Nuclear physics, who's your daddy? Ernest Rutherford, that's who. This New Zealand-born British physicist is widely regarded as being the father of nuclear physics thanks to his contribution of the Rutherford model of the atom.
Born in 1871, Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 37 years later for his investigations into sub-elemental particles and strides in radioactive substances. But it wasn't until 1911 that he made his groundbreaking work that would come to be known as the Rutherford atomic model.
In contrast to the prevailing "plum pudding" model of the times ”” that held the atom was just a hodgepodge of different subatomic particles and charges, the Rutherford model proposed that a massive, central charge surrounded by satellite, nearly mass-less charges is a more accurate representation of how the atom is structured. And you know what? He was right.
Where would physics be today if not for J. J. Thomson, English physicist, Royal Society of London fellow, and 1906 Nobel Prize recipient? Sure, he was incorrect about the overall structure of an atom (i.e. the plum pudding model later disqualified by Rutherford), but it was his discovery of the electron in the first place that even made such models possible!
In 1907, Thomson observed that there were particles never before imagined that made up a cathode ray (a beam of electricity in a vacuum tube). These particles had a very high negative charge-to-mass ratio, and could be singled out so long as the pressure of the tube was brought down dramatically. What he called "corpuscles" were actually electrons ”” the first subatomic particle to be discovered. It was a total game-changer.
Henri Becquerel, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, is best known for his work on spontaneous radioactivity. While investigating fluorescence, the phenomenon by which some materials release light after being exposed to the sun, Becquerel accidentally discovered that amid decay, some elements will actually release their particles in the form of radioactivity. He used a crystal containing uranium to test his hypothesis, leaving it in the sun for some time, and keeping an eye on it. But as the clouds rolled in and put a dent in his experiment, Becquerel stowed the crystal away in his desk until the weather improved. In that time, the uranium radiation made noticeable imprints on a nearby photographic plate. Voila: radiation.
You could say Max Planck's contribution to physics was in the form of a quantum leap. The German theoretical physicist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918 for pretty much originating the field of quantum physics. Just before the turn of the 20th Planck was contracted by electricity companies seeking the most luminescent light bulb for the least amount of input energy. After a series of beguiling failures, Planck was attempting to derive formulas from former attempts when he proved that light could be emitted in packets, or quanta, of energy from a black body (an ideal object that absorbs all light evenly).
It might not seem like much, but this foundational proof is what all of quantum physics is based on. Planck came up with a whole new set of laws that described the way in which these quanta operated and interacted with each other. The resultant logic of behavior is totally incompatible with classical physics, and therefore doubly intriguing.
Is there anybody on this list who didn't receive the Nobel Prize! Actually, yes, but Danish physicist Niels Bohr isn't one of them. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922 for his work on quantum theory and atomic structure. His Bohr model of the atom held that electrons orbited the proton and neutron in well-defined routes, and could jump from ring to ring (valence to valence) by absorbing or releasing packets of energy (quanta). Although this model was superseded by later models, the fundamental principles still hold true.
Remember when I said that there were non-Nobel Prize winners on this list? Here's an unexpected one. Nikola Tesla. There is a rumor that when Albert Einstein was asked "How does it feel to be the smartest man alive?" he replied, "I don't know, you'll have to ask Nikola Tesla." Mind = blown. Widely regarded as one of the most dauntingly brilliant minds to ever have graced this planet, Tesla is an example of great genius at the whims of greedy and thieving businessmen. He worked for Thomas Edison (notorious for lifting and patenting many of Tesla's inventions as his own), as well as other financiers who either didn't recognize what he was capable of or didn't care. His work in mechanizing alternating current was just the beginning: his inventions were startling, visionary, and frightening at times. He also came up with inventions for radio remote control, possibly the first discovery of the x-ray, and maybe even ideas for infinite energy.
You know what's better than winning a Nobel Prize in Physics? Winning the firstNobel Prize in Physics in 1901. This dude, Wilhelm Röentgen, did it, so all hail Röentgen. In 1895 he was the first to detect and then reproduce electromagnetic waves in a perceptible wavelength that would become known as X-rays. Unless you believe Tesla actually got to it first, in which case Röentgen is a fraud.
Now here's a man who's probably more directly famous for his cat than any other contribution he made to the field of theoretical physics. He shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics with Paul Dirac for his contributions to the field of quantum theory, and what contributions they were. The most prominent of his entire body of work is the Schrödinger equation, which remains to this day as the basic explanation of how the quantum state of a physical system changes over time, which is inherently different from Newton's linear envisioning of physical activity. Schrödinger's alternative is the wavefunction, a macro picture of how the physical system itself changes, not the individual particles that make it up. This achievement is considered as one of the most important in 20th century thought, period.
Werner Heisenberg ”” yes, that Heisenberg; no, not the Breaking Bad one ”” was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 for giving birth to quantum mechanics. Note quantum mechanics is different from quantum theory. Prior to Schrödinger's formulation of wavefunction mechanics, Heisenberg, along with colleagues Max Born and Pascual Jordan, took a matrix mechanics approach to quantum theory. Using Niels Bohr's model of the atom and quanta, Heisenberg et al. demonstrated how quanta of energy can fit into a matrix (grid-like) three-dimensional space, and how that matrix system can change over time. It is fundamentally equivalent to Schrödinger's model, but the way they got there was different.
Karl Schwarzschild is an example of a great mind gone far too soon. The German physicist was the first to give a practical solution of Einstein's field equations (ten equations that describe the role of gravity on a curved space-time continuum), which he accomplished in 1915 ”” contemporaneous with when Einstein dropped his theory of general relativity. Einstein was only able to give general and approximate solutions to his own equations, so complex they were, but Schwarzschild filled in the rest. He died a year later while fighting on the German front in World War I, succumbing to an autoimmune disease.
1933 Nobel Prize winner in Physics Paul Dirac is most lauded for his work (in addition to Erwin Schrödinger, with whom he shared the award) in developing new and improved approaches to atomic theory. Born in 1902, the English bloke came up with the Dirac equation (go figure) in 1928, which foregrounded quantum mechanics big time. His treatise Principles of Quantum Mechanics, published in 1930, helped reconcile Heisenberg's matrix work and Schrödinger's wave-function analysis in infinite dimension space, an achievement that had huge implications for future quantum mechanists and theorists.
Atomic bomb, who's your daddy? It's a trick question, because there are a few of them, but that paternity test definitely shows up positive for Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. Awarded in 1938 with a Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of new particles as a result of neutron irradiation ”” basically freeing neutrons from the nucleus of an atom ”” and slow neutrons, neutrons slowed down by repetitive bombardment. He is also credited as having developed the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, at the University of Chicago, one arm of the famous and infamous Manhattan Project. The nuclear reactor was instrumental in developing the A-bomb.
If there had to be one father of the atomic bomb, it would be this guy, American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was the frontman of the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico during WWII, and was in charge of overseeing the production of the big one. His early work in wave functions and and nuclear fusion certainly contributed to his expertise in the field. Later in his career, after America won the war, he became a very vocal advocate for de-weaponizing and de-escalating atomic warfare around the world. Talk about a guilty conscience.
Like I said before, this list does have a few physicists who didn't win the Nobel Prize. Emmy Noether is one of them, and she also definitely deserved it. Big slight, Nobel committee. Born in 1882, German mathematician Noether made huge contributions to the field of theoretical physics most prominently with her theorem, aptly named Noether's theorem. The theorem states that every action in a symmetrical system has a corresponding conservation action. It's sort of like Newton's law of every action having an equal and opposite reaction, except more specific to mathematical and physical realms. The theorem allows physics, operating within symmetrical systems and spaces, to identify paths of least action, which is important for reducing energy inputs and maximizing outputs. Huge.
Einstein took especial interest in Swiss theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, so much so that he even nominated the protégé for the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physics, which he claimed. Pauli is one of the co-founders of quantum physics, and gave the field one of its founding principles: the Pauli exclusion principle. What the principle states is that charged particles, like an electron for instance, cannot possess the same spin in the same space, and must each have their own, corresponding, unique quantum number. The Nobel committee honored him with the award for basically discovering a new law of Nature. No big deal.