Notable Scientists

Do you really know who created the World Wide Web? Although scientists are responsible for so much of what goes on around us, very few of them are known by name to the general public. Below are a few scientists whose names may be unfamiliar to you but whose accomplishments can inspire you to reach for the stars, which is quite literally what two of them did!

Walter Luis Alverez, Noble Prize–winning Physicist

Winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968 must not have come as too much of a surprise to Walter Luis Alverez. After all, the California native had science in his blood: Both his father and his grandfather were physicians. Alverez attended the University of Chicago, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and a Ph.D. While he was a graduate student, Alverez created an apparatus of Geiger counter tubes arranged as a cosmic ray telescope to measure the East-West Effect of cosmic rays. This experiment deduced that primary cosmic rays were positively charged. After leaving the University of Chicago, he went to work for the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, where, with a group of theoretical physicists, he devised experiments to observe K-electron capture in radioactive nuclei, predicted beta decay theory, and devised a special Geiger counter to detect only “soft” X-rays from K capture. Alverez eventually moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which was creating a radiation lab with the best physicists around. He worked on creating a number of radar projects, many of which were used by the U.S. government. Later on, Alverez redeveloped the Glaser “bubble chamber” used for visualizing particle tracks to function with hydrogen, which eventually earned him the Nobel Prize.

Tim Berners-Lee, Creator of the World Wide Web

London-born Tim Berners-Lee attended Queens College, Oxford, and received a bachelor’s degree in physics. While working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, he wrote the computer program that helped the scientists keep track of their work and projects. The program basically linked a network of computers to exchange scientific ideas and information. This program eventually became the information-sharing system we know today as the World Wide Web.

Benjamin Carson, Pediatric Neurosurgeon

His early childhood may have suggested that he would end up leading a difficult, unrewarding life, but Benjamin Carson turned out to be a pioneer in surgical procedures on infants and unborn children and is currently the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital—a position he achieved when he was only in his early 30s. Carson grew up in relative poverty in Detroit. His parents divorced when he was eight, and his mother worked at two or three jobs to provide for Carson and his brother. Carson did not reflect his mother’s work ethic—he did poorly in school and developed a violent temper. That all started to change in the fifth grade, when his mother altered the way Carson approached studying. She cut back the amount of television he watched and required him to read two books every week. As a result, he began to take his education more seriously, and by the end of the year he was at the top of his class. Carson eventually enrolled at Yale University, where he studied psychology, and then at the University of Michigan Medical School. His residency was in neurosurgery at John Hopkins Hospital. In 1987 Carson led the first surgery to separate conjoined twins, the first time such an operation successfully saw the survival of both twins.

Stephen Hawking, World-renowned Physicist

Born during World War II in London, Stephen Hawking was one of four children of a research biologist father and a political activist mother. He would eventually become one of the greatest scientific minds since Albert Einstein. But that was not before he became inspired by his math teacher in high school and developed a love for the subject. He began his college career at Oxford University, where he majored in physics, and continued on to Cambridge, where received a Ph.D. While he was working on his doctorate, he developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a crippling neuromuscular disease, commonly called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” that would eventually leave him paralyzed. Hawking’s main area of research is theoretical physics, with a specialty in theoretical cosmology and quantum gravity. His research has opened wide the doors to challenge many long-held beliefs, such as those of the nature of black holes, and has given us a better understanding of the “Big Bang” theory.

Ayanna Howard, Robotics Expert

Although watching less television as child was one of the things that helped Benjamin Carson turn his life around (see above), it was this exact same medium that inspired Ayanna Howard to devote her life to science. As a child, Howard was fascinated with the 1970s television show The Bionic Woman: She wanted to build the next one. Howard graduated from Brown University with an engineering degree and went on to earn her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. She worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help make robots that explore areas where humans cannot go or where they are limited, such as Mars or the moon. In 2005, as an expert in the fields of robotics, autonomous control and artificial intelligence, she founded the Human-Automation Systems (HumAnS) Lab, which is centered around the concept of humanized intelligence, the process of embedding cognitive capacity into the control path of autonomous systems.

Shirley Ann Jackson, Physicist

Supported by parents who instilled in her the importance of education, Shirley Ann Jackson excelled in math and science. She eventually went on to study theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She earned a Ph.D. in 1973, becoming the first African-American woman to do so at MIT. Jackson’s area of interest is subatomic particles, the tiny units from which which all matter is made. She examines and studies the fundamental properties of materials in a particle accelerator. She also is interested in electronic and optical properties of layered systems and nuclear science. In fact, in 1995 then President Clinton appointed her to serve as chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Jackson is also president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a major research institute “dedicated to the application of science to the common purposes in life” in upstate New York and the oldest technical university in the English-speaking world.

Mae Carol Jemison, Astronaut and Physician

Mae Carol Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut to travel into outer space, always knew she wanted to be a scientist. After graduating high school, she attended Stanford University at the young age of 16 to study chemical engineering and African-American studies. She eventually went to Cornell Medical School and then to the Los Angeles Medical Center to complete her residency. Jemison spent several years in various countries practicing medicine for the Peace Corps and researching vaccines for the Centers for Disease Control before returning to the United States. In 1987 she was accepted into NASA’s astronaut program. The rest is history: Jemison made her first and only flight into space in 1992 aboard the STS-47 as a mission specialist.

Mario Molina, Noble Prize–winning Chemist

Born in Mexico City, Mario Molina was so fascinated with science as a child that he converted a room in his house into his own personal lab where he spent hours playing with chemistry sets and staring at amoebae through a toy microscope. As a high school student, Molina decided that he wanted to become a research chemist. He attended the National University of Mexico and earned a bachelor’ degree in chemical engineering. While earning a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, Molina was a research assistant studying molecular dynamics using chemical lasers. He studied the distribution of internal energy in the products of chemical and photochemical reactions. He also developed the Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)-Ozone Depletion Theory after realizing that the chlorine atoms produced by the decomposition of CFC destroy ozone. Molina went on to investigate the issue of seasonal depletion (the hole in the ozone layer) in Antarctica and show how it was happening—an investigation that was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.