Interactive Tool: Influential Physicists Timeline

Interactive Tool: Influential Physicists Timeline

Key Takeaways

  • This interactive tool allows you to track the influence of history’s greatest physicists throughout the ages.

  • Our Influence­Ranking™ Engine allows us to objectively track the influence of infamous academics during formative periods in history.

  • For an overview of the timeline and helpful information about the world of physics, continue reading!

The Influence of Physics

Few fields of study can claim such an impact as physics.

Through their paradigm shifting theories physicists wield the power to alter our perception of time, space, and reality at large. The most prolific of which have even inspired scientific revolution.

From the powerful forces of the physical world that we interact with on a daily basis to the ineffable designs of outer space and the atomic world, physicists explore the greatest mysteries of the universe—and in some cases they resolve them entirely.

The greatest and most influential physicists throughout time are those who solve such great mysteries. The grandiosity of the mystery solved confers the influence that the physicist wields—an influence that transcends any one discipline and stretches throughout the generations.

If you have ever wondered which physicist’s influence resonates most clearly throughout history, then we aim to satisfy your curiosity.

Our Influence­Ranking™ Engine allows us to chart and measure the ebbs and flows of the influential scientists throughout history. In this case, we use the engine to map the influence of the history’s greatest physicists from 400 BC to the modern day.

Influence­Ranking™ Engine: What is an Influential Physicist?

It would be a disservice to define the most influential minds of objective science in subjective terms.

To avoid this pitfall, we measured the influence of physicists throughout time with our innovative Influence­Ranking™ Engine.

The InfluenceRanking engine calculates a numerical influence score for people, institutions, and disciplinary programs. In this case, this calculation is performed by drawing from billions of data points including Wikipedia/data, Crossref, and an ever growing body of data reflecting academic achievement and merit.

What’s the value of influence in the modern world? Learn why influence matters.

The InfluenceRanking engine starts with measuring influence of a scientists in the field of physics. Note that we also include subdisciplines (any widely recognized way of organizing and subdividing fields of study).

So, for example, someone like Alan Guth, who is influential in the discipline of physics became influential through his contributions to the physics subdiscipline of cosmology.

Once the InfluenceRanking engine assigns an influence score to a person for a given discipline, those scores can be cumulated in various ways:

  • By cumulating influence scores for a given person across all disciplines, one calculates an overall influence score for that person.

  • By cumulating influence scores for the multiple persons at a particular institution across a given discipline, one calculates the influence of that institution in that discipline.

  • By cumulating influence scores for the multiple persons at a particular institution across all disciplines, one calculates the overall influence of that institution.

These cumulated influence scores, suitably normalized, can then be compared and ordered, inducing influence rankings for particular disciplinary programs at institutions as well as overall influence rankings for persons and institutions.

Influential Physics Sub-Disciplines and Specializations

Because the field of physics is unique in that it encompasses many sciences, it’s helpful to first understand the various fields of study that make up physics.

What began as a form of natural philosophy and mathematics in the ancient world began to expand and evolve to almost inconceivable proportions, particularly over the last 500 years.

Today, there are dozens of meaningful disciplines in physics. Many of which differ so drastically from one another that it is a mystery how they might be considered a part of the same science.

These are the most notable specializations and sub-disciplines in physics:

  • Astrophysics

  • Atomic Physics

  • Classical Physics

  • Electrodynamics

  • Mathematical Physics

  • Nuclear Physics

  • Particle Physics

  • Theoretical Physics

  • Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Physics

Some of these fields of study exert more influence than others due to varying levels of real world impact and uneven academic adoption.

For instance, experimental physics is more likely to glean actionable theories and practices than in theoretical physics. For this reason, one might argue that experimental physics offered the most value to our ancestors for its ability to solve their real problems that were more plainly associated with survival than our problems are today.

That being said, some of the most profound and influential scientists have asserted claims that are theoretical in nature. What might constitute subtle shifts in thought often resulted in exponential repercussions in time.

For instance, the invention of the atom bomb through physicists like Einstein, Fermi, and Oppenheimer would never have been possible if ancient Greek philosophers like Democritus and Aristotle hadn’t first speculated about and debated the particle nature of matter.

To better understand how the chain of cause and effect plays out along the timeline of history’s greatest physicists, let’s first explore what each particular field of physics seeks to explore.

What are Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Theory?

One of the most influential fields of physics today is that of quantum mechanics, also referred to as quantum theory.

Physicists who study quantum mechanics seek to understand the properties of the natural world by describing the fundamental characteristics of atoms and subatomic particles.

This field can be further broken down into more specialized areas of inquiry:

  • Quantum Chemistry

  • Quantum Field Theory

  • Quantum Technology

  • Quantum Information Science

The variety and breadth of these sub-specializations represents the true nature and value of physics—that is, the more we understand about it, the more we are able to leverage this understanding in new and innovative ways.

Quantum Mechanics in Pop Culture

You might have noted the popularity of concepts like the multiverse, wormholes, and time travel in recent film and pop culture.

Quantum theory is, in part, responsible for this popularity. As quantum theory evolves to suggest more fascinating and bizarre models of the universe, creative thinkers jump on the opportunity to employ these theories in film and literature.

For this reason, quantum mechanics is likely one of the most influential fields of physics–at least in terms of an influence exerted on pop culture and its ability to inspire a sense of wonder.

Influential Quantum Theorists

These famous physicists rank as some of the most influential scientists in the field of quantum theory and quantum physics:

  • Niels Bohr - Won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922 for his contributions to quantum theory.

  • Albert Einstein - Arguably one of the most famous physicists in history, Albert Einstein contributed the theory of relativity.

  • Werner Heisenberg - German theoretical physicist who was attributed with the creation of quantum mechanics and awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 1932.

  • Max Planck - German theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1918 for his discovery of energy quanta.

  • Erwin Schrödinger - Austrian physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1933 for his Schrödinger equation, which provided a method for calculating the wave function.

What is Particle Physics?

Particle physics is the field tasked with understanding the constituent parts of the universe. Specifically, particle physicists put forth models to explain the behaviors and interactions of atomic and subatomic particles.

Those who study particle physics seek to understand the atomic structure of the universe and how protons, neutrons, and electrons interact with one another. But some of the most fascinating theories of particles physics have resulted from inquiries into the nature of light.

Most notably, two of the most influential discoveries in this field resulted from the study of photons. In 1678, Dutch physicist Christian Huygens announced one of the most confounding but brilliant theories in all of physics—that is, the wave theory of light.

The wave theory of light suggests that the particles of light known as photons behave both as particles and as a wave—which would have previously been thought to be a theory-killing contradiction. This is just one example of many where physics has redefined what is possible and what is not.

Next, English Physicist, William Sturgeon, invented the world’s first electromagnetic device in 1825, which laid the groundwork for all sorts of future inventions and technologies that we undoubtedly take for granted today.

Paradigm shifts like these are what makes the world of physics so fascinating and its impact so far-reaching.

For this reason, you might think of particle physics as one of the most influential sciences on our foundational conceptions of the universal laws and principles.

Influential Particle Physicists

These influential physicists laid the foundation for particle physics as we know it today:

  • Louis de Broglie - French physicist who laid the foundation for our understanding of photons and their ability to behave as both a particle and a wave.

  • Murray Gell-Mann - American physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics 1969 for his theory of elementary particles.

  • Richard Feynman - American physicist, famous for his Parton model and his theory of electrodynamics.

  • Steven Weinberg - American theoretical physicist, most well-known for his model of electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles.

  • Paul Dirac - English physicist, most well-known for winning the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to atomic theory and for predicting the existence of anti matter.

What is Nuclear Physics?

Simultaneously feared and sought after, the field of nuclear physics represents one of the single most impactful sciences in all of human history.

You only need to look to examples of nuclear technology such as the nuclear bomb and nuclear power plants to confirm the legitimacy of this statement.

Few forms of technology wield such tremendous power as technology that leverages nuclear physics. As such, the work of the most influential nuclear physicists can be felt in our daily lives—and probably to a greater extent than you might expect.

Nuclear physics is leveraged in everything from smoke detectors to cancer treatments to cargo detectors. You might be surprised to learn that these cargo detectors use an advanced form of nuclear technology, that is, particle beams.

These particle beams are used to process and inspect a wide range of products with an astounding cumulative product value of more than $500 billion.

For these reasons, you might think of nuclear physics as exerting the most influence in terms of economic and commercial impact.

Influential Nuclear Physicists

These thought-pioneers leveraged nuclear physics to develop some of the most impactful technology and theories in modern times:

  • Enrico Fermi - Italian physicist who is most famous for his creation of the world’s first nuclear reactor.

  • Otto Frisch - Austrian physicist who discovered nuclear fission and developed the theoretical mechanism that could detonate an atomic bomb.

  • Elise Meitner - Austrian-Swedish physicist who worked with Frisch to develop a model for understanding nuclear fission.

  • J. Robert Oppenheimer - American theoretical physicist known as the “father of the atomic bomb” due to his instrumental role in the Manhattan Project.

  • Sir Ernest Rutherford - New Zealand physicist known as the father of nuclear physics due to his discovery of radioactive half-life and the radioactive element known as radon.

The Greatest Physicists Throughout Time

E=mc2 on a chalkboard

With the groundwork laid, let’s talk about the greatest physicists whose influence we track throughout time in the tool above.

The most immediate revelation is that influential historical figures need not have the most revolutionary theory to exert influence, they need only to solve a problem. In this timeline we see clearly that sometimes the smallest solutions have the biggest impact.

Greatest Physicists from ≈ 400 BC to 0 AD

History’s earliest thought leaders contributed theories to physics in the form of natural philosophy, mathematical physics, and observations of the physical world.

At this stage in human history, even the most brilliant minds were unaware of the theoretical physics that now serve as the foundation for our understanding of the natural world.

And yet even under these constraints, these early historical figures demonstrated immense intellectual influence on society for hundreds of years thereafter (thousands of years in the case of Aristotle).

  • Anaxagoras - A Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who put forth a theory on the true cause of eclipses.

  • Archimedes - Arguably the most influential scientist of the classical age, he offered a complete understanding of center gravity which informed his system of using levers and pulleys to move large objects. This technology was used for hundreds of years as it ushered in an efficiency of infrastructure building that resulted in mankind’s greatest architectural marvels of the ancient world.

  • Aristotle - A Greek philosopher whose theory of elements was utilized until the early 1800s and even today works as the foundation for modern theory.

Greatest Physicists from 0 AD to 500 AD

At the turn of the millennium the influence of Aristotle and Archimedes loomed large in the world of physics.

Aristotle’s theory of elements and Archimedes’ model of center gravity remained the most influential discoveries for the next five hundred years.

That is not to say however, that great physicists did not arise during this time. These physicists contributed tremendous work during this time:

  • Hero of Alexandria - Famous for his invention of the windwheel, which is the earliest recorded example of man harnessing the power of wind (excluding seaborne ships and their windsails).

  • John Philoponus - Arguably demonstrates the most clear contribution to physics during this time through his model of motion and force, where he was the first to suggest that an object in motion retains some of the energy of whatever set it in motion.

Greatest Physicists from 500 AD to 1000 AD

During the latter half of the first millennium, the world of physics remained relatively impenetrable to the big thinkers of the age.

Advances in thought occurred mainly in the field of metaphysics as philosophy held sway as the dominant science. But the groundbreaking notions of Archimedes, Aristotle, and Philoponus were gaining momentum and began to the earn the recognition they deserved.

As such, during this time we see two influential physicists emerge who sought to live up to the achievements of their predecessors:

  • Isidore of Miletus - Founded a famous engineering school in the Byzantine Empire and taught at the University of Alexandria in Constantinople. While he is not credited with groundbreaking contributions to physics, he did master the works of Archimedes and spread the knowledge to many students during the decades spent teaching.

  • Al-Farabi - Also known as “The Second Teacher” in Islamic philosophy, Al-Farabi is known for preserving Greek texts and his philosophy on politics and religion.

Greatest Physicists from 1000 AD 1500 0 AD

By 1,000 AD the teachings of Aristotle and Archimedes had become mainstream and Leucippus’ theory of atomic structures began to inspire fresh inquiries into the nature of the physical world.

During these next 500 years we see three great minds exert tremendous influence on the world of physics. And in the case of William of Ockham, this influence is felt even to this day.

  • Avicenna - A Persian polymath whose influence on physics resulted from his incredible achievements as a towering intellect of mastery in numerous disciplines. While he is not credited with a particular theory or contribution, his dedication to leveraging knowledge of the physical world in his profession as a medical expert spurred a resurgence of interest in physics among academics and professionals who recognized in his achievements the possibility to use physics as a tool of industry and commerce.

  • Shen Kuo - Arguably the father of electromagnetic phenomenon, Shen Kuo discovered the earth’s magnetic poles and was the first person to create a suspended magnet compass, which would later become a tremendously valuable tool used around the world to enable long distance seafaring.

  • William of Ockham - While more of a philosopher than a physicist, William of Ockham’s theory of ontological parsimony persists in influence today. This theory is more commonly referred to as “Ockham’s Razor” and suggests that the simplest ontological precedents often wield the most explanatory power.

Greatest Physicists from 1500 AD to 1800 AD

The years between 1500 and 1800 represent a time of tremendous scientific revolution and social upheaval, which met briefly to become what we now think of as the Renaissance and culminated in what’s remembered as the Enlightenment.

The world during this time was one of historic discovery and creation but also historic discord and destruction. But at least in the world of physics, the theories created during this time would change the world forever.

And if scientific achievement and knowledge are the measures of progress then these theories changed the world for the better.

  • Nicolaus Copernicus - Few historical figures can claim a comparable impact to that of Copernicus, whose heliocentric model of the universe corrected one of mankind’s most basic but profound delusions—that we were the center of the universe. The implications of this paradigm shift spurred a scientific revolution that continues to this day as innovators like Elon Musk turn their eyes to the stars with plans for interplanetary travel.

  • Leonardo Da Vinci - When reviewing Da Vinci’s work you might think he arrived at his ideas—such as the helicopter or armored war vehicle—after time traveling a thousand years into the future. While a polymath in nature and dedicated more to his inventions than to any one science, Da Vinci’s clearest contributions to physics lie in the areas of fluid dynamics and light refraction.

  • Galileo Galilei - An Italian physicist and polymath, his contributions to physics are too numerous and multifaceted to list to completion. Though his most well-known contributions are in the areas of motion and force, as he was well-known for running thousands of experiments where he rolled balls down an incline, charting and measuring their behavior. These simple experiments led to him being recognized as “the father of modern physics.”

Greatest Physicists from 1800 AD to 1900 AD

By the 1800s the torrential chaos of the medieval world began to recede and refinement became the ideal of the age.

Cultural refinement spurred social revolution and academic refinement ushered in some of the most prodigious minds the world has ever known. As education became ubiquitous and the printing press spread knowledge far and wide, more minds turned to the great mysteries.

Among these minds were some of the greatest physicists to ever live.

  • Albert Einstein - A household name that carries the influence of one of history’s greatest genius, Albert Einstein served as a catalyst for modern sciences. He laid the foundation for modern physics in his theory of relativity, gravity, and the universe’s atomic structures.

  • Isaac Newton - Considered one of the most influential physicists of all time, his discoveries centered around gravity, force, and acceleration. His discoveries can be traced in the work of every physicist and mathematician today.

  • Michael Faraday - The inventor of the first electric motor, Michael Faraday exhibits one of the most direct lines of influence. His mastery of magnetism and electricity laid the foundations for countless industries today. It’s interesting to wonder how much of the world’s economy can be attributed to the inventions and discoveries of this one man.

  • James Clerk Maxwell - Most famous for his classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, James Clerk Maxwell was the first person to measure the speed of electromagnetic fields. He reported that these fields move as waves at the speed of light.

Greatest Physicists from 1900 AD to 2000 AD

The last 121 years have arguably been the most explosive periods in scientific advancement.

In this time we have seen the development of nuclear energy, an atom bomb with the destructive power of biblical proportions, and space travel. Similarly, we have more tools for exploring and measuring the universe at large than ever before.

But the years between 1900 and 2000 were particularly unique as they represent the turning point where mankind’s knowledge and abilities began to accelerate exponentially.

  • Warner Heisenberg - Awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in physics for his famous theory of quantum mechanics.

  • Max Born - Infamous for his work on what’s known as the wave theory, Max Born revolutionized our understanding of atomic and subatomic particles.

  • Richard Feynman - Most well-known for his theory of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman also contributed groundbreaking ideas on superfluidity and particle physics.

2000 to 2010

Physics equations on a chalkboard

The years between 2000 to 2010 represent a time of both expansions and contractions.

The internet spurred an interconnectedness among peers and colleagues that no one could have predicted. It appears that more paradigm shifting theories arose in these 10 years than in the previous 2,000.

But in this arose a problem where the field of physics struggled to assimilate and process the countless and sometimes contradictory models and theories of the era’s greatest physicists.

  • Peter Higgs - Responsible for perhaps the greatest discovery in modern physics, Peter Higgs discovered what is now the most sought after object in the physics world, the god particle or Higgs boson.

  • Francois Englert - Worked with Peter Higgs and shared in the Nobel Prize in physics for their work in quantum field theory. Francois Englert set himself apart through also innovating within the field of statistics physics.

2010 to 2021

In the increasingly interconnected world of the modern age, more students have access to high quality education. And even non-academics have essentially unfettered access to limitless knowledge via the internet.

And with the modern resources available to physicists currently, the scope of their studies only seems to grow at a pace matched only by the bizarreness of their discoveries.

These are the most influential physicists of the last 10 years:

  • Roger Penrose - Won the Nobel prize in physics for his discovery of black hole formation and its relation to the general theory of relativity.

  • Stephen Hawking - Built his reputation by studying the behavior of blackholes and revolutionized the field by proving the notion that blackholes emit subatomic particles until they eventually exploded with titanic force.

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