Science changed the world. Humanity crawled out of caves and built massive cities, solved seemingly insolvable problems, and developed new ways of thinking.
These famous scientists from Ancient Greece and onto the present day each had a hand in the transformation.
Archimedes (c. 287-212 CB)
The most famous scientist of antiquity lived in Syracuse. His work in applied mathematics helped the ancients develop technology related to statics, hydrostatics, and buoyancy.
A popular story featuring Archimedes relates to his work with buoyancy. A king worried that a beloved crown wasn’t entirely made of gold and offered great riches to anyone who could prove it. While bathing, Archimedes noted that his body displaced the water and realized he could use this simple concept to determine whether the crown was solid gold.
Upon making the connection, Archimedes leaped from the tub and ran through the city yelling, “Eureka!” meaning he found the solution.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
Though celebrated as the world’s most famous artist, Leonardo Da Vinci also dabbled in science. He left thousands of pages of journal notes relating to his observations of the natural world. His studies in human anatomy and physiology were far more detailed than any medical journal of his time and helped describe the mechanics of muscle movement.
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)
Copernicus published a radical theory about the cosmos, initiating what we now call the Copernican Revolution. His work in astronomy proved that the Earth rotates around the sun, destroying the religious model which put the Earth at the center of the Universe.
Copernicus studied a variety of fields, working in medicine, law, government, and economics. He developed an early variation of Gresham’s Law and economic theory, saying bad currency will eventually overtake good currency. He described the first quantity theory of money that economics still use today.
His work on the cosmos was published shortly before his age caught up to him, so he never experienced the persecution his famous predecessor faced.
Galileo Galilei (1564 -1642)
Galileo, the Father of observational astronomy and creator of the scientific method we still use today, was persecuted for his insistence on the Copernican model of the universe. He defended the concept of heliocentrism (the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun), which went against the Church’s teachings of the time and was eventually forced to recant after an investigation by the Roman Inquisition. Although he recanted in 1616 and tried to avoid the controversy, he was tried again in 1632, found guilty, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Galileo’s contributions to science far outpace the controversy. He invented the first refracting telescope allowing him to observe the motions of the planets and was the first even to attempt measuring the speed of light.
His work on motion helped his predecessor, Sir Isaac Newton, development his fundamental physics theories.
Issac Newton (1643-1726)
Sir Issac Newton created the bane of math students everywhere: calculus. But he needed a new form of mathematics to describe the physical phenomena he studied.
Newton established the Theory of Gravity, which we still use today, and described the three basic laws of motion. Sir Issac Newton is credited with ending the Scientific Revolution that began with Copernicus and ushering in a new age, the Age of Enlightenment.
Sir Isaac Newton paved the way for the massive explosion in scientific discovery from the 18th century through the 20th century when a new scientist revolutionized the field once again.
Michael Faraday (1791 -1867)
Faraday was one of the first scientists to work with electromagnetism. His pioneering work on electric fields paved the way for the abundant use of electricity we enjoy today.
The famous scientist had little formal education, but his work in physics and chemistry changed the scientific community. He created the first Bunsen burner for lab work, developed some of the first synthetic chemicals, and helped establish gases as the vapor phase of liquids.
Faraday was the first to demonstrate that electricity was a force rather than a fluid, proving it using his Faraday cage. He also understood the electrical force as a single phenomenon that only changed due to quantitative factors like intensity.
Though Faraday theorized that electromagnetic forces expanded beyond their conductors and into the surrounding space, the idea wasn’t accepted until after his death.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Charles Darwin’s discoveries remain the most controversial of all the famous scientists. His work on evolution via natural selection turned the Church’s teachings about creation on its head.
Darwin studied the variety of finch species present in the untouched Galapagos Islands and concluded that they evolved from a common ancestor. He furthered this theory to explain the massive variety of plants and animals on the planet, showcasing how different species eventually appear due to natural selection and separation.
Although Darwin intentionally avoided discussions of man’s origins, his theory spoke for itself. Some religious groups defended Darwin, saying evolution doesn’t negate God’s role in creation, but others with a more literal biblical interpretation called it heresy.
Unfortunately, despite evolution’s massive acceptance in the academic and scientific communities, the debate still rages today.
Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)
Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, worked with peas to understand inheritance. He developed the concept of “dominant” versus “recessive” genes, showing that hidden traits can reappear in subsequent generations.
Mendel’s work wasn’t taken seriously at the time. His contemporary stood by the idea of blended inheritance, in which the parent’s traits are “blended” and then averaged out.
It wasn’t until 1900 that his work was rediscovered, and his ideas on dominance gained prominence. Geneticists now understand that inheritance is far more complex than either theory alone, but Mendel’s work and his laws of inheritance are vital pieces of the puzzle.
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)
Maxwell continued Faraday’s work in electromagnetism, and the two developed a close friendship. He developed the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation and proved Faraday’s idea that electricity, magnetism, and light were different manifestations of the same phenomenon.
His work with electromagnetic waves allowed him to predict radio waves, although the application would not be discovered until twenty years after his death.
Maxwell’s work in physics laid the foundation for 20th-century scientists to discover paradigm-shifting theories related to relativity and quantum mechanics.
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)
Alexander Graham Bell’s obsession with speech and hearing gave us our favorite device of all time: the telephone.
Graham Bell was an industrious inventor, holding 18 individual patents and 12 with collaborators. Most were associated with telecommunications and sound, involving advancements in telephones, phonographs, and audiometric devices.
He also developed the first mobile device, although the implications and widespread use would not be felt until decades after his death. He found a way to transmit data on light, a precursor to modern fiber optics.
Thomas Edison (1847-1931)
Thomas Edison is regarded as one of America’s finest inventors. He brought power to the people, inventing the light bulb and making energy more accessible with power transmission stations.
Edison’s work with electricity and light opened the door to the world we know and love today. He invented the phonograph and motion picture camera, paving the way for the movie industry.
Edison modernized the world.
Nikola Telsa (1856-1943)
Edison’s top rival and contemporary, Nikola Telsa, was a genius inventor but lacked the business acumen of Edison.
Telsa’s dreamed of supplying free power to the world, whereas Edison’s companies required payment. Though his towering coils did wireless transmit electricity to the ground, Telsa did not have the funding to implement them at a massive scale or ensure they were safe.
Tesla was ultimately vindicated in that his alternating current could carry electricity further and faster than Edison’s direct current. He also paved the way for work on xrays and remote control devices.
Max Planck (1858-1947)
Max Planck’s work on quantum theory revolutionized the world. He was the first to describe the physical properties of nature at the atomic level through his work on the black body radiation problem.
Planck solved the black body radiation problem by theorizing that electromagnetic energy could only be emitted in specific quantities related to its frequency. This theory led to the development of Planck’s constant, which defines the relationship between energy and frequency.
Planck could identify a groundbreaking idea when he saw one and was one of the first to recognize the significance of Einstein’s theories.
George Washington Carver (1864 -1943)
George Washington Carver was born into slavery but became one of America’s most famous scientists. Carver’s obsession with plant science and agriculture led to the creation of delicious new foods and innovative ways to grow and harvest crops.
Carver influenced farmers to move away from cotton and grow a greater variety of crops, which helped maintain fertile, healthy soil and opened US markets to foods like soybeans and peanuts.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Curie discovered and isolated two new elements for the periodic table, polonium, and radium.
Curie discovered radium’s therapeutic properties, mainly as a potential cure for cancer, and dedicated much time to promoting its use. Though we can now create artificial isotypes for this critical work, discovering that radiation could fight cancer was essential to developing modern treatments.
Curie’s work led to her untimely death, as she succumbed to radiation poisoning in 1934.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968)
Lise Meitner also isolated a new element, protactinium, but is most well known for explaining the theory of nuclear fission, discovered the previous year. Despite her contributions to the paper, she was shunned by the Nobel Prize committee, who only awarded it to her collaborator, Otto Hahn.
Meitner was consistently snubbed in the scientific community. Though nominated nearly 50 times, she never won, despite her vital contributions.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Albert Einstein is the most famous of all the famous scientists. His work on relativity changed the way we think about space, time, and the very nature of the universe.
Einstein taught us that space and time are not distinct entities but interwoven parts of the same whole. He boggled our minds by describing that measurements are not immutable but vary based on the perspective of an observer.
His theories on time, light, energy, and relativity paved the way for modern quantum mechanics.
Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962)
Bohr helped us understand atomic structure. His model proposed that electrons orbit the nucleus at stable energies but can “jump” a level if excited. Our understanding of electron clouds is far more complex, but Bohr’s model paved the way.
Bohr fled his home country of Denmark during World War 2 and found himself as an advisor on the Manhattan Project in the United States. He returned to Copenhagen after the war and served as president of the Royal Danish Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
Carson loved the natural world. The celebrated marine biologist, ecologist, and conversationalist spearheaded the movement to protect nature.
Carson’s most influential work, the book Silent Spring, opened the public’s eyes to the environmental dangers posed by the massive influx of chemicals and pesticides introduced into the environment. The work led to changes in policy and even the eventual ban of DDT, a harmful chemical known to harm American Eagle populations.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)
The Nobel Prize-winning scientist made extraordinary advancements in biochemistry, leading to the medical interventions we appreciate today.
Hodgkin developed a way to determine the structure of essential proteins, peptides, and other sub-cellular structures integral to biology. Her work with penicillin, B12, and insulin helped the medical community understand the structure of these essential compounds, which led to synthetic generation and abundant use in medicine.
Alan Turing (1912-1954)
Turing makes the list of famous scientists for his work with computers, biology, and artificial intelligence. Turing’s work becomes ever more critical as developments in AI technology continue to improve.
He developed the vital Turing Test, a model to test AI’s intelligence to determine whether it is indistinguishable from human intelligence. It’s the gold standard in AI and is still used today.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
Franklin’s work was integral to discovering DNA’s molecular structure, yet she was snubbed from the defining paper and resulting accolades. It wasn’t until 2023 that the scientific community formally celebrated her contribution as equal to the paper’s authors, Crick and Watson.
Franklin used Hodkin’s imaging technique to model the molecular structure of viruses, other organic compounds, and DNA and RNA. Her work led to the discovery of DNA’s quintessential double helix structure, an integral piece of the puzzle that led to complete genome mapping.
Jane Goodall (1934 -)
The celebrated primatologist changed the way we think about our closest living relatives. Goodall spent years observing chimpanzee behavior in Africa, discovering that their communities and social interactions were almost human-like. She holds the notable distinction of being the only human ever accepted into a Chimpanzee troop.
Goodall started two non-profit organizations. The Goodall Institute dedicates resources to continue the research she began on Chimpanzees in Gombe, while Roots and Shoots promote animal welfare and environmentalism around the globe.
Even approaching 90 years old, Goodall continues her work in conservation. She promotes environmental activism through speaking engagements, books, and community outreach.
Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
The renowned theoretical physicist brought science to the mainstream. He enthralled the public with his books about black holes, string theory, and the nature of the universe, bringing astrophysics into living rooms around the country.
Hawkings expanded on Einstein’s work, developing a theory of the cosmos that combined Einstein’s relativity with modern understandings of quantum mechanics. He also supported the controversial many-worlds theory, a view of the universe which states that all possible outcomes of a quantum event are realized, leading to the possibility of infinite universes.
Mae C. Jemison (1956-)
Jemison dedicated most of her life to service. As a physician, she traveled to refugee camps and joined organizations like the Peace Corps and Flying Doctors to provide medical care for underserved communities.
Jemison applied for the NASA astronaut program in 1987 and became the first black woman to enter space in 1992. She served in a scientific role, using her background in medicine and chemical engineering to conduct life sciences experiments in zero gravity conditions.
Upon resigning from NASA, Jemison dove back into service. She founded organizations dedicated to researching the sociocultural impacts of technology and organizations that bring science to children in underserved communities.
Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958-)
Tyson picked up where Hawking left off in bringing theoretical physics to the public. His research focuses on cosmology, stellar formation, and astronomy, but he’s most well-known for his public profile.
Tyson authored numerous books and articles, making complex theories digestible for regular people. He’s hosted mini-series and documentaries, appeared on numerous popular television talk shows, and is constantly referenced in pop culture.
Tyson has a knack for breaking complex theories into easy-to-understand sound bites, and his work is instrumental in making science “cool.”
So Many More Famous Scientists
History abounds with brilliant minds developing theories and inventions that change the world. There’s not enough room in one article or even a complete encyclopedia to celebrate them all.
Famous scientists, and their less well-known counterparts, contributed to the outpouring of technology we enjoy today. They gave us the automobile and combustion engine, unlocked secrets of our brain functioning, and provided us glimpses of the furthest reaches of the universe.
Their work is never done. New, up-and-coming scientists will one day join this list, providing a unique insight into our understanding of the complexity of nature, the universe, and our own selves. You never know what discovery awaits and whose name will go down in history as the scientist who unlocked the secret.
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Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.