Prior to the twentieth century, the only major figures in physics who were of Jewish descent were Carl G. J. Jacobi, Heinrich Hertz*, and Albert A. Michelson.  Jacobi, one of the greatest mathematicians of the nineteenth century, co-developed what has come to be known as Hamilton-Jacobi theory, a reformulation of classical mechanics that forms a critical bridge in the transition to twentieth century quantum mechanics.  Hertz was the discoverer of electromagnetic waves.  His discovery of the basic techniques for generating and detecting radio waves, together with the theoretical work of Maxwell, led directly to the development of radio, television, wireless telecommunications, and radar.  Michelson, who won the Nobel Prize in 1907, was the "father" of high-precision measurement, which he used to perform critical experiments on the speed of light in the late 1880s that proved crucial to the later acceptance of Einsteinian relativity.  (The LIGO gravitational wave antennas are essentially kilometer-scale Michelson interferometers with sensitivities to changes in distance on the order of one part in 1022.)

Subsequently, Jews played a major role in the development of twentieth century physics.  Any reasonably objective listing of the twenty-five most influential physicists of that century would probably include, at a minimum, the following fifteen individuals of Jewish descent: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr*, Wolfgang Pauli*, Max Born, Hans Bethe*, Felix Bloch, Lev Landau, I. I. Rabi, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, Murray Gell-Mann, Steven Weinberg, and Edward Witten.  According to a 2009 monograph by the distinguished theoretical physicist Roger Newton, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr were "the true revolutionaries ... two men whose ideas would dominate most of physics for the 20th century."1  A bibliometric study published in 2018 by researchers at CERN, based on a weighted citation frequency analysis of over one million papers, determined a list of the ten physicists whose work has had the greatest impact on foundational research (high-energy physics, quantum field theory, cosmology, etc.) over the past half-century.  Seven of these ten physicists were, or are, Jews: Edward Witten, Steven Weinberg, Albert Einstein, Julian Schwinger, Alexander Polyakov, Richard Feynman, and Murray Gell-Mann.2

In addition to work on the conceptual foundations of physics, Jews have also been significantly involved in the development of its practical applications.  Jews such as Lise Meitner, Otto Frisch, Niels Bohr*, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Sir Rudolf Peierls, Sir Francis Simon, Hans Bethe*, Victor Weisskopf, John von Neumann, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Stanislaw Ulam, Alvin Weinberg, Hyman Rickover, Yuli Khariton, Vitaly Ginzburg, and Yakov Zeldovich (the latter three in the Soviet Union) played a dominant role in the development of nuclear power.  The nuclear reactor was first conceived of and then co-invented by Leo Szilard.  The pressurized water reactor (PWR), the nuclear reactor design that dominates both naval and commercial nuclear power generation, was proposed by Alvin Weinberg, based on earlier work by Eugene Wigner, and developed largely under the leadership of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the "father" of the US nuclear navy.

The technology that underpins the emerging post-industrial "information age" is based on semiconductor microelectronics and photonics.  The theoretical basis of the former is the band theory of solids, which was largely developed by Felix Bloch and Sir Rudolf Peierls in the late 1920s.3  The theoretical foundation of the latter is, in addition to the band theory of solids, the quantum theory of radiation, developed by Albert Einstein in 1917.  The transistor was invented and patented in the 1920s by Julius Edgar Lilienfeld.  [Its re-invention some twenty years later earned Bell Telephone Laboratories the Nobel Prize, but Bell Labs was forced to abandon all patent claims to the field-effect transistor (which today dominates modern electronics) because of Lilienfeld's prior work.]4  The laser concept, including the use of an inverted-population medium coupled to an optical cavity resonator, was first proposed by Valentin Fabrikant in 1940.  The first working laser was demonstrated in 1960 by Theodore Maiman, based on a design concept independent of the one proposed in the much-cited 1958 paper by Charles Townes (non-Jewish) and Arthur Schawlow*.  Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), the physical process underlying the invention of MRI diagnostic imaging, was discovered in molecular beam studies by I. I. Rabi in 1938 and later independently extended to bulk matter spectroscopy by Edward Purcell (non-Jewish) and Felix Bloch.  The atomic clock, an essential component in such systems as GPS, was proposed by Rabi in 1944, first demonstrated by Harold Lyons in 1949, and made practical by Jerrold Zacharias in 1954, in the form of the cesium-beam frequency standard, which was marketed commercially beginning in 1956 as the Atomichron, the first self-contained, portable atomic clock.

Jews constitute over 40% of the combined membership of the divisions of physics and applied physical sciences of the US National Academy of Sciences.  The links below contain lists of prominent Jewish physicists and of the Jewish recipients of several of the most prestigious international awards in physics.

Hertz and Schawlow had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, while Bohr and Bethe had Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers.  Pauli's  father was Jewish and his mother half-Jewish.
1. How Physics Confronts Reality, by Roger G. Newton (World Scientific, London and Singapore, 2009, p. 6).
2. "New metrics rank physicists and their work," by Dalmeet Singh Chawla, in Physics Today, 7 June 2018.  The study was conducted by Alessandro Strumia and Riccardo Torre, who employed citation counts weighted by the citation rate of the citing papers. The other three physicists listed among the ten "most impactful" were Paul Dirac, Gerard 't Hooft, and Stephen Hawking. 
3. See. e.g., Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age, by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson (W.W. Norton, New York, 1997, p. 66).
4. See, e.g.,


Copyright 2003-2023 JINFO.ORG. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of any part of this website
without the express, prior written permission of JINFO.ORG is prohibited.