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Famous Physicists

Physics is one of the most fundamental branches of science, exploring the nature of matter, energy, and the universe itself. Over the centuries, many brilliant minds have contributed to our understanding of these complex topics, making significant contributions to physics and other fields.

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Famous Physicists

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Physics is one of the most fundamental branches of science, exploring the nature of matter, energy, and the universe itself. Over the centuries, many brilliant minds have contributed to our understanding of these complex topics, making significant contributions to physics and other fields.

Some of the most famous physicists in history include Albert Einstein, known for his groundbreaking theories of relativity and mass-energy equivalence; Isaac Newton, whose laws of motion and gravity revolutionized the study of physics and laid the groundwork for modern calculus; Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and a pioneer in the study of radioactivity; and Stephen Hawking, who made groundbreaking contributions to the study of black holes and the origins of the universe despite being diagnosed with a debilitating motor neuron disease.

However, these are just some examples of scientists that have contributed to the understanding of the physical world. There are many more names, some of which we will touch upon in this article and our famous physicists series. Curious? Keep reading!

Scientists in physics

Physics is one of the main branches of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It contains many fields of study within it, like nuclear physics, mechanics, electronics, etc. and it is closely linked with mathematics.

Even though we consider physics a separate branch nowadays, the separation between the sciences is not as clear as it may seem. For centuries, scientists who contributed to physics also contributed to mathematics, chemistry and even biology. Thus, some names might be renowned in several fields. In fact, in this article, you might find names that you have heard of in other sciences before.

Marie Curie (1867 - 1934) is famous not only for her work in physics but also in chemistry, and Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662) touched upon many important disciplines apart from physics, including biology and philosophy.

Galileo Galilei

One of the most famous polymaths (a person who is interested and knows in topics that cover a broad range of knowledge) is Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642). Born in Italy in the 16th century, he was an astronomer, physicist and engineer. Galileo is famous for his numerous contributions to the fields of astronomy and physics, including:

  • the discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter,
  • the observation of sunspots,
  • his work on the laws of motion and the principle of inertia, and
  • the invention of the telescope.

Famous Physicists, Portrait of Galileo Galilei, StudySmarterFig. 1. Galileo Galilei portrait.

Galileo's support for the heliocentric model of the solar system, proposed by Copernicus in 1543, brought him into conflict with the Catholic Church. Copernicus' book on the subject had been banned, as the heliocentric model was considered heresy by the Church. Galileo was judged for initially supporting this model, and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. If he had not renounced the heliocentric model during the trial, he could have been sentenced to death.

The heliocentric model of the solar system states that the Sun is the centre of the solar system and that the planets (like the Earth, Venus, Jupiter, etc.) revolve around it. The idea that the Sun is the centre of our solar system is correct, however, the model had to be revised later as it contained a lot of inaccuracies.

Famous nuclear physicists

The study of atomic nuclei and their properties and behaviour constitutes the field of nuclear physics. This area of physics encompasses an investigation into the composition and structure of atomic nuclei, as well as the interactions that occur between atomic nuclei and subatomic particles. Nuclear physics also encompasses the applications of nuclear energy in diverse fields, including energy production, medicine, and materials science.

The applications of nuclear physics range from life-saving uses such as tests and treatments for cancer to mass-destruction weapons like the atomic bomb. All of these applications are owed in part to the famous nuclear physicists that paved the way to where we are now:

  • Lise Meitner (1878 - 1968): Meitner was an Austrian physicist who is best known for her contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission. She was one of the few women in her field during her time and faced discrimination due to her sex and Jewish heritage.
  • Enrico Fermi (1901-1954): Fermi was an Italian physicist who was instrumental in the development of the first nuclear reactor. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on nuclear reactions.
  • Marie Curie (1867 - 1934): Curie was a Polish-born physicist and chemist who is best known for her pioneering work in the field of radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in different fields, and the first female professor at the University of Paris.
  • Robert Oppenheimer (1904 - 1967): Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. He is often referred to as the "father of the atomic bomb." However, he opposed the creation of the hydrogen bomb, and following the war, Oppenheimer became an outspoken opponent of nuclear weapons and a leading advocate for arms control and disarmament.
  • Niels Bohr (1885 - 1962): Bohr made important contributions to the development of quantum mechanics and the understanding of atomic structure. He proposed the Bohr model of the atom, which describes electrons as orbiting the nucleus in discrete energy levels.

Table 1. Famous nuclear physicists - name, birth and death dates, significant contributions and photo
Lise Meitner7 November 1878, Austria-Hungary27 October 1968, England
  • Discovery of nuclear fission
  • Protactinium
  • Auger–Meitner effect
  • Meitner–Hupfeld effect
Famous Physicists, Lise Meitner receiving the Fermi award, StudySmarter
Fig. 2. Lise Meitner receiving the Fermi award. Wikimedia Commons
Enrico Fermi29 September 1901, Italy28 November 1954, USA
  • First self-sustaining nuclear chain
  • Fermion
  • Fermi gas
  • Fermi-Dirac statistics
  • Fermi's golden rule
  • Fermi method
  • Fermi paradox
  • Fermi theory of beta decay
  • Thomas-Fermi model and screening
  • Chandrasekhar-Fermi method

Famous Physicists, Portrait of Enrico Fermi, StudySmarterFig.3 Enrico Fermi portrait.

Marie Curie7 November 1867, Poland4 July 1934, France
  • Nuclear research pioneer
  • Discovery of polonium and radium
Famous Physicists, Marie Curie portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 6. Marie Curie portrait. Wikimedia Commons
Robert Oppenheimer22 April 1904, USA18 February 1967, USA

  • Nuclear weapons development
  • Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff equation
  • Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit
  • Oppenheimer–Phillips process
  • Born–Oppenheimer approximation

Famous Physicists, Robert Oppenheimer, StudySmarterFig. 4. Oppenheimer at ground zero of the atomic bomb trials

Niels Bohr7 October 1885, Denmark18 November 1962, Denmark
  • Bohr magneton
  • Bohr atomic model
  • Bohr radius
  • Bohr–Kramers–Slater theory
  • Bohr–Van Leeuwen theorem
  • Bohr–Sommerfeld theory
  • Complementarity
Famous Physicists, Niels Bohr portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 5. Niels Bohr portrait. Wikimedia Commons

Famous theoretical physicists

Theoretical physics is a branch of physics that employs mathematical models and abstractions to help comprehend and elucidate natural phenomena. This field is particularly useful in areas where experimental data is limited or absent and paves the way for future demonstrations. Theoretical physicists devise theories and hypotheses using advanced mathematical concepts, to describe the behaviour of the universe on both a microscopic and macroscopic level.

The work of theoretical physicists is centred on developing new models and theories that can explain existing observations and make predictions regarding the behaviour of the universe. The scope of their research encompasses a vast array of topics, including quantum mechanics, general relativity, and particle physics. Some of the most renowned theoretical physicists are:

  • Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955): Einstein is known for his theories of relativity, which transformed our understanding of space and time. He also made significant contributions to quantum mechanics and the development of the atomic bomb, which he later opposed for ethical reasons.
  • Stephen Hawking (1942 - 2018): Hawking was an English physicist currently known for his work on black holes and the origins of the universe. You might know him from his multiple popular science books like "A Brief History of Time", or the movie based on his life, "The History of Everything".
  • Richard Feynman (1918 - 1988): Feynman specialised in quantum mechanics. He proposed the concept of quantum electrodynamics, which describes the interactions between particles and electromagnetic fields. Feynman also made contributions to the development of the atomic bomb.
  • Max Planck: Max Planck was a German theoretical physicist who is considered one of the founders of quantum mechanics. He is known for his work on the relationship between energy and frequency, which led to the development of the concept of the photon. In Germany, the Max Planck Society is a prestigious university-independent research compendium of 86 research institutes spanning from physics to law.
  • Erwin Schrödinger: Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian theoretical physicist whose research focused on quantum mechanics. He is best known for his thought experiment involving a cat, known as "Schrödinger's cat". The experiment is designed to demonstrate the paradoxical nature of quantum superposition, which is the idea that subatomic particles can exist in multiple states at the same time.

Table 2. Famous theoretical scientists - names, birth and death dates, significant contributions and photos.
Albert Einstein14 March 1879, German Empire18 April 1955, USA
  • General and special relativity
  • Photoelectric effect
  • Mass-energy equivalence (\(E = mc^2\))
  • Planck-Einstein relation (\(E = hf\))
Famous Physicists, Albert Einstein portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 7. Albert Einstein portrait. Wikimedia Commons
Stephen Hawking8 January 194214 March 2018
  • Singularity theorem
  • Second law of black hole dynamics
  • Hawking radiation
Famous Physicists, Stephen Hawking portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 8. Stephen Hawking portrait. Wikimedia Commons
Richard Feynman11 May 1918, USA15 February, 1988
  • Manhattan Project
  • Acoustic wave equation
  • Bethe–Feynman formula
  • Feynman diagrams, gauge, point, propagator, parametrization
  • Feynman–Kac formula
  • Hellmann–Feynman theorem
  • Heaviside-Feynman formula
  • V−A theory
  • Brownian ratchet
  • Feynman–Stueckelberg interpretation
  • One-electron universe
  • Path integral formulation
  • Quantum cellular automata, computing, dissipation, electrodynamics, hydrodynamics, logic gates, turbulence
  • Resummation
  • Shaft passer
  • Sticky bead argument
  • Synthetic molecular motor
  • Universal quantum simulator
  • Vortex ring model
  • Wheeler–Feynman absorber theory
  • Variational perturbation theory
Famous Physicists, Richard Feynman portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 9. Richard Feynman portrait in class. Wikimedia Commons
Max Planck23 April 1858, German Confederation4 October 1947, Allied-occupied Germany
  • Planck constant
  • Planck postulate
  • Planck's law of black body radiation
  • Planck–Einstein relation
  • Planck units
  • Planckian locus
  • Boltzmann–Planck equation
  • Fokker–Planck equation
  • Nernst–Planck equation

Famous Physicists, Portrait of Max Planck, StudySmarterFig. 10. Max Planck portrait. Wikimedia Commons

Erwin Schrödinger12 August 1887, Austria-Hungary4 January 1961, Austria
  • Schrödinger equation
  • Schrödinger's cat
  • Schrödinger method
  • Schrödinger functional
  • Schrödinger group
  • Schrödinger field
  • Rayleigh-Schrödinger perturbation
  • Robertson–Schrödinger uncertainty relations
  • Schrödinger–HJW theorem
  • Schrödinger's pure-affine theory
  • Qualia
  • Quantum entanglement
  • Quantum superposition
  • Quantum steering

Famous Physicists, Portrait of Erwin Schrödinger, StudySmarterFig. 11. Erwin Schrödinger portrait. Wikimedia Commons.

Famous female physicists

We have already mentioned two of those who might be the most famous female physicists of all time: Marie Curie and Lise Meitner. However, many more women have participated and significantly contributed to physics, both in the past and in the present.
  • Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 - 1997): Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American physicist who is especially known for the discovery of parity violation in nuclear physics. Parity is a fundamental symmetry in physics that relates to the behaviour of a physical system under mirror reflection. In certain types of nuclear decay, such as beta decay, the parity of the resulting particles is not conserved. This means that the resulting particles are not mirror images of their initial state, and the process violates parity symmetry. The discovery of parity violation in nuclear decay was a significant milestone in the study of fundamental symmetries in physics.
  • Vera Rubin (1928 - 2016): Rubin was an American astronomer who focused on explaining dark matter. She was the first woman to be allowed to observe at the Palomar Observatory, and she was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1993.
  • Emmy Noether (1882 - 1935): Noether was a German mathematician and physicist who made significant contributions to the development of abstract algebra and theoretical physics. She is known for her theorem, which relates symmetries in physics to conservation laws, and she was the first woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Erlangen.
Table 3. Famous female scientists: names, birth and death dates, contributions and photos
Chien-Shiung Wu31 May 191216 February 1997
  • Manhattan Project
  • Wu experiment
  • Parity violation
  • Quantum entanglement

Famous Physicists, Chien-Shiung Wu, StudySmarterFig. 12. Chien-Shiung Wu portrait. Wikimedia Commons

Vera Rubin23 July 192825 December 2016
  • Galaxy rotation problem
  • Dark matter contributions
  • Rubin–Ford effect

Famous Physicists, Vera Rubin, StudySmarterFig. 13. Vera Rubin portrait. Wikimedia Commons

Emmy Noether23 March 188214 April 1935
  • Abstract algebra
  • Theoretical physics
  • Noether's theorem
  • Noetherian ring
  • Lasker–Noether theorem

Famous Physicists, Emmy Noether, StudySmarterFig. 14. Emmy Noether portrait. Wikimedia Commons

American Physicists

There are important physicists of diverse nationalities. However, in this article, we will focus on scientists from the United States and Britain.

For a deeper understanding on scientists from other countries, you can read the following articles on each individual scientist, or our German article "Berühmte Phycisisten".

  • Steven Weinberg (1933 - 2021): Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for his work on the unification of two of the fundamental forces of nature - the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces. He has also made significant contributions to the theory of cosmology and the study of particle physics.
  • Murray Gell-Mann (1929 - 2019): Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969 for his work on the classification of subatomic particles known as hadrons. He also proposed the concept of quarks, which are now considered to be the building blocks of protons and neutrons.
  • Lisa Randall (1962 - ): Randall is a theoretical physicist who has significantly contributed to the field of particle physics and the study of extra dimensions. She is known for her work on the Randall-Sundrum model, which proposes the existence of a hidden extra dimension of space.
Table 4. Famous American Physicists: names, birth and death dates, contributions and photo
Steven Weinberg3 May 1933, USA23 July 2021, USA
  • Electroweak interaction
  • Weinberg angle
  • Weinberg–Witten theorem
  • Joos–Weinberg equation
  • Asymptotic safety
  • Minimal subtraction scheme
  • Unitarity gauge
Famous Physicists, Steven Weinberg, StudySmarter

Fig. 15. Steven Weinberg portrait. Wikimedia Commons.

Murray Gell-Mann15 September 1929, USA24 May 2019, USA
  • Coining the term "quark"
  • Quark model
  • Quantum chromodynamics
  • Neutral particle oscillation
  • Gell-Mann and Low theorem
  • Gell-Mann matrices
  • Gell-Mann−Low renormalization group equation
  • Gell-Mann–Nishijima formula
  • Gell-Mann–Okubo mass formula
  • Sigma model of pions
  • Seesaw theory of neutrino masses
  • Plectics
Famous Physicists, Murray Gell-Mann portrait, StudySmarter

Fig. 16. Murray Gell-Mann. Wikimedia Commons.

Lisa Randall18 June 1962, USA---
  • Randall–Sundrum model
  • Warped Passages (2005)
Famous Physicists, Lisa Randall portrait StudySmarter

Fig. 17. Lisa Randall portrait. Wikimedia Commons

British Physicists

As with many other countries, Britain has fostered great physicists, historical and contemporary.

  • Isaac Newton (1642 - 1726): who doesn't know Newton? He has to be one of the most famous physicists in history. He is known for his laws of motion and his theory of gravitation, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Newton also made important contributions to the development of calculus.
  • James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879): Maxwell was a Scottish physicist who is known for his work on electromagnetic theory. He proposed a set of equations that describe the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields, which helped pave the way for the development of modern electronics.
  • Paul Dirac (1902 - 1984): Dirac was an English physicist who worked in the field of quantum mechanics. He proposed the existence of antimatter and formulated the famous Dirac equation, which describes the behaviour of electrons in a relativistic quantum field.
  • Michael Faraday (1791 - 1867): Faraday was an English physicist and chemist who made important contributions to the study of electromagnetism. He discovered electromagnetic induction and formulated Faraday's laws of electrolysis, which describe the relationship between electric current and chemical reactions.
Table 5. Famous British physicists: names, birth and death dates, contributions, photo.
Isaac Newton4 January 1643, England31 March 1727, Great Britain
  • Newtonian mechanics
  • Universal gravitation
  • Newton's laws of motion
  • Newton's law of cooling
  • Newton's identities
  • Newton–Gauss line
  • Newtonian fluid
  • Newton's rings
Famous Physicists, Isaac Newton portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 18. Isaac Newton painted portrait. Wikimedia Commons
James Clerk Maxwell13 June 1831, Scotland5 November 1879, England
  • Maxwell relations
  • Maxwell–Betti theorem
  • Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution
  • Maxwell–Boltzmann statistics
  • Maxwell–Stefan diffusion
Famous Physicists, James Clerk Maxwell portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 19. James Clerk Maxwell painted portrait. Wikimedia Commons
Paul Dirac8 August 1902, England20 October 1984, USA
  • Dirac–Coulomb–Breit Equation
  • Dirac constant
  • Dirac delta function
  • Dirac equation
  • Dirac fermion
Famous Physicists, Paul Dirac portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 20. Paul Dirac portrait. Wikimedia Commons
Michael Faraday22 September 1791, England25 August 1867, England
  • Faraday's law of induction
  • Faraday constant
  • Faraday's laws of electrolysis
Famous Physicists, Michael Faraday portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 21. Michael Faraday portrait. Wikimedia Commons

Famous physicists today

Physics is not dead! Although the research in physics (and other STEM branches) has been radically transformed over the last centuries, and many extremely important discoveries have been made, there is still a lot to unravel within this scientific discipline. Thus, the contribution of current physicists to the field is extremely important and deserves recognition.

Remember, they might be the Einstein of future generations!

  • Lisa Randall (1962 - ), already mentioned in this article, is a theoretical physicist and professor at Harvard University. Her work focuses on particle physics and cosmology, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between gravity and the structure of the universe. Randall is best known for her work on the theory of extra dimensions,which proposes that our universe may be embedded within a larger, higher-dimensional space. Her work has helped to explain why gravity is so much weaker than other fundamental forces and has provided a framework for understanding the behaviour of particles at high energies.

  • Brian Greene (1963 - ) is a theoretical physicist and string theorist whose work focuses on the mathematical underpinnings of the universe and the nature of space and time. Greene is best known for his work on string theory, which proposes that the fundamental building blocks of the universe are not particles but rather tiny, one-dimensional objects called strings. His research has helped to explain the nature of gravity and has provided a framework for understanding the behaviour of particles at high energies.

  • Michio Kaku (1947 - ) whose work focuses on the unification of the fundamental forces of nature and the nature of time. Kaku is best known for his work on string theory, which proposes that the fundamental building blocks of the universe are not particles but rather tiny, one-dimensional objects called strings. He has also worked on the theory of everything, which seeks to unify all of the fundamental forces of nature into a single, cohesive framework.

  • Kip Thorne (1940 - )is a theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate who works on the properties of space and time, as well as the behaviour of matter and energy in extreme environments. Thorne is best known for his work on the theory of relativity, particularly the study of gravitational waves. He was one of the founders of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which successfully detected gravitational waves for the first time in 2015. This groundbreaking discovery opened up a new window into the universe, allowing scientists to observe and study objects and phenomena that were previously hidden from view.

  • Ed Witten (1951 - ) is a theoretical physicist and mathematician who focuses on the unification of the fundamental forces of nature and the nature of space and time. Witten is best known for his work on string theory. He also developed M-theory, a more encompassing theory that includes multiple dimensions and branes.

Table 6. Famous scientists of today: names, date of birth, contributions and photo
Brian Greene9 February 1963, USA
  • Contributions to string theory
  • The Elegant Universe
  • The Fabric of the Cosmos
  • The Hidden Reality
Famous Physicists, Brian Greene portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 22. Brian Greene portrait. Wikimedia Commons
Michio Kaku24 January 1947, USA
  • Contributions to string field theory
  • Physics of the Impossible
  • Physics of the Future
  • The Future of the Mind
  • The God Equation
Famous Physicists, Michio Kaku portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 23. Michio Kaku portrait. Wikimedia Commons
Kip Thorne1 June 1940, USA
  • Thorne-Żytkow object
  • Thorne-Hawking-Preskill bet
  • Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO)
  • Gravitational waves
  • Gravitation
Famous Physicists, Kip Thorne portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 24. Kip Thorne portrait. Wikimedia Commons
Ed Witten26 August 1951, USA
  • M-theory
  • Seiberg–Witten theory
  • Seiberg–Witten map
  • Seiberg–Witten invariants
Famous Physicists, Ed Witten portrait, StudySmarter
Fig. 25. Ed Witten portrait. Wikimedia Commons

Current famous physicists are normally not only physicists, but they also dedicate their time to spreading their love and understanding of physics to the rest of the world. In other words, they are science communicators and authors of scientific non-fiction books as well as researchers. Their contribution in that respect is harder to quantify, but extremely important too, to help dispel myths surrounding science and motivate future generations to participate in science or become scientifically literate. As the world becomes more technological, it is important that we understand the basics of science and technology to keep up.

Famous Physicists - Key takeaways

  • Historically famous physicists rarely contributed to just one discipline, but rather their knowledge allowed them to contribute to several branches of STEM.
  • Current physicists are many times also science communicators, trying to raise awareness of how our planet works and motivating future generations into contributing to science too.
  • Some of the most famous physicists of all time include Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Niels Bohr and Marie Curie, among others.



Frequently Asked Questions about Famous Physicists

Some of the most famous physicists are Galileo Galilei, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Richard Feynman, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking and Niels Bohr

According to his IQ score, Albert Einstein could be the smartest physicist (IQ of 205 -225). However, IQ scores are limited in the information they consider and provide.

Stephen Hawking is one of the most broadly recognised modern physicists.

The average IQ of PhD physicists is 140. The highest IQ is theoretically 200.

Steven Weinberg is possibly one of the most famous living scientists, together with Michio Kaku, Kip Thorne, Lisa Randall, Ed Witten and Brian Greene.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Who was Lise Meitner?

What were some of Lise Meitner's major scientific accomplishments?

Why was Lise Meitner's co-discovery of nuclear fission significant?


Who was Lise Meitner?

Lise Meitner was a physicist, known for her significant contributions to nuclear physics and the co-discovery of nuclear fission. She also broke barriers as a woman in a field dominated by men in her time.

What were some of Lise Meitner's major scientific accomplishments?

Two of Lise Meitner's biggest accomplishments were the discovery of the radioactive element, Protactinium, and the co-discovery of nuclear fission.

Why was Lise Meitner's co-discovery of nuclear fission significant?

The co-discovery of nuclear fission by Lise Meitner was significant because it laid the foundation for the development of atomic weapons and nuclear energy, greatly influencing the 20th century.

Who was Lise Meitner and what was her major scientific discovery?

Lise Meitner was a pioneering female nuclear physicist in the early 20th century who co-discovered nuclear fission, helping to usher in the atomic age and redefine global politics, warfare, and energy resources.

What significant challenges did Lise Meitner face in her career as a scientist?

Lise Meitner faced gender discrimination within the male-dominated field of science and was forced to flee Germany due to her Jewish heritage and the rise of anti-Semitism during World War II.

What is the impact and legacy of Lise Meitner's work?

Lise Meitner’s work, particularly her co-discovery of nuclear fission, ushered in the age of nuclear power, impacting global politics and warfare. As a female scientist, she also set an example for future generations, breaking gender norms.

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