Famous American Physicists Of The 20th Century

Americans have always been leaders in the world of science and technology. Since achieving independence in the late 18th century America has made tremendous strides in scientific fields, especially in the 20th century. While one of the greatest physicists to have ever lived-- Albert Einstein—was born in Germany, he later shifted to the US where he made several important discoveries. Another prominent European-born physicist who made America his home was Enrico Fermi who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Among the major physicists born in America, J. Robert Oppenheimer was the chairman of the influential General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. Americans have also played a key role in the development of theoretical physics. Nobel laureate Richard Phillips Feynman made vital contributions to quantum mechanics and particle physics. Science and technology in the United States received a major boost in the post-World War II period, providing dynamic opportunities for emerging physicists to explore. Julian Seymour Schwinger, recognized as one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century performed vital research following the war. Read on to learn more about the life and works of famous American Physicists of the 20th Century.

This ranking is based on an algorithm that combines various factors, including the votes of our users and search trends on the internet.

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 1 Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein.
22
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: March 14, 1879
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Ulm, Germany
Died: April 18, 1955
Deemed as the most influential physicist of the 20th century, the German-born physicist Albert Einstein was one of the greatest minds to have ever lived. Even his name is now synonymous with the term genius. The father of Modern Physics is credited with developing the theory of relativity and explaining the photoelectric effect. The latter won him the Nobel Prize.

 2 Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla.
10
Famous As: Inventor
Birthdate: July 10, 1856
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Smiljan, Croatia
Died: January 7, 1943

Inventor, engineer and futurist, Nikola Tesla, is best remembered for his contribution to the development of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. A prolific inventor, he had around 300 patents for his inventions. Even though he earned a considerable amount of money, he had poor money management skills and died a poor man.

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 3 Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman.
14
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: May 11, 1918
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States
Died: February 15, 1988

Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, along with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichirō Tomonaga, for his research on quantum electrodynamics. He also contributed to the development of the atomic bomb. Feyman made it to Physics World’s list of the 10 greatest physicists of all time.

 4 J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer.
6
Birthdate: April 22, 1904
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: New York City, United States
Died: February 18, 1967

Hailed as a brilliant scientific mind, American physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, led the Manhattan Project which resulted in the development of atomic bomb during the World War II. The bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. However, Oppenheimer was in a constant conflict over the moral issue of the weapons of mass destruction and rallied against nuclear proliferation.

 5 Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi.
4
Famous As: Nobel Laureate in Physics
Birthdate: September 29, 1901
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Rome, Italy
Died: November 28, 1954
Italian physicist Enrico Fermi created the Chicago Pile-1, the world's first nuclear reactor. Known widely as the "architect of the atomic bomb," he was equally proficient in theoretical and experimental physics, and won the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on radioactivity and for discovering transuranium elements.

 6 Murray Gell-Mann

Murray Gell-Mann.
4
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: September 15, 1929
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
Died: May 24, 2019

Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Murray Gell-Mann is best remembered for his research on elementary particles. The Yale and MIT alumnus later taught at Caltech and is credited with coining the terms "quark" and "strangeness" in quantum physics. A linguistic enthusiast, he also co-established the Evolution of Human Languages program.

 7 Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin
3
Famous As: Astronomer
Birthdate: July 23, 1928
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: December 25, 2016

American astronomer Vera Rubin is best known for her pioneering discoveries on galaxy rotation rates, her groundbreaking work confirming the existence of dark matter and for her life-long advocacy for women in science. She studied the galactic rotation curves and provided strong evidence of the existence of dark matter. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile is named after her.

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 8 Sally Ride

Sally Ride.
11
Famous As: Physicist, Astronaut
Birthdate: May 26, 1951
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Died: July 23, 2012
Astronaut and physicist Sally Ride was the first American woman and the youngest American astronaut to enter space. Following her death, it was revealed that she had been in a 27-year lesbian relationship with tennis player and professor Tam O'Shaughnessy. Sally herself was a ranked junior tennis player, too.

 9 Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku
14
Famous As: Theoretical physicist, Science writer, Popularizer of science, Futurist, University teacher, Non-fiction writer, Radio personality
Birthdate: January 24, 1947
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: San Jose

Apart from teaching at the City College of New York, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku also often pens his thoughts in blogs and has written several bestselling books, such as The God Equation. His research is focused on the string theory. He also believes in the existence of aliens.

 10 Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan.
15
Famous As: Astronomer, Astrophysicist, Writer
Birthdate: November 9, 1934
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Died: December 20, 1996
Pulitzer- and Emmy-winning astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan was best known for co-writing the TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. His novel Contact was adapted into a film. He was known for his extensive research on extra-terrestrial life, had taught at major universities, and written countless papers and science books.

 11 John G. Trump

John G. Trump
6
Famous As: Scientist
Birthdate: August 21, 1907
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: New York, New York, United States
Died: February 21, 1985

Better known as former U.S. president Donald Trump’s uncle, John G. Trump was an MIT physicist and engineer. Though he had initially aspired to be an architect and join his brother Fred’s real-estate business, John later concentrated on his research that led to the invention of high-voltage generators.

 12 Kip Thorne

Kip Thorne.
6
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: June 1, 1940
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Logan

American theoretical-physicist Kip Thorne, who is noted for his contributions in gravitational physics and astrophysics, is known for Thorne-Żytkow object, Thorne-Hawking-Preskill bet, LIGO, gravitational waves and the book Gravitation. Thorne along with Rainer Weiss and Barry C. Barish received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017 for their contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.

 13 Bernhard Caesar Einstein

Bernhard Caesar Einstein
4
Famous As: Physicist, Engineer
Birthdate: July 10, 1930
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Dortmund
Died: September 30, 2008

Swiss-American physicist and engineer Bernhard Caesar Einstein was better known as the only grandchild of Albert Einstein to have survived beyond childhood. While two of his biological brothers died in infancy, his parents adopted a girl child, too. He grew up to work on night vision and laser technology.

 14 Ronald McNair

Ronald McNair
4
Famous As: Physicist, Astronaut
Birthdate: October 21, 1950
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Lake City
Died: January 28, 1986

A doctorate in physics from MIT Cambridge, Ronald McNair worked on chemical lasers before joining NASA and in 1984 flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B aboard Challenger, becoming the second African-American to do so. In January 1986, he was selected to fly on STS-51-L, but was killed along with rest of the crews when Challenger disintegrated soon after liftoff.

 15 Edward Teller

Edward Teller.
4
Famous As: physicist
Birthdate: January 15, 1908
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Budapest, Hungary
Died: September 9, 2003

Edward Teller was one of the famous "Martians,” or eminent Hungarian scientists who had migrated to the U.S. A prominent chemical engineer and nuclear physicist, he was part of the team that created the world’s first atomic bomb and also designed the first hydrogen bomb, or thermonuclear bomb.

 16 Ernest Lawrence

Ernest Lawrence.
3
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: August 8, 1901
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Canton, South Dakota, United States
Died: August 27, 1958

 17 William Shockley

William Shockley.
8
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: February 13, 1910
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Greater London, England, United Kingdom
Died: August 12, 1989

American physicist, inventor and Nobel laureate William Bradford Shockley Jr received the Nobel Prize in Physics with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain in 1956 for their researches on semiconductors and for discovering the transistor effect while working at the Bell Labs. He later became a proponent of eugenics while serving as a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University.

 18 John Bardeen

John Bardeen.
4
Famous As: Nobel Laureate in Physics
Birthdate: May 23, 1908
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Madison, Wisconsin, United States
Died: January 30, 1991

American engineer, physicist and Nobel laureate John Bardeen is the only person who received the Nobel Prize in Physics twice. He shared the first Nobel with William Shockley and Walter Brattain in 1956 for inventing the transistor, and the second with Leon N Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer in 1972 for proposing the BCS theory, a microscopic theory of superconductivity.

 19 Ashton Carter

Ashton Carter
8
Birthdate: September 24, 1954
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Philadelphia

Yale and Oxford alumnus Ashton Carter had interestingly bagged his first job at a car wash at 11. He grew up to teach at Harvard and Stanford and also served as the U.S. Secretary of Defense under Barack Obama. The physicist now heads the Belfer Center for Science at Harvard.

 20 Robert H. Goddard

Robert H. Goddard.
4
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: October 5, 1882
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Worcester, Massachusetts, United States
Died: August 10, 1945

The son of a machine shop owner, Robert H. Goddard grew up to become a pioneer of rocketry. Interested in physics and mechanics since childhood, he dreamed of space flight. He developed the world’s first rocket that ran on liquid fuel. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is named after him.

 21 Francis Collins

Francis Collins
4
Famous As: Geneticist
Birthdate: April 14, 1950
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Staunton, Virginia, U.S.

American physician-geneticist Francis Collins is known for his discovery of the genes related with several diseases and for leading the Human Genome Project while serving as director of NHGRI. Recipient of Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science, Collins wrote the New York Times bestseller The Language of God and presently serves as director of the NIH.

 22 Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn.
6
Famous As: Physicist, Philosopher
Birthdate: July 18, 1922
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States
Died: June 17, 1996

American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn is noted for his book on history of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, publication of which marked a significant event in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. He presented his notion of paradigm shift and identified and elaborated on normal science in this book which remained influential in academic and popular circles.

 23 Brian Greene

Brian Greene
4
Famous As: Physicist, Writer, Professor, Author, Actor, Theoretical physicist
Birthdate: February 9, 1963
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: New York City

American theoretical physicist, mathematician, and string theorist Brian Greene is noted for popularising string theory through his books like The Elegant Universe, and The Fabric of the Cosmos and related PBS television specials. Greene taught as professor of physics at Cornell University, and presently serves as a professor at Columbia University. He is the co-founder and chairman of the World Science Festival.

 24 Edward Witten

Edward Witten
4
Famous As: Mathematician, Physicist, University teacher, Theoretical physicist
Birthdate: August 26, 1951
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Baltimore

American mathematical and theoretical physicist Edward Witten is regarded as the practical founder of M-theory. His proof of positive energy theorem led him to become the first physicist who received the Fields Medal by International Mathematical Union. His research works mainly include the areas of string theory, supersymmetric quantum field theories and quantum gravity, besides other areas of mathematical physics.  

 25 Steven Chu

Steven Chu.
6
Famous As: Former United States Secretary of Energy
Birthdate: February 28, 1948
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: St. Louis

American physicist, politician and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, who served as United States Secretary of Energy, presently serves as Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University. His research on cooling and trapping of atoms with laser light led him to share the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics with William Daniel Phillips and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji.

 26 David Bohm

David Bohm.
4
Famous As: Scientist
Birthdate: December 20, 1917
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: October 27, 1992
Born to Jewish immigrants, David Bohm went against his father’s wish of joining his family’s furniture business and ventured into science instead. He later grew up to be an influential physicist and is now revered for his contribution to quantum mechanics and for introducing concepts such as Bohm’s diffusion.

 27 Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg.
4
Birthdate: May 3, 1933
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: New York City, USA

Nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg is known for establishing the electroweak theory, along with Sheldon Lee Glashow and Abdus Salam. He was born to Jewish immigrants in New York and made it to Cornell and Princeton. He is an atheist and supports the Israeli cause.

 28 John Archibald Wheeler

John Archibald Wheeler.
3
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: July 9, 1911
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Jacksonville
Died: April 13, 2008

American theoretical-physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who worked as professor of physics at Princeton University for most of his career, is best-known for co-developing the concept of Breit–Wheeler process, popularising the term black hole, and helping in designing and building the hydrogen bomb. He also invented several terms like quantum foam and wormhole, and hypothesized the one-electron universe.

 29 Luis Walter Alvarez

Luis Walter Alvarez.
3
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: June 13, 1911
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: San Francisco
Died: September 1, 1988

Experimental physicist and Nobel laureate Luis Walter Alvarez is best remembered for inventing the liquid hydrogen bubble chamber, which enabled the discovery of countless short-lived resonance particles. The University of California, Berkeley professor and MIT scientist had also been part of the development of the atomic bomb.

 30 Sean M. Carroll

Sean M. Carroll
5
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: October 5, 1966
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Philadelphia Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.

Theoretical physicist Sean M. Carroll is a renowned Caltech professor who considers himself an old-school theorist and often maps his research using pencil and paper. Interested in field theory, gravitation, and cosmology, he blogs often, had written popular books, and has also appeared on shows such as The Universe.

 31 Alicia Nash

Alicia Nash
6
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: January 1, 1933
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: San Salvador, El Salvador
Died: May 23, 2015

Born in El Salvador, Alicia Nash later moved to the U.S., where she became one of the first women to join MIT as a student. The physicist met her husband, renowned mathematician John Nash at MIT. Both Alicia and John were killed in car crash while returning home from Norway.

 32 Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson
6
Famous As: Mathematician
Birthdate: December 15, 1923
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Crowthorne, England
Died: February 28, 2020

Freeman Dyson was a British-American theoretical and mathematical physicist, mathematician, and statistician. He made major contributions in the fields of quantum field theory, astrophysics, random matrices, quantum mechanics, and nuclear physics. He originated the concept that went on to be known as Dyson's transform. He received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement in 1986. 

 33 Hans Bethe

Hans Bethe.
5
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: July 2, 1906
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Strasbourg
Died: March 6, 2005

A physiology professor’s son, Hans Bethe had shown immense talent in math as a child. The German-American theoretical physicist and Cornell professor was a pioneer of quantum physics and later won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his research on stellar nucleosynthesis, or the formation of energy in stars.

 34 David D. Friedman

David D. Friedman
3
Famous As: Economist, Physicist, Blogger, Writer, University teacher
Birthdate: February 12, 1945
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: New York City

Eminent scholar David D. Friedman has excelled in a wide range of academic areas, including economics, physics, law, and business. The Harvard alumnus is best known for his anarcho-capitalist theories and the book The Machinery of Freedom but has penned countless other books, too, including two science-fiction fantasy novels.

 35 Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush.
4
Famous As: Engineer
Birthdate: March 11, 1890
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Everett, Massachusetts, United States
Died: June 28, 1974

Apart from teaching and working as an electrical engineer, Vannevar Bush had also been the dean of the MIT School of Engineering. Working with the government, he initiated military funding of research projects, later known as the military-industrial complex. He also penned books such as Modern Arms and Free Men.

 36 Max Tegmark

Max Tegmark
3
Famous As: Physicist, Astronomer, Astrophysicist
Birthdate: May 5, 1967
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Sweden

Born to math professor Harold S. Shapiro, Max Tegmark grew up to co-establish the Future of Life Institute, with funding from Elon Musk. The MIT professor is a specialist in cosmology, physics, and machine learning and had also penned a book on artificial intelligence, titled Life 3.0.

 37 Lisa Randall

Lisa Randall
3
Famous As: Physicist, Writer, University teacher, Theoretical physicist
Birthdate: June 18, 1962
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Queens

Apart from teaching at Harvard, theoretical physicist Lisa Randall has also held professorships at MIT and Princeton. She has also written several popular books, such as Warped Passages and Knocking on Heaven’s Door. One of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2007, she has also written a libretto for an opera.

 38 Michael P. Anderson

Michael P. Anderson
3
Famous As: Officer, Astronaut, Physicist
Birthdate: December 25, 1959
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Plattsburgh (city), New York
Died: February 1, 2003

Michael Phillip Anderson began his career with the United States Air Force, logging more than 3,000 hours of flight time before joining NASA. Selected as a mission specialist first on STS-89 Endeavour and then on STS-107 Columbia, he was killed along with the rest of the crew when the later disintegrated during its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

 39 Chen Ning Yang

Chen Ning Yang.
3
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: October 1, 1922
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Hefei, Anhui Province, China

Chen Ning Yang is a Chinese theoretical physicist known for his significant contributions to statistical mechanics, gauge theory, integrable systems, and both particle physics and condensed matter physics. He and Tsung-Dao Lee were awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on parity nonconservation of weak interaction. The men also elucidated the Lee-Yang circle theorem. 

 40 Eugene Wigner

Eugene Wigner.
3
Famous As: Physicist & Mathematician
Birthdate: November 17, 1902
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Budapest, Hungary
Died: January 1, 1995

One of the “Martians,” or eminent Hungarian scientists who had migrated to the U.S., Eugene Wigner won a Nobel Prize for his work on nuclear physics and the law of conservation of parity in particular. He taught at Princeton and Wisconsin and was also associated with the Manhattan Project.

 41 Charles K. Kao

Charles K. Kao.
3
Famous As: Electrical Engineer
Birthdate: November 4, 1933
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Shanghai, China
Died: September 23, 2018

Nobel Prize-winning Chinese physicist Charles K. Kao is best remembered for his discovery of how light is transmitted through fibre-optic cables. Named the Godfather of Broadband, he was also knighted by the U.K. Following his diagnosis of Alzheimer disease, he co-founded the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease.

 42 John V. Atanasoff

John V. Atanasoff
3
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: October 4, 1903
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Hamilton, New York, United States
Died: June 15, 1995

Born to an electrical engineer father and a math teacher mother, John V. Atanasoff grew up to invent the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, which was declared the world’s first electronic digital computer after a legal dispute. The physicist was also an active part of the atomic bomb tests conducted at Bikini Atoll.

 43 Eugene Merle Shoemaker

Eugene Merle Shoemaker
3
Famous As: Geologist
Birthdate: April 28, 1928
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, United States
Died: July 18, 1997

Best known for discovering the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, with his wife, Carolyn, and David H. Levy, Eugene Merle Shoemaker was an American astrogeologist who had also worked with the U.S. Geological Survey. He had been part of NASA’s lunar exploration missions. Following his death, his ashes were transported to the Moon.

 44 Julian Schwinger

Julian Schwinger.
3
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: February 12, 1918
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: New York City
Died: July 16, 1994

 45 Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe
4
Famous As: Programmer, Comics artist, Writer, Computer scientist, Physicist
Birthdate: October 17, 1984
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Easton

Randall Munroe quit his career as a NASA roboticist to re-live his childhood obsession with comics by creating the award-winning webcomic xkcd. He also writes a science blog and has penned New York Times bestsellers such as What If? and Thing Explainer. His other interests include kite photography.

 46 Alan Sokal

Alan Sokal
3
Famous As: Mathematician, Physicist, University teacher
Birthdate: January 24, 1955
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Boston

New York University physics professor Alan Sokal made headlines for creating what is now known as the Sokal Hoax. He wrote gibberish using flowery jargon and submitted it to the journal Social Text, which published it as postmodernist criticism, thus proving the lack of credibility of such journals.

 47 Ananda Coomaraswamy

Ananda Coomaraswamy
3
Famous As: Philosopher
Birthdate: August 22, 1877
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Died: September 9, 1947

Ananda Coomaraswamy was a Ceylonese Tamil philosopher of Indian art, metaphysician, and pioneering historian. He is credited for being one of the earliest interpreters of Indian culture to the West. He is also held responsible for introducing ancient Indian art to the West. Apart from bridging the gap between East and West, Coomaraswamy's works also aimed at rehabilitating original Buddhism.

 48 Rainer Weiss

Rainer Weiss
3
Famous As: Physicist
Birthdate: September 29, 1932
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Berlin, Germany

 49 Fritz Zwicky

Fritz Zwicky
3
Famous As: Astronomer, Physicist, University teacher
Birthdate: February 14, 1898
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Varna
Died: February 8, 1974

Born to a businessman and diplomat father in Bulgaria, Fritz Zwicky was initially sent to Switzerland to study commerce but ended up deviating to math and physics. He then moved to the U.S. to work with Caltech and gained fame for his research on what he called the supernova.

 50 Stanley Wojcicki

Stanley Wojcicki
3
Famous As: Physicist, University teacher
Birthdate: March 30, 1937
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Warsaw