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10 Greatest American Scientists in History

Updated on February 11, 2015

These men and women made advancements in science and technology and also may have helped popularize science

Many people don’t know much about science, and it could be said we should all learn about it, particularly when important issues such as climate change, overpopulation, deforestation and pollution deserve everyone’s attention.

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 in fun way, perhaps while chatting on talk shows via 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 try to identify America’s greatest scientist of all time? And, by the way, every person on this list was born in the United States (or the British colonies of America). Scientists from other countries are important too but American scientists may have greater relevance to the folks born and bred in the U.S.A.

Please keep reading!

Sagan and Viking Mars lander
Sagan and Viking Mars 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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

5. 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

6. 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.”

7. 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.

8. 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.

First atomic bomb detonation at Trinity site in New Mexico
First atomic bomb detonation at Trinity site in New Mexico

9. 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.”

The Woz
The Woz

10. Stephan Gary “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.

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© 2015 Kelley


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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 19 months ago from Auburn, WA

      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.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 19 months ago from 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!

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