The Top 5
No. 1: Albert Einstein, The Genius (1879-1955)
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” - Einstein
His name is synonymous with genius. His insights into and theories on the workings of the universe took the human mind where it had never been before, and his conclusions so revolutionary, physicists today still marvel at his accomplishments. A modern physicist recently commented that he “still cannot see how Einstein thought of it all.” A contemporary said of Einstein’s work: “A staggering leap forward in human intelligence.” In Time magazine’s review of the 20th Century, Einstein was named the Person of the Century and the greatest mind of the century.
Before Einstein, scientists saw the universe as relatively staid with the precision and predictability of a Swiss watch. After Einstein, scientists recognized the universe for the colorful, chaotic and unpredictable place it is. Much of science’s understanding of the universe is built on the pillars of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and his Nobel Prize winning work on the photoelectric effect, which in essence discovered the photon.
Einstein carved his reputation while working in Switzerland and he came to the United States to escape the growing Nazi threat in the 1930s. He settled in Princeton and worked at the Advanced Studies Institute for over 20 years. His reputation attracted the greatest minds of the century to New Jersey and cemented Princeton’s place as one of the most vital educational institutions on the planet and an incubator for innovation.
No. 2: Thomas Edison, Celebrity Inventor (1847-1931)
“I start where the last man left off.” – Edison
“There are no rules here. We are trying to accomplish something.” That was Edison’s famous reply when a reporter asked him how he and his associates had achieved over 1,000 patents. He is most known for the inventing the practical electric light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera - three innovations which created new industries, companies and literally millions of new jobs.
Edison also is credited with inventing the fluoroscope (X-rays); kinescope (television recorder); the electronic stock ticker; and a series of enhancements to the first generation of telephones. Because of these successes, Edison became the first “celebrity” businessman much the way Steve Jobs or Bill Gates is recognized today. Edison also is credited with building the first-ever industrial labs in Menlo Park, a slice of Middlesex County now named in his honor. Shortly thereafter, he built labs in West Orange.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Edison was a founding member of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce in 1911. In perhaps the greatest homage, hundreds of towns, companies and products today bear Edison’s name.
No. 3: Selman Waksman, The Rutgers Life Saver (1888-1973)
It’s impossible to estimate how many lives Waksman and his Rutgers students saved. For two decades, they turned their laboratory at Rutgers into an antibiotic creating machine and their work helped conquer once-rampant diseases including tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid fever and bubonic plague. Most notable among these new drugs was streptomycin - the discovery of which earned Waksman a Nobel Prize in 1952. The patent for streptomycin was awarded to Merck and when the drug was still in demand, Merck reassigned the patent back to Rutgers so it could share in the financial rewards. Using proceeds from his Nobel Prize and the profits from streptomycin, Waksman created the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology on Rutgers’ Piscataway campus.
No. 4: John Bardeen (1908-1991), Walter Brattain (1902-1987), and William Shockley (1910-1989)
Physicist John Bardeen drove home from a day at Bell Labs in 1947, and was asked by his wife what he did at work that day. Bardeen replied, “We invented something.” That was an understatement. What he and colleagues Brattain and Shockley invented was the transistor, a device the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers called “the most important invention of the 20th century.” It made possible the modern electronics we take for granted today. Before the transistor, electronics were powered by vacuum tubes, large glass tubes which were becoming more impractical as the demand for electronic equipment exploded after World War II. The tubes were too large and they were prone to overheat. The transistor made it easier and more efficient to transmit electricity. Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley were awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for their work in 1956.
No. 5 Lyman Spitzer, The Visionary Physicist (1914-1997)
Spitzer, the Director of Princeton University’s Observatory, led a dramatic expansion of its astronomical research. In the 1950’s he conceived of a project that could generate fusion power, the process by which stars generate energy. The work led to the creation of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, which today is one of the world’s most prominent research labs. Spitzer also blazed a pioneering path in astronomy by conceiving of space-based telescopes that allow astronomers to see farther and clearer into the universe than ever before. His work resulted in NASA’s Hubble Telescope, launched in 1990. In 2003, NASA launched another space-based telescope named in Spitzer’s honor. It was the first telescope to spot light reflected by a planet outside of our solar system.