Everybody knows of the Nobel Prize, but do you know what exactly it is?

It’s ok if you don’t, it’s a prize reserved for those who’ve dedicated their lives to research and academia, and as such it doesn’t always become general knowledge.

It’s unlikely that many people you encounter on the street would be able to tell you without hesitation who won the last chemistry or physics Nobel Prize, for example. Ask them about the last Super Bowl, World Cup, or another significant sporting event though and you’ll probably get more enthusiastic guesses.

This is a shame since we should revere those scientists and academics who put everything on the line to move civilisation forward and aim to make the world a better place.

After all, Nobel Prize winners are the ones out there discovering new elements, developing useful tools for gene modification, and contributing to humankind in a way few people do.

That’s not to say that they’re the only academics that matter (don’t worry, we’ll get into controversies later), but Nobel Prize Laureates are certainly worthy of wide praise for their efforts.

There are two science-based Nobel Prizes: chemistry and physics. Chemistry Nobel Prize winners are often celebrated for their advancements in the field, and the Nobel Prize in chemistry winners feature many Brits among their ranks. From the first chemistry, Nobel Prize winner to the most recent, all chemistry Nobel Prize candidates are worthy of great admiration.

In this guide, though, our focus will be on physics Nobel Prizes. Without further ado, let’s dive into the most impressive physics achievements and the most distinguished Nobel Prize winners.

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What is the Nobel Prize in Physics?

physics
Physics is concerned with the world we live in and the things and forces around us, so any Nobel Prize winner in science is worth paying attention to. Unsplash.

The Nobel Prize in physics was first established in 1901, several years after the death of the scientist it’s named after, Alfred Nobel.

Alfred Nobel dedicated his life to the sciences, to the extent that he was the first to discover dynamite. He was also a wealthy businessman who undertook many ventures and acquired a sizable fortune over his lifetime.

This fortune, believed to be in the region of $200 million in modern terms, was donated to the Nobel Prize Foundation a few years before Nobel passed away in 1896.

The Swede wanted nothing more than to commemorate the accomplishments of his peers in science and other academic disciplines, and the Nobel Prize was his way of giving back.

The very first physics Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901, and the award went to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, for his ‘extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him.’

The German worked out of several universities before settling at the University of Munich, where he would do all of his research until the day he died. He wanted to emigrate to the United States, but these plans never came to fruition.

As for his contribution to physics, Röntgen spent his time studying cathode radiation and eventually discovered X-ray radiation and how it can be used as a tool for examining the inside of one’s body.

A worthy winner of the first-ever physics Nobel Prize, wouldn’t you say?

Notable Physics Nobel Prize Winners

albert einstein figure
No Nobel Prize winner - perhaps in any category - has left as big a legacy as this man. Unsplash.

Now it’s time to go through the history books and highlight some of the most notable physics Nobel Prize winners, and what they won the award for.

It would be remiss of us to start this list without first mentioning the man who many believe has made an immense contribution to physics and pushed the science further than most others with his work on Theoretical Physics.

We are, of course, referring to Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein

Whenever the word ‘genius’ is mentioned in a conversation, at least one person will probably conjure up an image of the eccentric Albert Einstein in their mind.

The man is synonymous with the word, and will always be remembered in the world of physics.

To give some background, Einstein was born in Germany and was working at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut at the time he won the award in Berlin (the institute now goes by the Max-Planck-Institut).

His name first started to circulate in the physics community in the early 20th century when he produced a series of cutting edge works in science. His notoriety got him a job at several prestigious universities in eastern Europe, but once the Nazis took power in his native Germany, Einstein moved to the United States and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey.

Einstein is credited with the discovery of the photoelectric effect, among other things.

Donna Strickland

Donna Strickland is another name that is often mentioned as one of the most notable physics Nobel Prize winners.

Strickland, who’s Canadian, won the Nobel Prize as recently as 2018, and it was for her method for generating ‘high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses’. Gérard Mourou, of France, was also credited for this work.

In other words, Strickland did what most of us could only dream of: she got to play with lasers her whole life.

Though we wouldn’t dare to suggest that just because the work could be fun, it wasn’t an incredible achievement, because it clearly was and only came about due to Strickland and Mourou’s tireless work.

Physics Nobel Prize Controversies

Unlike chemistry, which is relatively drama-free (apart from the recent chemistry Nobel Prize 2020 controversy), physics has its fair share of controversies.

The chemistry Nobel Prize 2020 was marred with controversy as scientists who perhaps should have been credited for the award, weren’t.

This is all too familiar a phenomenon in the world of Nobel Prizes, and in no field more than in physics.

Here are some of the most scandalous controversies:

Albert Einstein

Now you might be wondering why Einstein would be listed under a heading about controversies when his Nobel Prize was rightly deserved.

Well, the controversy isn’t about the Nobel Prize he did win but those he didn’t.

That’s right, if you ever thought it strange that Einstein only won a single Nobel Prize in physics despite a lifetime of important discoveries and breakthroughs, then you’re right to think so.

Many people argue that Einstein was unfortunate not to be on the receiving end of several physics Nobel Prizes.

His Annus Mirabilis papers are one example of work that was worthy of recognition on the world stage, as they covered important discoveries pertaining to special relativity.

Others would go on to win Nobel Prizes in areas which arguably Einstein initially made breakthroughs in, so it’s easy to think that he was hard done by.

Satyendra Nath Bose

We can’t help but make yet another reference to Einstein, since Satyendra Nath Bose shares a key role in the Bose-Einstein statistics which went on to win a Nobel Prize in 2001 without him.

Many think it’s a scandal that Bose never received a Nobel Prize for his impressive work on particle statistics, quantum physics, and in advancing the Bose-Einstein condensates theory.

Yet Bose himself didn’t appear fazed by his omission from the ceremony, as he was once quoted as saying ‘I have got all the recognition I deserve’.

LIGO

A far more recent controversy involving the physics Nobel Prize came about in 2017, when Reiner Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish took home the prize for an effort that involved more than a thousand engineers and scientists.

Some don’t see this as a controversy since the rules of the Nobel Prize are that only three people can be credited, and the three scientists themselves thought it unfortunate that the other contributors weren’t honoured, but the fact remains that at times the Nobel Prize seems to omit many contributing scientists.

In case you’re curious, LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) helped bring about the detection of gravitational waves, which is of course a huge deal in the world of physics.

Nobel Prize by Country

world map
Physics is universal, and so it makes sense that the best physicists are spread across the globe. Unsplash.

It’s always interesting to see how countries fare against each other in different metrics.

Whether it’s sports or GDP, it’s good to have an idea of which countries do well in which areas. If anything, it makes for excellent trivia for your local pub quiz!

There have been 25 UK Nobel Prize winners in the category of physics, which puts the UK in the third position if this were a rankings table.

In first place is the United States with 95 Nobel Prize Laureates in physics, and just barely in front of the UK in second place is Germany with 27 physics Nobel Prize winners.

After the UK you’ll find France which has 13 winners to date.

Across both sciences - chemistry and physics - it appears that the countries that produce the most contributions worthy of Nobel Prizes are Germany, the US, the UK, France, Japan, and Switzerland.

Make of this what you will, but it’s certainly encouraging that the UK has so much scientific talent within its shores.

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Samuel

Sam is an English teaching assistant and freelance writer based in southern Spain. He enjoys exploring new places and cultures, and picking up languages along the way.