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12 Greatest American Scientists in History

Updated on December 24, 2019
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Science and technology have always interested Kelley, particularly as they relate to quantum physics, computers, robots and space probes.

Many of the scientists on this list, particularly the ones born in the twentieth century, have helped laypeople learn about science and may do so (or did so) in a fun way, perhaps while chatting on talk shows on TV, radio or the internet. But this list also includes those erudite, introverted folks who hardly ever interact (or interacted) with the public.

Keep in the mind, this list is in no particular order. What good would it be to identify America’s greatest scientist of all time? And, by the way, every person on this list was either born in the United States or at least spent most of their professional life in the US.

Please keep reading!

Carl Sagan and a Mars Viking lander
Carl Sagan and a Mars Viking lander

1. Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)

Perhaps no American scientist has popularized science more than Carl Sagan, astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist. His greatest achievement regarding popularization may be the production of the TV show, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and writing the accompanying book, Cosmos. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have seen the TV show, so its popularity is undeniable. Sagan also wrote many popular science books such as The Dragons of Eden, Broca’s Brain and Pale Blue Dot. In terms of general science, Sagan wrote more than 600 scientific papers. He also won many prestigious awards, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal (1977) and the Public Welfare Medal (1994). And the older crowd may remember his talk show appearances, on which he would wax euphoric while uttering the phrase “billions and billions and billions,” when describing the number of stars in the universe. But Sagan claimed he never said that; he said “billions upon billions.”

Jean Bartik
Jean Bartik

2. Jean Bartik (1924 – 2011)

Jean Bartik, whose maiden name was Betty Jean Jennings, majored in mathematics in college. Bartik was one of the first programmers for INIAC, the world’s first electronic computer, introduced in 1951. Later, Bartik worked on converting the INIAC to a stored program computer. She also helped develop the BINAC and UNIVAC I computers. Later in life, Bartik became an editor for Auerbach Publishers, an early publisher of information technology. Later, Bartik joined Data Decisions, a competitor to Datapro Research. In 1997, Bartik was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

3. Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931)

Perhaps not so much a scientist as a businessman and inventor, Thomas Edison invented some of the most revolutionary devices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, because of this, qualifies for this list. Home-taught by his mother, Edison first worked as a telegraph operator. Then, beginning his career as an inventor in the 1870s, Edison invented the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the fluoroscope, the first practical, long-lasting light bulb and the carbon microphone. He also began the first industrial research laboratory. Over the course of Edison’s life, he produced 1,093 patents. Also a superb businessman, Edison established 14 companies, including General Electric. Curiously, Edison’s only failure was that he promoted the use of DC current over AC current, even though the latter is much more efficient and economical.

Linus Pauling
Linus Pauling

4. Linus Pauling (1901 – 1994)

Linus Pauling excelled in many fields; he was a chemist, biochemist, peace activist, author and educator. In fact, Pauling won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954, and in 1962 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Pauling is the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes. But perhaps Pauling’s greatest claim to fame is that he advocated megavitamin therapy, particularly the use of vitamin C, about which he wrote the book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, published in 1970, though Pauling’s claims in this book were controversial. Pauling published many other books as well. And his list of awards and honors is very impressive. Moreover, New Scientist magazine listed Pauling as one of the 20 most important scientists of all time.

Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman

5. Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988)

One of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of all time, Richard Feynman liked to play bongos at strip joints and was an incorrigible prankster, joker and wag. An expert in quantum electrodynamics (QED) and particle physics, Feynman once quipped, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Feynman’s tour de force was his use of pictorial representations known as the Feynman diagrams, which described the actions of subatomic particles and, in the process, unified quantum mechanics and special relativity for the first time. Feynman also worked on the Manhattan Project and pioneered the fields of quantum computing and nanotechnology. In 1965, Feynman and two other physicists won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in QED. A man of many quotes, he once said, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

Neil DeGrasse Tyson (right)
Neil DeGrasse Tyson (right)

6. Neil DeGrasse Tyson (1958 - )

If anybody has taken the baton from Carl Sagan as the greatest communicator of science in America it would probably be Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author. Paying homage to Carl Sagan, Tyson was the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a sequel to Sagan’s TV series. Perhaps following in Sagan’s footsteps in another way too, Tyson often appears on various television talk shows, such as The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher. In 2004, Tyson worked on the PBS program Origins, a Nova four-part miniseries. Also, working with Donald Goldsmith, Tyson co-wrote two companion books to PBS programs: Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution and 400 Years of the Telescope. Interestingly, when Tyson is often asked if he believes in God, he replies that he’s agnostic and doesn’t really care about such issues.

Dr. Joyce Brothers in 1957
Dr. Joyce Brothers in 1957

7. Dr. Joyce Brothers (1927 – 2013)

There has to be at least one social scientist on this list, doesn’t there? Known to most people, particularly TV viewers, as Dr. Joyce Brothers, this comely, brainy woman popularized modern psychology on TV, radio and in print. Graduating with a Ph.D in psychology from Columbia University, Brothers was the only woman to the win the top prize on the TV game show, The $64,000 Question, answering questions about boxing, of all subjects. Considered a TV personality, Brothers often appeared on various TV talk shows from the late 1950s onward. She also made many appearances on sitcoms such as Happy Days and the Jack Benny Program, often parodying herself. Brothers also wrote a column for Good Housekeeping magazine for almost 40 years, and the Washington Post once called her “the face of American psychology.”

Painting of Benjamin Franklin
Painting of Benjamin Franklin

8. Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)

Everybody knows that Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. They probably also know that Franklin was a polymath and a Renaissance Man and therefore successful in many different endeavors. A scientist of note as well, Franklin was influential regarding his theories of electricity and physics. Utilizing this science acumen, Franklin invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the glass armonica and the Franklin stove. And yes, Franklin flew a kite, hoping to prove that lightning is electricity, though he was careful not to electrocute himself, as another scientist had done. He also conducted numerous other scientific experiments. But people may not know that Franklin raised an “illegitimate” son (William). He was a reputed ladies’ man. And, shortly before his death, he freed his slaves.

William B. Shockley Jr.
William B. Shockley Jr.

9. William B. Shockley Jr. (1910 – 1989)

William Shockley’s claim to fame in science is that he, along with John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain, invented the transistor, an achievement for which all three won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956. Moreover, Shockley’s attempts to make money from this invention in the 1950s and ‘60s led to the establishment of California’s famous Silicon Valley. During World War Two, Shockley helped the American cause by making advancements in the use of radar. Shockley’s magnum opus regarding electrical theory was Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors, published in 1950. It appears that Shockley could have been dubbed “the Father of Silicon Semiconductors,” judging from his seminal work in that revolutionary field.

J. Robert Oppenheimer
J. Robert Oppenheimer

10. Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967)

Famously, J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked as he watched the first atomic bomb being detonated: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Actually, according to his brother, he simply declared, “It worked!” At that time in the 1940s, Oppenheimer was employed as the scientific director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, as he helped develop the first nuclear weapons during the Manhattan Project. Further, throughout Oppenheimer’s career as a theoretical physicist, he investigated numerous cutting edge subjects, including quantum field theory and quantum electrodynamics. Also interested in astrophysics, Oppenheimer advanced the field of gravitational collapse, for which he may have won a Nobel Prize, if he had lived long enough for technological advancements to validate his theories. And Wernher von Braun once joked, “In England, Oppenheimer would have been knighted.”

Steve Wozniak
Steve Wozniak

11. Steve Wozniak (1950 - )

Along with the late Steve Jobs and Ronald Wayne, Steve Wozniak co-founded Apple Computer, now Apple Inc., one of the richest companies in the world. (Wozniak was the engineer, while Jobs was the managerial genius; and Wayne was the administrator.) Wozniak, an electrical engineer and often called “The Woz,” referring to the Wizard of Oz, built the Apple I and Apple II computers by himself in the late 1970s. These machines were considered the first personal computers in the world. By inventing and patenting four key components designed for use in Apple’s first PCs, Wozniak was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2000. In addition, Wozniak has garnered numerous awards and honors, including the National Medal of Technology in 1985 and the Isaac Asimov Science Award in 2011; and his list of honorary doctoral degrees in truly astonishing.

Subramanyan Chandrashekar
Subramanyan Chandrashekar

12. Subramanyan Chandrashekar (1910 – 1995)

Born in India, Subramanyan Chandrashekar is an astrophysicist who did most of his professional work in the US. Chandrashekar graduated from the University of Cambridge and was a professor at the University of Chicago. His major studies included stellar dynamics, black holes, white dwarfs, quantum theory, general relativity, gravitational waves, radiative transfer and many other abstruse subjects and theories. Perhaps Chandrashekar’s greatest achievement was calculating the Chandrashekar limit, which establishes the maximum size of a star—about 1.4 times the size of the sun—before it can, during its degenerative phase, eventually collapse into a neutron star or black hole. Thus, the sun will one day collapse and become a white dwarf. In 1983, Chandrashekar won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the life cycle of stars.

Please leave a comment.

© 2015 Kelley Marks


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    • profile image

      Krishna Dronamraju 

      2 years ago

      I find only two serious scientists of our time in this list - Pauling and Oppenheimer! Many others are left out, such as Astronomer Chandrasekhar and Geneticist Herman Muller, both Nobel laureates!

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      5 years ago from Sacramento, California

      Thanks for stopping by, lions44. I'm glad somebody finally left a comment for this story. Anyway, yes I realize this list includes quite a mixed bag of scientists. Later!

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      5 years ago from the PNW

      Interesting article. I understand that the standard you are applying is just research/invention but popularizing science. However, I have to quibble with Dr. Brothers and Woz. They are not really scientists. Brothers was a social scientist. Granted, she may have led many to do research into other scientific fields, but I think it's a stretch. As for Woz, he was an inventor, so he might qualify. But I don't think he would call himself a scientist. More an engineer. Still one of the greats, but not on the level of Oppenheimer and Shockley. Endless topic. Voted up and shared.


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