Born in May 1929 in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, Zhou Guangzhao graduated from Tsinghua University in 1951, and then did graduate work in theoretical physics for three years at Peking University. He became a faculty member after completing his PhD therein 1954.
In 1957 he was sent to the USSR by the Chinese Atomic Energy Research Institute to work at the Dubna Joint Nuclear Research Institute.
Zhou returned to China in 1960, where he worked on the Chinese nuclear weapons program, ultimately becoming director of the Chinese Nuclear Weapons Research Institute.
Zhou is pioneer in putting forward theory of spiral amplitude of particle and established relevant mathematical method and advisor to research in detonation physics, radiation hydrodynamics and computing method in mechanics. He contributed to designing theoretically China's first atomic and hydrogen bomb.
He wrote more than 80 thesis including Relativistic Theory of Polarized Particle Reaction, Parial Conservation of Axial Current and Reactions of Polarized Particles with Zero Masses.
He was elected a member (academician) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 1980 and later became the vice president (1984-1987) and president (1987-1997) of CAS, vice president (1991) and president (1996 and 2001) of the 4th and 5th National Committees of the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST). From 1998 to 2003, Zhou was Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) – China's top legislature.
The other posts he has served include vice-president of Consultative Committee of Chinese University of Science and Technology; vice president of International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), president of the Pacific Science Association (PSA), vice chairman of the Academic Degrees Committee of the State Council and member of State Leading Group for Science and Technology. He is also foreign member of the Academies of Sciences of a number of countries.
Zhou was awarded the title of "Man of Outstanding Merit to the Development of Nuclear Bombs, Missile and Man-made Satellite" in 1999 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the State Council and the Central Military Commission of CPC for participating in designing and making China's first atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb and satellite in the 1960s and early 1970s.