Physicists who changed the world

Physicists who changed the world

These great scientists had a tremendous impact on the advancement in physics.

Physics

Keywords

Archimedes, Einstein, Newton, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Faraday, Maxwell, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Max Planck, Planck, Nicola Tesla, Tesla, Marie Curie, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, Rutherford, Ernest Rutherford, Werner Heisenberg, Heisenberg, Nobel Prize, physicists, physicist, scientist, electricity, magnetism, quantum mechanics, chain reaction, atomic model, science, radioactivity, particle physics, astrophysics, mathematician, nucleus, atomic structure, gravity, relativity, history of science, biography, biographic data, experiment, theory, astronomy, mathematics, quantum physics, physics, chemistry, history

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Greek polymath Archimedes was one of the most brilliant mathematicians of ancient times. Similarly to his contemporary scientists, he was interested in mathematics, physics, astronomy and philosophy.

Archimedes made his major discoveries in the field of geometry. He proved that the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter is the same as the ratio of the area of the circle to the square of its radius. He also devised a method for the approximation of this ratio that was later named Pi (π).

He also proved that the ratio of the surface area of a sphere to its volume is the same as the surface area of a right cylinder to its volume. In addition, he recognized that the ratio of the volume of the cylinder to the volume of the inscribed sphere and an inscribed cone is 3:2:1. As he regarded it his most important discovery, he requested that a cylinder and a sphere, carved of stone, be placed on his tombstone.

The concept of density was also introduced by Archimedes. Legend has it that he discovered the principle, which was named after him (Archimedes’ principle) while taking a bath. According to this principle, if a body is immersed in a fluid, buoyant force is exerted on it, which is equal to the weight of the fluid that is displaced by the body.

Archimedes was probably the best mathematical physicist of his era. He created statics, a branch of mechanics that deals with the properties of physical systems and forces acting on bodies at rest. Archimedes was the first to describe a simple machine called lever. He introduced the concept of center of mass and defined it for several objects.

He is credited with the creation of innovative machines such as the screw pump (today known as Archimedes’ screw) and the compound pulley. During the Second Punic War, he constructed defensive war machines in order to defend his hometown against Roman invasion. Sadly, he died in the siege of the city.

British physicist and chemist Michael Faraday was one of the most outstanding scientists in history. He was also regarded a great experimentalist whose main area of research was electricity. He contributed enormously to the development of electromagnetism and electrochemistry.

In 1831 he discovered electromagnetic induction, that is, the production of electric current in a conductor that interacts with a magnetic field. His description of the phenomenon is known today as Faraday's law of induction. Electromagnetic induction is the operating principle of dynamos, generators and transformers.

He recognized that electrical charges are present only on the exterior of the electrically charged conductor and do not affect the interior of the conductor. A metal mesh is used to create a protected space where the electric field does not penetrate (Faraday cage).

Later he engaged in studying the interaction between light and the magnetic field. He proved that the magnetic field rotates the light’s plane of polarization (Faraday effect).

During his work in the field of chemistry, he discovered the chemical compound benzene and invented one of the early forms of the Bunsen burner. Based on his research in electrochemistry, he formulated the laws of electrolysis.

Among other things, the SI unit of capacitance, the Faraday cage and the Faraday cup, a metal cup capable of catching charged particles in vacuum, were all named after Michael Faraday.

James Clerk Maxwell achieved great results in his research into electricity, magnetism, optics and gases. He is credited with the formulation of the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation. Moreover, he proved that electricity and magnetism are the manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Maxwell explained that the electric and magnetic field both travel in space as waves. In addition, he stated that light is also an electromagnetic radiation, i.e. there is electromagnetic field in the background of optical phenomena.

Most of his research was conducted in the field of electricity. He formulated a set of differential equations to describe the properties of electric and magnetic fields as well as their interaction with materials (Maxwell’s equations).

Maxwell also played an important role in creating the kinetic theory of gases. This theory is based on Daniel Bernoulli's argument that gases comprise small, ball-like particles and that the macroscopic, thermodynamic properties of gases arise from the motion of these particles (atoms and molecules). Maxwell’s research made a significant contribution to the development of this theory. His statistical calculations were generalized by Ludwig Boltzmann and therefore these are known as Maxwell-Boltzmann.

Maxwell also did some ground-breaking research into optics, especially into color vision. He discovered that color photographs can be developed by using blue, green and red filters.

His discoveries led to the invention of the radio, radar and television. Maxwell was also one of the first physicists to contribute to development of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Of 19th-century scientists he is considered to have had the largest influence on 20th-century physics.
Maxwell ranked third in a poll, conducted at the turn of the millennium, deciding on the greatest physicist of all time.

The CGS unit of magnetic flux and a mountain range on the planet Venus were also name after him.

Nikola Tesla was one of the most brilliant scientists and most prolific inventors of all time. The Serbian-American inventor initially worked in Europe, but he spent his best years as an inventor in the U.S. Tesla, who mainly dealt with electrotechnics, became one of the most important figures of the second industrial revolution as well.

Around 1891 Tesla invented the so-called Tesla coil that contains at least two air-core coils. It could produce high voltages at high frequencies. This new device was innovative because it used electrical resonance with the help of the air-core coils. This system differs from the transformer as both the primary and the secondary circuit are in resonance with the operating frequency. Later, his invention became an essential component of numerous devices.

The AC motor is one of Tesla’s most famous and most important inventions. He built the prototype in 1883, while working in France. He patented his invention, a motor driven by a rotating magnetic field, in the U.S. in 1888.

Nikola Tesla and his former employer, Thomas Edison became engaged in the so-called War of Currents. Tesla was an advocate of the alternating current while Edison was a strong supporter of the direct current. Not only his contemporary demonstrations, but also history has proven Tesla right. Today, numerous devices work on the same principle as his AC motor.

He had numerous ideas and inventions that were far ahead of their time and many of which are still present in some form in devices today. Tesla considered the turbine his most important invention. His bladeless turbine consisted of parallel disks and its operation was based on centripetal flow.

The Tesla coils, the SI unit of magnetic flux density and Tesla Motors, a company producing electric cars, are all named after Nikola Tesla.

German physicist Max Planck is considered one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. He and Albert Einstein are credited with providing the theoretical background of modern physics.

Planck belonged to an intellectual family and showed interest in theoretical physics relatively early. He was one of the first scientists to recognize the importance of Einstein's publication on the theory of special relativity in 1905 and played a crucial role in extending it.

Based on his research on black-body radiation, he revised all previous findings and improved them to create a new law of radiation that was named after him. The formula of Planck’s law includes the Boltzmann and the Planck constants. In 1900 he introduced the quantization of energy. (Quantum is the minimum amount of a physical entity involved in a process.) In 1918 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum theory which helped the advancement of physics.

Among other things, a set of units of measurement (Planck units) and a German research organization (Max Planck Society) were named after him.

The most famous woman in the history of science was born as Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw, in 1867. She started her university studies at Sorbonne University in Paris. She also met her husband there.

The couple first researched magnetism, but later they became interested in radioactivity, a phenomenon discovered by Henri Becquerel not long previously.

With hard work and processing several tons of minerals, they isolated two previously unknown radioactive elements which they named radium and polonium. They named the former after the Latin word radius, meaning "ray" and the latter after Poland, Marie Curie's country of birth.

In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman in France to receive a doctoral degree. In the same year, Becquerel and the Curies received a shared Nobel Prize "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel".

In 1911, she was awarded her second Nobel prize, this time in chemistry, "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element". Thus she became the first person ever to be awarded two Nobel Prizes.

New Zealander Ernest Rutherford was one of the greatest experimental physicists of the 20th century. His main areas of research included radioactivity, atomic physics and nuclear physics.

He studied X-radiation and made a distinction between X-rays and radioactive decay. He discovered alpha and beta particles in the radioactive decay of uranium. In 1900 Rutherford, together with Robert Bowie Owens, discovered that the rate of radioactive decay decreases exponentially with time. In 1902, he and Frederick Soddy found that radioactive elements transmute during radioactive decay and decay chains are formed. In addition, they introduced the concept of half-life.

Rutherford also studied the scattering of alpha particles on metal foils. In 1911 he formulated the Rutherford model of the atom and the Rutherford scattering based on his observations. In his envisioned model of the atom (planetary model), the electrons were orbiting around what is now known as the nucleus, the center of the atom. This discovery marked the beginning of nuclear physics. In 1919 he bombarded nitrogen with alpha particles and became the first to observe artificial nuclear transmutation. In the same year, he also observed that hydrogen nucleus is present in all other nuclei, thereby discovering the proton. Rutherford predicted the existence of another particle, the neutron, as well.

As a chemist, he discovered radon gas and several radioactive isotopes of radium, polonium and bismuth. In 1908 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a German-born physicist and philosopher of science. He is considered to be one of the most important physicists of the 20th century. He developed the special theory of relativity, which revolutionized our understanding of space and time. According to this theory, the speed of light, 300,000 km/s (186,411 mi/s), is constant for all observers regardless of whether the observer is in motion or at rest relative to the light source. According to the special theory of relativity the speed of light is a cosmic speed limit, which moving bodies cannot exceed. If a body's speed approaches the speed of light, time slows down, the mass of the body increases and the length of the body becomes shorter. If two observers move relative to each other with uniform motion, each of them is considered to be at rest: motion is relative, therefore, on this basis and taking into account that the speed of light is constant, we can infer that distance, mass and time are also relative. For example, if two observers move relative to each other with uniform motion, both of them will notice that the other's watch slows down. These relativistic effects become significant only at very high speeds; at speeds encountered in everyday life these effects can usually be ignored. However, in technology, their application is often necessary.

One consequence of the special theory of relativity is Einstein's famous equation E=mc², according to which mass and energy are interconvertible. This principle is used in nuclear power plants or atomic bombs.

The general theory of relativity provides an explanation for gravity. According to this, bodies distort space-time due to their mass; this distortion determines the path of bodies moving in the gravitational field.

Apart from elaborating the two theories of relativity, Einstein achieved other important scientific results as well. Among other things, by studying the Brownian motion, he proved the atomic structure of matter. Furthermore, by explaining the photoelectric effect, he demonstrated the particle nature of light and the existence of photons, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

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