With the restriction of physicists after the year 1900, were there any self-taught physicists that achieved fame without having gone to university?

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    $\begingroup$ Michael Faraday would suit but your condition! $\endgroup$
    – user1709
    Jun 25, 2015 at 11:00
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    $\begingroup$ Ramanujan was not a physicist. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2015 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ Oliver Heaviside left formal education at 16. He died in 1925. He borders around your date restriction. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2015 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe this is sort of a trivia question: Which Nobel laureate in physics did not have a degree in physics? $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2015 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer this question at all, but Witten didn't (officially) study either mathematics or physics until his PhD. $\endgroup$
    – hjhjhj57
    Jun 27, 2015 at 7:47

3 Answers 3


A similar question was asked to the theoretical physicist Gerald 't Hooft on his page 'Theoretical Physics as a Challenge'. It is mentioned at the bottom of the linked page:

Mr. Hisham Kotry came with an important question: "... Two years ago I decided to self-study theoretical physics by following the syllabus of a renown university and the advice from your page and now I'm half-way through the journey but I was wondering about what happens next? ...Do you know of anyone who got tenure at a physics department or any research institute based on studies he did in his own time without holding a university degree?"

T'Hooft quoted the following message from a contributor to answer a part of the question:

3/04/06: Message received from John Glasscock, Bloomington, IN: The only one I know of currently is John Moffatt at U Toronto, who was a student of Abdus Salam at Imperial College, London. He started life as a painter in Paris, had no undergraduate degree, taught himself, corresponded with Einstein, and was admitted, based on his demonstrated original work, at IC. (Source: Jo�o Magueijo, Faster than the Speed of Light. Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA. 2003.)

I'm not sure if the example I quoted satisfies the "famous" criteria you stated in your question, but I hope this helped!

  • $\begingroup$ It seems that self-taught is no-longer possible for one to establish himself in physics community. $\endgroup$ Jun 30, 2015 at 3:13
  • $\begingroup$ John Moffat does hold a Ph.D so he technically has a university degree. He just doesn't have an undergraduate degree. $\endgroup$
    – cspirou
    Jul 15, 2015 at 8:28

The best example I can think of is George Green. George Green quit his studies at the age of 9 to work with his father and eventually was owner of a mill. He spent the majority of his life as a miller but found time to work on advanced math and developed concepts far ahead of his own time. He published an essay on electromagnetism in a little known journal that would eventually have a wide reaching impact in nearly every branch of physics. He is the namesake for Green's theorem and Green's function as well as some other important mathematical objects.

Eventually he did go to Cambridge at the age of 40 and earned his degree but this was well after his most important work. So it can be argued that he achieved this without going to university.

An interesting case to mention is Freeman Dyson. While he did earn a masters degree, he never earned a doctorate but was still able to work as a mathematical physicist. Many people, including Steven Weinberg, believe he should have been awarded a Nobel Prize for the work he's done.

  • $\begingroup$ The question wasn't clear but upon reading again I can see that it is stipulating physicist born after 1900. Which might void my answer. However most famous physicists even before 1900 were affiliated with a university of some sort. $\endgroup$
    – cspirou
    Jul 15, 2015 at 9:02

I'm not sure if you count applied physics (aerodynamics) as well, but if you do, I have an answer. The Wright Brothers never finished high school and never went to university, and they invented their machine in 1905, so that is after 1900.

  • $\begingroup$ @wythagoras-you are correct my friend,then the list of autodidact physicists is (i)Albert Einstein,(ii)Stephen Hawking,(iii)Galileo Galilei,(iv)Doc Brown,(v)Gregor Mendel,(v)Ignaz Semmelweis,(vi)George Zweig & (vi)Ludwig Boltzmann. $\endgroup$
    – user2620
    Jul 22, 2015 at 3:07
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    $\begingroup$ @AnonymousTeacher: That is one weird comment. What is your point? $\endgroup$ Jul 22, 2015 at 10:39
  • $\begingroup$ @RoryDaulton cc wythagoras: It was converted from an "answer" to a comment. It may be dealt with further. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 22, 2015 at 20:54

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