You probably know what physics is. It’s the study of the physical world, from falling apples to the motion of planets and stars to the behaviour of the tiny subatomic particles that make up the world around us. Physics is everywhere. It’s in the most distant reaches of the cosmos. It’s in the supermassive black holes raging in the centre of galaxies and in the tiny fundamental building blocks that make up life on Earth. It’s even in the seemingly empty space around us. And every now and then a physicist comes along who forever changes our perception of the Universe and everything in it. Here are 10 physicists whose theories, ideas, and discoveries revolutionised the way we see the world.
He’s certainly got the mad scientist hair thing down. One of the last century’s most celebrated scientists, Albert Einstein turned physics on its head with his theories of relativity, and made enormous contributions to the fields of gravitation and quantum theory. He also liked to take his sailboat out on the water on windless days, “just for the challenge.” His work influenced many sci-fi movies around the world.
Leonardo da Vinci
Between painting the most revered masterpieces of Renaissance art, Leonardo da Vinci somehow still found time to tap into his inner eccentric. The Italians’ scientific sketchbooks, most written in mirror-image cursive, are a fantasyland of oddball machines and brilliant designs, many which would never come to fruition and some that would be built many centuries later, like his rudimentary helicopter.
Tesla, who is credited with the invention of the wireless radio and the AC generator that kick-started the electrical age was even born, fittingly, during a violent lightning storm in 1856. He was also known as a manic genius that slept little and loved to put on a good show, often using his own body as a conductor in public demonstrations. Tesla would often be a guy pulling down a giant electric switch in a shower of fiery sparks.
Isaac Newton changed the way we understand the Universe. Revered in his own lifetime, he discovered the laws of gravity and motion and invented calculus. He helped to shape our rational world view. Yet he also made major discoveries in optics beginning in the mid-1660s and reaching across four decades; and during the course of his 60 years of intense intellectual activity he put no less effort into chemical and alchemical research and into theology and biblical studies than he put into mathematics and physics. He became a dominant figure in Britain almost immediately following publication of his “Principia” in 1687.
Stephen William Hawking was an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author who was director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge at the time of his death. The most recognisable scientist of our age, Hawking holds an iconic status. His book “A Brief History of Time” appeared on the Sunday Times bestseller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. Hawking was a fellow of the Royal Society, a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. In 2002, Hawking was ranked number 25 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. He died on 14 March 2018 at the age of 76, after living with motor neurone disease for more than 50 years. His work on time travel and black holes became the source of many mind boggling paradoxes.
Part of the Manhattan Project’s team of geniuses that developed the atomic bomb, physicist Richard Feynman went on to become one of the most important scientists of the late 20th century. Far from the stuffy professor type, this free spirit explored music and nature, decoded Mayan hieroglyphics and picked locks in his spare time.
Marie Skłodowska Curie, born Maria Salomea Skłodowska, was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. Mme. Curie developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantities to allow for its characterization and the careful study of its properties, therapeutic properties in particular. Mme. Curie, quiet, dignified and unassuming, was held in high esteem and admiration by scientists throughout the world. She was a member of the Conseil du Physique Solvay from 1911 until her death and since 1922 she had been a member of the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations. Her work is recorded in numerous papers in scientific journals and she is the author of Recherches sur les Substances Radioactives (1904), L’Isotopie et les Éléments Isotopes and the classic Traité’ de Radioactivité (1910).
The Manhattan Project’s head honcho was never reserved about his sympathies for socialism and his conflicted feelings over dropping the atomic bombs, and was ultimately stripped of his academic and political power for it. Despite those controversies, he’s also remembered as a man his grad students called “Oppie,” who learned Dutch and Sanskrit just because, and quoted a Hindu holy text at the sight of the first atomic bomb test.
Wernher von Braun
At the age of 12, an intrepid, Wernher von Braun loaded his toy wagon with some firecrackers and shot off across a crowded German street. It was a sign of things to come. The brains behind Hitler’s V-2 rocket program arrived in the United States as a prisoner of war and went on to be its champion of space and lunar exploration. While putting people on the moon, von Braun also mastered scuba diving and philosophy.
Respected nuclear physicist and prolific writer Freeman Dyson moonlights as a science fiction writer’s dream. In 1960, he touted the idea that in the future humans may need to construct an artificial shell, now called the Dyson Sphere, that would encircle the entire solar system and make maximum use of the sun’s energy. Dyson wholeheartedly believes in extra-terrestrial life and thinks we’ll make contact within the next few decades.