Particle Physics Timeline 1 - 2 - 3
For over two thousand years people have thought about the fundamental particles from which all matter is made, starting with the gradual development of atomic theory, followed by a deeper understanding of the quantized atom, leading to the recent theory of the Standard Model.

We invite you to explore this history of particle physics with a focus on the scientists and thinkers who helped shape the field of particle physics. The four sections are arranged chronologically. You can use the index to find more information about a specific person or event.

Early Atomic Understanding
Earliest times - 1550 AD. The Greeks gave much to the world of physics by developing the basis of fundamental modern principles as the conservation of matter, atomic theory, and the like. Very few new developments occurred in the centuries following the Greek period. However, as the intense intellectual force of the Renaissance entered the field of physics, Copernicus and other great thinkers began to reject the Greek ideas in favor of new ideas based on empirical methods. Since Copernicus' theories ended the old era of scientific understanding as much as began the new scientific revolution, it is fitting to include him with the ancient thinkers.

624-547 B.C.

Thales of Miletus postulates that water is the basic substance of the Earth. He also was acquainted with the attractive power of magnets and rubbed amber.

580-500 B.C.

Pythagoras held that the Earth was spherical. He sought a mathematical understanding of the universe.

500-428 B.C., 484-424 B.C.

Anaxagoras and Empedocles. Anaxagoras challenged the previous Greek contention about the creation and destruction of matter by teaching that changes in matter are due to different orderings of indivisible particles (thus his teachings were a precursor to the law of the conservation of matter). Empedocles reduced these indivisible partices into four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

460 - 370 B.C.

Democritus developed the theory that the universe consists of empty space and an (almost) infinite number of invisible particles which differ from each other in form, position, and arrangement. All matter is made of indivisible particles called atoms.

384-322 B.C.

Aristotle formalized the gathering of scientific knowledge. While it is difficult to point to one particular theory, the total result of his compilation of knowledge was to provide the fundamental basis of science for a thousand years.

310-230 B.C.

Aristarchus describes a cosmology identical to that proposed by Copernicus 2,000 years later. However, given the great prestige of Aristotle, Aristarchus' heliocentric model was rejected in favor of the geocentric model.

287-212 B.C.

Archimedes was a great pioneer in theoretical physics. He provided the foundations of hydrostatics.

70-147 AD

Ptolemy of Alexandria collected the optical knowledge of the time. He also invented a complex theory of planetary motion.

~1000 AD

Alhazen, an Arab, produced 7 books on optics.

1214 - 1294 AD

Roger Bacon taught that in order to learn the secrets of nature we must first observe. He thus provided the method by which people can develop deductive theories using evidence from the natural world.

1473 - 1543 AD

Nicholaus Copernicus set forth the theory that the earth revolves around the sun. This heliocentric model was revolutionary in that it challenged the previous dogma of scientific authority of Aristotle, and caused a complete scientific and philosophical upheaval.

The Scientific Revolution and Classical Mechanics Timeline
Following the Copernican revolution, it was apparent that scientifc theories could not be accepted without rigorous testing. Communication among scientists increased and spurred more discoveries.

1564 - 1642

Galileo Galilei is considered by many to be the father of modern physics because of his willingness to replace old assumptions in favor of new scientifically deduced theories. He is famous for his celestial theories, and his works on mechanics paved the way for Newton.

1546 - 1601, 1571 - 1630

Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Brahe's accurate celestial data allow Kepler to develop his theory of elliptical planetary motion and provide evidence for the Copernican system. In addition, Kepler writes a qualitative description of gravitation.

1642 - 1727

Sir Isaac Newton develops the laws of mechanics (now called classical mechanics) which explains object motion in a mathematical fashion.

1773 - 1829

Thomas Young develops the wave theory of light and describes light interference.

1791 - 1867

Michael Faraday creates the electric motor, and develops an understanding of electromagnetic induction, which provides evidence that electricity and magnetism are related. In addition, he discovers electrolysis and describes the conservation of energy law.

1799 - 1878

Joesph Henry's research on electromagnetic induction is performed at the same time as Faraday's. He constructs the first motor; his work with electromagnets leads directly to the development of the telegraph.


James Clerk Maxwell performs important research in three areas: color vision, molecular theory, and electromagnetic theory. The ideas underlying Maxwell's theories of electromagnetism describes the propagation of light waves in a vacuum.


George Stoney develops a theory of the electron and estimates its mass.


Wilhelm Röntgen discovers x rays.


Marie and Pierre Curie separate radioactive elements.


Joseph Thompson measures the electron, and puts forth his "plum-pudding" model of the atom -- that the atom is a slightly positive sphere with small, raisin-like negative electrons inside.