saved” .
Ronald Lawrence Mallett is an American theoretical physicist, academic and author. He has been a faculty member of the University of Connecticut since 1975 and is best known for his scientific position on the possibility of time travel.
Walter Eugene Massey is an American educator, physicist, and executive. President emeritus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and of Morehouse College, he is chairman of the board overseeing construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope, and serves as trustee chair of the City Colleges of Chicago. During his career, Massey has served as head of the National Science Foundation, director of Argonne National Laboratory, and chairman of Bank of America. He has also served in professorial and administrative posts at the University of California, University of Chicago, Brown University, ...
Homer Alfred Neal was an American particle physicist and a distinguished professor at the University of Michigan. Neal was President of the American Physical Society in 2016. He was also a board member of Ford Motor Company, a council member of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and a director of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation. Neal was the interim President of the University of Michigan in 1996. Neal’s research group works as part of the ATLAS experiment hosted at CERN in Geneva.
Arlie Oswald Petters, MBE is a Belizean-American mathematical physicist, who is the Benjamin Powell Professor of Mathematics and a Professor of Physics and Economics at Duke University. Petters became the Provost at New York University Abu Dhabi effective September 1, 2020. Petters is a founder of mathematical astronomy, focusing on problems connected to the interplay of gravity and light and employing tools from astrophysics, cosmology, general relativity, high energy physics, differential geometry, singularities, and probability theory. His monograph “Singularity Theory and Gravitational Le...
Carl A. Rouse was an American physicist, working in the fields of atomic, plasma, and computational physics. Rouse was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Caltech . Early life and education Rouse was born in Hazelton, Ohio. Interested in physics and boxing from an early age, Rouse was described as “gifted high school student” and won a Golden Glove in high school. He entered the Army Special Training Reserves in 1944 , where his academic performance sent him to New York University to participate in the ASTR Civil Engineering Course. Rouse would later realize that the p...
Allen Lee Sessoms is an American physicist, diplomat, and academic administrator. His scientific research focused on quarks and related subatomic particles at CERN and Harvard University. Sessoms worked in the United States Department of State for 12 years, rising to the position of deputy ambassador at the Embassy of the United States, Mexico City. He later served as president of Queens College, City University of New York, Delaware State University, and the University of the District of Columbia.
Milton Dean Slaughter is an American theoretical and phenomenological physicist and affiliate professor of physics at Florida International University. Slaughter was a visiting associate professor of physics in the Center for Theoretical Physics, University of Maryland, College Park while on sabbatical from Los Alamos National Laboratory of the University of California from 1984 to 1985. He is also chair emeritus and university research professor of physics emeritus at the University of New Orleans . Prior to joining UNO as chair of the physics department: He was a postdoctoral fellow in the ...
James H. Stith is an American physicist and educator. He is known for his influential roles in multiple scientific societies. He is the former vice president of the Physics Resource Center at the American Institute of Physics, a past president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and a past president of the National Society of Black Physicists.
Valerie L. Thomas is an American data scientist and inventor. She invented the illusion transmitter, for which she received a patent in 1980. She was responsible for developing the digital media formats image processing systems used in the early years of NASA’s Landsat program.
Arthur Bertram Cuthbert Walker Jr. was an African-American solar physicist and a pioneer of EUV/XUV optics. He is most noted for having developed normal incidence multilayer XUV telescopes to photograph the solar corona. Two of his sounding rocket payloads, the Stanford/MSFC Rocket Spectroheliograph Experiment and the Multi-Spectral Solar Telescope Array, recorded the first full-disk, high-resolution images of the Sun in XUV with conventional geometries of normal incidence optics; this technology is now used in solar telescopes such as SOHO/EIT and TRACE, and in the fabrication of microchip...
Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. was an African American nuclear scientist, mechanical engineer and mathematician. A child prodigy, he attended the University of Chicago at the age of 13, becoming its youngest ever student. His graduation at a young age resulted in him being hailed as “the Negro Genius” in the national media.
Other Influential Black Scholars by Academic Discipline
Featured Image Credits Include:
Sylvester James Gates, By ENERGY.GOV - Panel: Increasing Minority Participation in the Energy Sector, Public Domain.
Shirley Ann Jackson, By Shirley_Ann_Jackson_-_Annual_Meeting_of_the_New_Champions_Tianjin_2010.jpg: World Economic Forum (Qilai Shen)derivative work: Gobonobo (talk) - Shirley_Ann_Jackson_-_Annual_Meeting_of_the_New_Champions_Tianjin_2010.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Mae Jemison, By NASA - NASA Image and Video Library (file), Public Domain.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, By Norwegian University of Science and Technology - Norwegian University of Science and Technology, CC BY-SA 2.0.