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The Sciences

The Greatest Physics Paper! The Vote

Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonJanuary 9, 2006 12:33 PM


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Well, after a long wait (sorry), I'm going to initiate the next phase of your choosing of The Greatest Physics Paper! Before you write in with your terribly original observation that such a concept is silly, flawed, problematic, juvenile, etc, please consider reading my original post on the subject, and then the truly wonderful lively and informative 183-comment (to date) discussion that followed. To have such a valuable discussion was, of course, the intent. However, for completeness, it is time to do the last part I promised which is to list a top five, and then get you to vote for them. I'll do this by making a post for each of the top five. What you do is you come to the comment section of that post and you make a noise. Any noise. Once. That's your vote. If you come in and say "this paper sucks!" it'll count as a vote too, so best to save any new dissent for the original thread, or on the thread of this post, and not on the voting threads. The total number of comments that each voting thread gets -subtracting any annoying repetitions (which I will delete if I find them)- by the end of the voting period (shall we say about week from now - 9:00pm, Jan 16th Pacific Standard Time?) is what will be used to determine the winner. That's it. I was supposed to get various super-star science journalists to write learned essays about each of the nominees. Or maybe super-star bloggers, such as my four Cosmic Variance colleagues plus maybe some other guy. But since I've left this so late, I thought of another -probably better- idea. It is actually much more interesting to read what you have to say, to be honest. I re-read all the comments from the original thread and I think it is one of the most interesting (and potentially useful for some readers) discussions we've ever had. So what I'm going to do is let you come in and make just a simple noise if you want to, as a vote, but if you want to say a few (or even more) words about what that paper means to you and why you are voting for it, then do so. I will delete more than one occurence of a post from you, so please make that one comment count. It is your one shot. So here are the five: The first three were easy to pick out: (1)A. Einstein, Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitaetstheorie, Annalen der Physik 49 (1916), 769-822. (Einstein's 1916 General Relativity paper. A strong contender from the man who had the whole year to himself in 2005.) (I did a post about some of this work's development here.) (2)I. Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687 (Newton's Principia. Yeah, it counts as a with it. The entry that is going in as the clear favourite. Is it a bit cocky? Too overconfident? We shall see. Scans of the covers, etc, here. Link to Chandrasekhar's digest version here. (3)P. A. M. Dirac, The quantum theory of the electron, Proc. R. Soc. London A 117 610-612 (1928); The quantum theory of the electron Part II Proc. R. Soc. London A 118 351-361 (1928). (These two papers we'll count as one. Brought to you by the quiet but firm hand of Paul Dirac. Where would we be today without this level of understanding of the physics of the electron. There'd be no electronics, for example. Imagine our communications without that! Can this work push out the competition, upsetting the bookies?) The next two were harder. This is because there was an awful lot of diversity of opnion by the nominators, and lack of clarity among the distinction between nominating a paper and nominating a person. Onsager was an example of someone who was very popular, but there was little consensus as to which paper to nominate. It also looks like there won't be much in the way of experimental papers making the final list. I should say that despite what some may want to believe (based on a weird view that since all of us here at Cosmic Variance are theoreticians, and moreover, concerned with somewhat esoteric things, we are somehow uninterested in experiments) there was actually quite a bit of discussion of (and appreciation expressed for) experimental papers. No experimental paper jumped to the top because the nominations were rather diverse. Actually, I think that this is a rather healthy sign. It indeed should be the case that there are more great experimental papers than theoretical ones that spring to mind....otherwise we theorists could be accused of not doing one of our key jobs, which is finding the few underlying reasons for a wide range of observed physical phenomena. It is for this reason that I'm not surprised or dismayed to see so few experimental papers make a clear run for the top. It is not just a reflection of the readership's bias, but rather, the nature of the field's priorities to not only observe (several experiments) but to explain as simply as possible (fewer theories). Anyway, going back to the task in hand, I found it hard to see a clear next two favourites from your nominations. There were several that all came out about equal, including the classic work of James Clerk Maxwell on E&M, Boltzmann, the EPR paper, Noether's symmetry paper, Edwin Hubble's expansion law, Davisson and Germer, Albert Einstein's Special Relativity, Young's double slits, and a host more. I think that I saw a slight edge in the enthusiasm stakes for the EPR paper, and so I'll list that. Among the others, I'm going to use my own "vote" (which I had not been counting so far) to nudge Emmy Noether's paper clear a touch. I think it is one of the most fundamental papers of the 20th Century. End of Story. So there you have it. Final two: (4) A. Einstein, B. Podolsky and N. Rosen, Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? Phys Rev 47, 777 (1935). (Another strong modern entry that might stand on the highest bit of the podium at the end of the day if the crowd gets entangled with excitement about it. This is the begining of the "maturing" of quantum mechanics, and forms the conceptual foundations of how we have (and will) come to increasingly appreciate and develop "macroscopic" applications of quantum mechanics in science and technology. The quantum computer starts here, for example. This looks -at a glance- like a decent Wikipedia article on it.) (5) E. Noether, "Invariante Variationsprobleme," Nachr. v. d. Ges. d. Wiss. zu Göttingen 1918, pp235-257. (It's often forgotten just how central symmetry is in modern physics. This is the paper that gave us the tools to make symmetry work for us in a modern context. Will the punters recognize their debt to Emmy Noether and push her all the way to gold? We shall see. See this site for links to English translation.) -cvj

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