The Greatest Physics Paper!

By cjohnson | August 17, 2005 2:53 am

So the good people at the BBC have gone out of control with this “Greatest….” business. I don’t know when it started, but there was “The Greatest Briton” (Churchill), and “The Greatest Philosopher” (Marx), for example, and now there’s “The Greatest Painting In Britain” and “The Saddest Piece of Music Ever Heard”. (I wish I was making this stuff up, but no.)

Now you, me and the girl next door all agree – because we’re so terribly mature – that this is pretty much juvenile twaddle. Like when you were a kid and wasted time trying to decide what was your favourite toy, or game, food, movie, girl(boy)friend…. Remember? We grew out of all that, right? Right?

So what gives, BBC? Why would you get members of the general public arguing childishly over an unanswerable issue like which painting, philosopher, song, or Briton is “The Greatest”? You have them, instead of making their widgets in the widget factory, spending endless amounts of time pointlessly swapping reasons back and forth, passionately trading anecdotes, long forgotten facts, interesting ideas and conjectures…..wasting hours in the library and on Google learning things about each other’s candidate just so they can trash them with a killer argument…..

Hang on……

Announcing Cosmic Variance’s search for …..<drum roll>….

The Greatest Physics Paper!

What we’re going to do is pick the The Greatest Physics Paper! It can be from any branch of Physics, and I will enlarge the term “paper” to include other established published forms of results such as books (so Galileo’s 1632 “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”, or Newton’s 1687 “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” can count), and famous unpublished manuscripts that nevertheless became known for reporting powerful results.

Pick your favourite. Make your arguments as to why your choice is The Greatest Physics Paper! (The reasons need not be all scientific ones.) Lend support to another’s champion, if you agree with them…..whatever. Humourous ones are allowed too, but let’s keep it to real, existing, papers. (And please, as always, try to keep your dicussions reasonably polite and respectful, even though I know physics can inspire real passion!!)

I’m going to let this one run for a while, and I hope that you’ll make some strong and instructive cases for wide range of interesting papers. Then in a while I’ll boil it down to a shortlist of, say, five papers. Maybe then I will try to convince each of my colleagues to join me in picking one paper at random to be its advocate, writing a summary of the case for it to be The Greatest Physics Paper! (Following the BBC model, we’re supposed to get five celebrities to do this, but I don’t know any (except Sean…), so hopefully you’ll make do with us- unless you’re a celeb and want to volunteer, or know one who would.)

Then we’ll put it to a vote….. There’ll be one summary post each per paper, and so you just come in put a single comment on the post for your favourite paper. We’ll count the votes.

…and then we’ll all go back to making our widgets. Deal?


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Science
  • Jill

    “Grundlagen der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie,” in Annalen der Physik (1916), by You-Know-Who.

    This is the greatest physics paper of all time because it not only described the *law* governing gravity — that would be plain old vanilla Nobel material — it also told us *what gravity really is*. That is, it actually *explained* something. And that something is a phenomenon that all of us deal with daily. The fact that things fall is surely the most pervasive physics effect of all. And *what* an explanation: it’s that the whole idea of gravitational “force” was all a big mistake! When things fall, they are just doing what comes naturally [ie tracing out a geodesic in spacetime]. The problem is to explain why some things *don’t* fall! That was the most astounding advance in our understanding of the Universe ever, and that’s why this is the greatest paper.

  • Chad Orzel

    This is a hard question to answer honestly, as “greatest paper” at least ought to include some component of “quality of explanation” or “quality of writing,” and, well, I haven’t actually read most of the Great Papers in the original. I know what a lot of them say, but how they said it ought to figure in the judging somehow.

    Newton’s Principia is an excellent example. In terms of ultimate influence it’s hard to beat– it more or less created the entire field of physics. I’ve never read it, though (despite having gotten to leaf through a first edition), because it’s in Latin, and fairly opaque Latin at that. And I’ve heard people argue that the cryptic notation Newton favored accounts for the English dominance in chemistry and the German dominance in physics, as it was so difficult to calculate anything using Newton’s system (compared to Leibniz’s) that English scientists mostly stayed out of physics. (I’m not familiar with Newton’s system, so I can’t judge, but it’s a lovely story…)

    It’s also hard to avoid bias in this sort of thing. General Relativity is likely to be very popular over here, but where I work, it’s not terribly important or influential. As a DAMOP person, if I had to pick a paper of Einstein’s, I might very well go with the 1917 paper on photons that Dan Kleppner wrote up in Physics Today. GR wouldn’t be in the top three (photons, EPR, and special relativity all beat it, and the photoelectric effect might edge it out for #4).

    On a personal level, the most influential paper is probably a JOSA B article by the Phillips group at NIST that I read as an undergraduate. That played a big role in getting me into laser cooling, which got me where I am today. I doubt it would find much support here, though.

    If you want nominations for Classic papers, independent of whether I’ve read the originals or not, I think the Principia is head and shoulders above the rest. Maxwell’s equations are pretty darn cool, too.

  • Moshe Rozali

    Very easy to make the case on this blog for:

    Inflationary universe: A possible solution to the horizon and flatness problems, by Alan Guth.

    In addition to changing our worldview in many different ways, it has the advantage of being a wrong paper…



    ps: there is also “theory of leptons”, forgot by whom…but I am sure it will show up sometime.

  • Tom Potter

    There is no doubt that James Clerk Maxwell’s
    “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism”
    was the greatest physics paper ever written.

    In it Maxwell introduced the standard that ALL
    physics models MUST obey, Dimensional Analysis.
    If a model is not dimensionally correct, it is wrong.

    Maxwell observed that a measurement was composed of a quantity, and the number of units of the standard for that quantity, and he found that he could accomodate all of the existing physical properties using time, space and mass.

    Maxwell also modeled electro-magnetism using his famous equations, and integrated the dimensions of the E-M properties into his Dimensional Analysis by introducing the electric and magnetic constants (the permittivity and permeability of space.).

    Maxwell also introduced the idea of point particles and anticipated quantum mechanics by suggesting that it would be necessary to use statistics to model reality.

    And of course, Maxwell used “Maxwell Statistics” to model the behavior of aggregates of particles, and the Bose and Fermi statistics which are used to accomodate
    the perceprion of photons as particles are nominal variations of “Maxwell Statistics”.

    As can be seen in this book Maxwell established the standard to which all physics models must conform, and he laid the ground work for electronics, chemistry, vector analysis, atomic theory, and quantum mechanics.

    Dimensional Analysis is physics.
    Units are politics.
    Equations are maths.

  • Chaz

    I’d like to nominate Bob Geroch’s Suggestions for Giving Talks (here it is in html). In addition to being brief and rather easy to read, it’s the most IMPORTANT physics paper ever written. Am I joking? Perhaps. But just imagine a world in which every physicist gives clear, interesting lectures… a world in which 90% of the audience understands 90% of the talk… a world where low temperature experimentalists flock to hear about string theory, and all relativists can discuss the latest developments in quantum computing. I think our field would be centuries ahead of where we are now due to the accelerated rate of idea exchange. Also, people woudn’t need as much coffee to stay awake during talks, and that would save departments money.

    I doubt I’ll have much support for this nomination, but at least I got to plug a paper that everyone (esp. students) should read, if only for the sake of bewildered grad students everywhere. :-)

  • Sean

    I think a more interesting question would be “what is the second-greatest physics paper ever?”, since the greatest is obviously Newton’s Principia. For the laws of mechanics alone it would easily walk away with the prize, but there was also the law of universal gravitation and the derivation of Kepler’s laws, plus a useful new mathematical technique known as “calculus.”

    Nothing else even comes close.

  • Sean

    Might also be fun to think about “greatest physics paper of the last 50 years.” But then Chad’s bias problem becomes pretty severe — people would naturally gravitate to papers in their own fields.

    Perhaps there could be a separate category for “well-written” papers, judged apart from their actual influence. I could vote for a handful of papers by Sidney Coleman.

  • Clifford

    Well, Sean, there will be five shortlisted in the end. They can’t all be Principia. And this is by public participation, so there is a possibility that Principia doesn’t even make the cut, if five others get overwhelmingly stronger support. We can have other categories -however interesting and more cleverly chosen- some other time. Recall, we are following the example of the dear old BBC. :-) How can we go wrong?



  • Sean

    Fair enough. They did pick Marx as the greatest philosopher, and Diana as the third-greatest Briton, so anything’s possible.

  • Clifford

    Ah! Now you’ve got it! :-)



  • Clifford

    Hi Chad, (and Everyone)

    Don’t worry about which paper you think will be more popular here or not. I am not deciding which is the Greatest – you are!

    So no matter how obscure or unpopular you think a paper is, if it means something to you and your life or work, or just out of intellectual curiousity/recreation, give us the full reference, and the full author list (no you-know-whos, because there are people of all levels of exposure to physics reading here), tell us what’s in it and make your case.

    At the very least, we’ll all learn something from each other, and maybe read a few classics in the original, which is not a bad thing.



  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Oh dear, the “Saddest Song” would have been so much more interesting if they had been using the word in its colloquial sense…

    So how about a wild card: Einstein, Podolsky & Rosen Phys Rev 47.777 (1935)
    “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”

    I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this paper yet.
    7th ranked Phys Rev paper in citations, and cited more recently than originally.

    Case could also be made for Shor’s 1994 paper on quantum computing, but that would violate the one nomination per comment rule…

  • Clifford

    Hi Steinn,


    There is no “one nomination per comment” rule. It’s nice if people only make the case for one or two papers -as it strengthens the case for individual ones- but thre is no restriction. It is at voting time I was suggesting that people restrain themselves!



  • Alejandro Rivero

    Moshe, yes, indeed for HEP the topcited paper is still Weinberg’s Model of Leptons. You can see the list here
    Field to field, the 2004 listing is not available, but you could peruse 2003
    It is a pity that Weinberg fell first into the doctrine of Effective QFT, and even pitier that after he rocketed out intro astro-ph matters.

    From the topcites I would suggest

    Axial vector vertex in spinor electrodynamics By Stephen L. Adler and

    with the papers on GUT being ethernal candidates. But I am not sure if any of the topcited can really aspire to be “the greatest one”.

    What about Faraday and the field?
    What about Thomson and the electron?
    I would vote for them but I haven got to read any of the papers.

  • Clifford

    For your consideration:

    Since nobody has gone for it yet, might I suggest lending your support to Galileo Galilei’s “Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems: The Ptolemaic and The Copernican”, or perhaps others of his great works? More about this particular one (yes, this is the one which chiefly led to his visit with the inquisitors) can be found in several places, but a translation and other information can be found here, or (much much better!), here .

    Galileo is arguably one of the chief architects of what we think of as modern physics: working in a hand-in-hand equal relationship between theory and experiment. I’d put his works alongside Newton’s any day. ( Yeah, that’s fightin’ talk. 😉 )

    Do check out his Wikipedia entry (for example) for more information.



  • Moshe Rozali

    One cannot compare books, summarizing years of work, with papers. If Newton lived in the fast information age, Principia would appear as a long series of 20-page papers, each of which would not necessarily be that influencial. Compare this to the extremely influencial commulative work of Wilson on the renormalization group and related issues, none of which is so influential by itself (perhaps the review with Kogut on the epsilon expansion?).



    PS: OK, I dug up then reference

    By K.G. Wilson (Princeton, Inst. Advanced Study & Cornell U., LNS), John B. Kogut (Princeton, Inst. Advanced Study),. Jul 1973. 126pp.
    Published in Phys.Rept.12:75-200,1974

  • Steve

    As for “greatest physics paper” it is clearly a choice between either:

    1. W. Simon, Nuts Have No Hair, Class. Quant. Grav. 12, L125-L130, 1995.

    2. M. V. Berry and A. K. Greim, Flying Frogs and Levitrons, Eur. J. Phys. 18, 307-313, 1997.

    Look these up if you think I am kidding!

    Seriously, though, the greatest is the 1915 paper on general relativity by “The Guv’ner”. While there are other great papers from the development of quantum mechanics or the Standard Model, these were really group efforts. Einstein’s paper is purely a solo effort, written by someone who was thinking 50 years ahead of his time. It has an originality and power that is unique and transformed our understanding of the universe. And we are still all heavily involved with it today, either in cosmology or in trying to find a quantum extension, be it string theory or whatever. A veritable tour de force of a paper.

  • George Musser

    I nominate Archimedes’ “Method”. As Reviel Netz discussed in the June 2000 Physics Today, Archimedes basically invented the concept of mathematical physics. He was one of the giants on whose shoulders Newton stood.


  • Clifford

    Moshe: Sure, a good point. But some papers do represent years of work too. Tough to compare, I agree….. But this is all what makes this exercise so interesting!


  • Sean

    Clifford, that’s like saying that John the Baptist is more important than Jesus, if I may venture an inappropriate comparison.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    Clifford, I hope you are mistaken and you mean Galileo Galilei’s “Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences”. That is a real paper, with new results, and putting the first stone of the study of dynamics. The paper you refer, Two Chief World Systems, is mostly a review paper, isn’t it?

    If unavailable at your local library, a scan of an 1914 English Translation appears easily in google, but you can also get zips of the original italian text here or online.

  • Clifford

    Alejandro: I’m referring to the “Dialogue..” that I referred to. There is also the later “Dialogue…” you mentioned, which I agree is also a page turner!

    Sean: You’re right – The comparison is inappropriate. Imho, it does not quite work. That would be like saying that Einstein’s photoelectric effect paper makes him a John the Baptist to Heisenberg’s or Schrodinger’s Jesus: I don’t think so!

    (Gosh, this is fun!)


  • Alejandro Rivero

    As for the Method, the only new result stated there was rediscovered indepently by Kepler in his stereometria. Still it could be a runner for a “most influential paper”, because the quest for The Method, lost as the Grail to Arcturus, was a strong inpiration in Cavalieri and Barrow, who in turn pushed the work of Galileo and Newton respectively.

  • Matthew Nobes

    Let me throw in a vote for “Theory of Electrons and Protons” by Dirac.

    And if we’re counting books, Dirac’s Quantum Mechanics book wins my #1.

  • Quantoken

    Does “greatest physics paper” has to be on paper? Can early publications (prior to invention of paper) be counted, for example those on tree barks?

    I would say the very first time some one put two dashes on a tree bark, a “=” sign which we call “equal”, was the greatest science break through in human history. Nothing could even parallel it.

    Even today, the only way we know to describe any natural law, or any mathematical construct, is to put two different expressions on the two sides of the “=” sign respectively. Our intelligence simply has NOT gone beyond the ability to show the connection between two items using a single “=” symbol.

    An advanced alien civilization probably has invented some more advanced symbolism, where they show the relationship between not two but three math expressions, using something like “Y”, drawn on a 2-D plane. And their languages also must be written on 2-D, which looks like crosswords, instead like our languages that are written on 1-D lines. I just can’t imagine how advanced that kind of intelligence will be.

    We are still stuck with using “=” to connect two items at a time in our description of mathematical constructs.


  • Clifford

    Matthew, I think we’re counting books from times when those were considered the primary (or one of the primary) forms of publication of results in this field (physics). But make strong case for Dirac’s book, if you like. None of these are hard and fast rules….and there will be always notable exceptions….



  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Ok. Quantoken needs to go read Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”;

    I don’t think maths papers should count; they’re not physics.
    If they were, it’d be a tough choice between the suggestion above and the first appearance of “zero”.

    If we’re doing methods papers, then surely Bacon’s Novum Organum should be the greatest.

  • Plato

    I notice people are using names, so I’ll thrown in Thomas Young and the Double Slit experiment

    Who would have ever thought such a issue as quantum entanglement could become GHZ entanglement experimentation and lead into productive futures of computer cryptography and communcications?

  • Clifford

    Paper references, please Plato, Steinn, Others.


  • Clifford

    By which I mean “enough information for it to be found by non-experts and experts alike”.

    And you’ve got to make the case by saying why you mention it, and what is in it.

    And I really do want to hear suggestions from non-experts too, as well as science students, faculty, professionals of various sorts…..Everyone gets to have their say!



  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Ooops. Novum Organum by Francis Bacon is a book, 1620 (OUP I think).

    It established the basics of modern experimentally driven scientific methodology and triggered the Royal Society revolution of the 17th century.

    BTW – folks, go read the Baroque Cycle trilogy by Neal Stephenson, it is a “must”, especially if you ever need to clean house at Trinity. (Quicksilver, Confusion and System of the World. Then go back and read the Cryptonomicon.)

  • Simon DeDeo

    The original Hubble expansion paper? Kirshner’s article on it, with original reference: Hubble, E. P. (1929) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 15, 168—173.

    Do I have to make a case for it?

    Probably up there with Young’s double slit experiment as “world-changing observation”.

    A *very* close second is perhaps one of Zwicky’s papers on dark matter…. just four years later!

    I can’t read German, but I think this is the right one: ?

  • Clifford

    Yes, Steinn, I agree. Actually Don Marolf raved about it and lent me his copy of “Quicksilver”. It is really very good so far. We should have a devoted discussion thread about these sorts of novels some day. It is a fascinating genre…


  • Alejandro Rivero

    Hmm if we are into ancients, the only decent physics paper I can think is Archimedes’ “On Floating Bodies”. Does someone else support this one? (I have already suggested some)

    I agree that pure math should not be included but as a numerologist I am sorry about the proof of the existence of five and only five Platonic solids, that induced Kepler to propose his theory for the distance of the planets to the Sun and had induced Platon school to support for centuries the theory of “four plus one” elements. Which brings another question: do wrong papers count?

    I joint to the vote for Dirac paper on the electron, but the one from Sommerfeld having the fine structure constant should appear then, should’t it? Was it an Annalen von Physik or something so?

  • Clifford

    Nice choice Simon. Hubble’s paper is extremely important, as it is responsible for establishing the Hubble Law (distance to another galaxy is proportional to how fast it is moving away from us), confirming (a fact that was already gathering momentum based on other astronomers’ observations, I’ve heard**) the fact that the unverse is expanding, which is a cornerstone of modern cosmology.

    (**This bit may be urban myth….any others have comments on this?)

    For people who want quick information on Hubble and Hubble’s Law, a good start is this nice Wikipedia article.


  • Fzplus

    On the Electrodynamics of Moving Objects.

    By You-Know-Who.

    Yes, boring, but it has to be said. This is probably the archetypical physics paper for most non-academic individual. (Newton’s Principia a close second, perhaps) Even if we may disagree as to it’s influence, this work is probably most significant in physics’ public persona. It’s very close to the ideal of science – a theory clearly formulated from simple logic, well stated assumptions and known facts, which is then confirmed.

    This is the paper that crackpots try to emulate. For that alone it deserves recognition.

  • Gordon Chalmers

    I would never vote for Newton’s principia.

    Dont you think science of 300 years is a little outdated.

  • Aaron

    The greatest physics paper or book ever written is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Hawking’s work effectively created the field of modern physics popularization, which hopefully led to increases in public awareness, study, and funding of basic physics research. Those increases, in turn, probably led to many new ideas and discoveries, for which A Brief History should get a small part of the credit.

    We are still stuck with using “=” to connect two items at a time in our description of mathematical constructs. (Quantoken)

    Yeah… man, I wish I had some notation to express the idea that x^2 = x^4 – 2 = -x/x = e^(x*pi)!

    p.s. First person to solve for x gets a cookie! Unfortunately, it’s only a browser cookie…

  • Jill

    The greatest physics paper or book ever written is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Hawking’s work effectively created the field of modern physics popularization

    Ummm….I think cvj was talking about “greatest” in the sense of “greatest *good*”…

  • Andreas

    Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, Phys Rev 47, 777 (1935) “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”

    No other paper in physics history put the right question so clearly. Physicists now only begin to understand what the scientific scope of this treatise is, and, undoubtly, whoever wants to tackle most of the big problems in contemporary physics must attack and solve EPR first.

  • Jill

    By the way, if I had to suggest a candidate for the *second* greatest physics “paper”, I would go for H. Minkowski, Raum und Zeit (1907). Minkowski was of course the first person who really understood special relativity. John the Baptist for Einstein.

  • Chaz

    Aaron, I’m with you. To me, “Greatest Paper/Book” does not mean “Greatest Physicist” or “Greatest Physics Breakthrough.” While it is a little annoying when laypeople pour adulation on Hawking, the importance of his book cannot be denied. His writing may have DIRECTLY influenced more PEOPLE than Newton’s writing has (of course, Newton has been way more influential in the long run). The same goes for Marx – I think that more people have been directly influenced by the Communist Manifesto than by Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature. Hawking would undoubtedly win the physics BBC poll – he should not be left out of this contest!

    Then again, I admit that the public popularity of a thing can be a scary way to measure its “greatness.” A public poll on the greatest jazz musician would likely be won by Kenny G – the Stephen Hawking of jazz.

  • Clifford

    Ok, you’re going to hate me for this, but it has to be done.

    Aaron, Jill and Chaz, I just don’t see how “A Brief History of Time” qualifies as a physics paper, by any stretch of even the wildest imagination. It’s barely a physics book. It is a popular description of some science, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are no results or scientific arguments in there that explicitly moved science forward, and it is not aimed at his peers, or any research physics audience I can think of.

    The book may have done something positive for science appreciation, but this is not what I’m talking about. And no, this is not snobbery, this is just a clear definition of what’s under discussion here. Even Hawking (I’m almost sure) would rather have one of his actual research papers mentioned in place of the book.

    How about nominating his for his truly ground-breaking work: his singularity theorems with Penrose, the black hole mechanics paper of 1972/3 or his Hawking radiation paper in 1974, and the black hole thermodynamics work of 1976. That’s really good work.

    And you’re right, Chaz, this is not neccessarily about great scientists (there are plenty of great scientists who have written awful papers), but great papers. They will be some combination of directly highly influential on the development of some area (or areas) of science, will have considerably changed our view of the way the world works, will be wonderfully clearly and compellingly written, will have presented simply beautiful results, or will be a model of the scientific method, etc. Most candidates will be combinations of all of the above in some proportions.



  • Clifford

    Of course, I did say “you decide” , so I’m happy to play the game and be totally overruled by you, the readers. But do consider my words (above) carefully before deciding whether you want to support “A Brief…” as a great paper. Might you hang on and enter it for the “Greatest Popular Science Book!” post?

    As Sean reminded us earlier, the British public put Diana on the top five Greatest Britons of all time, so I suppose Hawking’s “A Brief…” could make it to our top five. It’s a funny old world.


  • Thomas Larsson

    Although not the greatest paper of all times, the seminal Nucl Phys B 1984 paper by Belavin-Polyakov-Zamolodchikov is pretty cool. Above all, the application of conformal field theory to 2D statphys might be just about the only major theoretical discovery after 1980 which is proven physics, in the sense that it has been confirmed experimentally beyond reasonable doubt.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Tough poll. I vote for…

    “The quantum theory of the electron” Proc. R. Soc. London A 117 610-612 (1928) by P. A. M. Dirac
    “The quantum theory of the electron Part II Proc. R. Soc. London A 118 351-361 (1928) by P. A. M. Dirac

    …which we may think of as one paper in two parts. I picked it because:

    1) The theory contained in it is beautiful & elegant (excuse the cliché).
    2) The first successful Lorentz-invariant wave equation (SR+QM).
    3) Electron spin not assumed, but really explained!
    4) Antimatter (i.e. positron) predicted (experimentally verified 1932).

    By the way, for mathematics, I would choose Riemann’s “On the Number of Primes Less than a Given Magnitude” (1859). After many years of hair-pulling, I’m still ploughing my way through H. M. Edwards’s analysis of this paper and the subsequent development of its ideas. Abel’s 1824 paper on the impossibility of solving (in radicals) the general equation of the 5th degree (and any higher degree, for that matter), is another favourite of mine.

    On the other hand, I must confess I haven’t read many classic papers in physics and maths, and I doubt I would be able to understand most of them, notwithstanding the efforts of subsequent pedagogy. So I wouldn’t take my judgement on the “greatest paper in physics” too seriously! :)

  • Jill

    Ummm..cvj, I think you missed my point. I was joking. Read it again. :-)

  • Clifford

    Oh! Sorry. I’ve been calculating all day and getting muddled. It’s late. I did not see.


  • Jill

    Haha, no problem! But anyway to get back to serious [!] matters, my votes are Einstein 1916 for the gold, and Minkowski 1907 for silver…and while I am at it, Schrodinger 1926 for bronze. Why Schrodinger? Well, the idea that quantization might after all have something to do with continuous things was a pretty amazing insight…who else was guessing that all those quantum things could come out of a good old-fashioned partial differential equation? I like that because it was a spectacular demonstration that two ways of thinking that at first sight seemed diametrically opposed were in fact two views of the same thing. An example for us all. Maybe “background independence” and “dependence on asymptopia” are two aspects of the same thing?

  • Aswin

    I am surprised that this has not been mentioned yet..
    “Invariante Variationsprobleme”(an english translation is available here) …Emelie Noether’s paper on Symmetries. The way we look at symmetries surely changed a lot after this. Let the more experienced pple here make the complete case for this paper.. but i feel this must certainly be a part of the five that are put to vote.

  • Clifford

    Jill, Yes. It’s about time one of the Quantum Mechanics papers got a plug. THat certainly changed our world, and I understand (but never read the originals) that they both were well-written papers.

    Aswin: That’s an excellent suggestion too. Noether is so fundamental to modern physics.


  • Aswin

    A suggestion.. i guess it is better to separate experiment and theory. Otherwise..theory will tend to dominate(as is obviously the case now) and path-breaking experimental advances may get left out.

    And talking of of Hubble’s paper, the recent perlmutter & co. results sort of complete the story of the universe’s expansion. The non-zero lambda from these results is surely the hottest thing these days! Again.. a little surprised that this paper hasn’t shown up ‘here’ of now 😉
    These two would be my nominations for the experimental side.

  • Plato

    The Dialogue’s of Plato?

    Book VII The Republic

    Who was to know he was doing physics (dimensional analysis) and math at the same time? The Holographical realization of Hooft was made here(?), and for all junior science people this story is really quite a classic?

  • Plato

    oops sorry, I forgot to dialogue link

  • Plato

    The geometrical beginnings of string/M brane theory?:)

    Or Euclids Elements

    Postulates that lead through to the fifth all of a sudden take on new meaning, where points, line and planes become strings, and branes?

    Grand Unification Transition G -> H -> … -> SU(3) x SU(2) x U(1) -> SU(3) x U(1) arising from Planck Epoch

  • Paul

    I’m not convinced that the greatest paper should be the most fundamental paper, so I’m not voting in favour of Newton or Galileo. My votes are going behind the prettiest ideas that I know about. And, no, my calculus is not pretty :) and since we have a shortlist of only five I’m hoping it contains:

    “Grundlagen der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie” by Albert, Annalen der Physik, 1916
    – the general theory of relativity

    “The Quantum Theory of the Electron” (parts 1 and 2) by Paul Dirac, Proceedings of the Royal Society, (117) 610-612 and (118) 351-361, 1928
    – does exactly what it says in the title, plus predicts antimatter

    “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field” by James Clerk Maxwell, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (155) 459-512, 1865
    – unites electricity and magnetism, gives Maxwell’s equations

    “Recherches sur la théorie des Quanta” by Louis de Broglie, PhD Thesis at the Universite de Paris, 1924
    – wave/particle duality

    “Zum Unitätsproblem in der Physik” by Kaluza, Sitzungsber. Preuss. Akad. Wiss., 966-972, 1921
    – unites electromagnetism and gravity by adding just one extra dimension, the starting point for Kaluza-Klein theory

    Since Clifford said we could make as many nominations as we like I have cheated a little and given 6 papers (by including Dirac’s parts 1 and 2). Also because of this I would appreciate it if you would imagine that I had submitted my nomination for the Kaluza paper (on Kaluza-Klein reduction) a hundred or so times. This will save it becoming tiresome to read over and over, but will hopefully ensure its appearance in the final five, as it deserves not to be overlooked as piece of truly original thought.

  • Lee Smolin

    Its hard to disagree with the choise of Newton’s Principia, but here are two for second best:

    The Astronomia Nova, by Johannes Kepler, 1609, which proposed his first two laws. This one book combined bold physical intuition and insight (including the first proposal that the orbits were the result of a force from the Sun to the planets) with painstaking calculation and data analysis, leading to momentuous and far reaching conclusions.

    The Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius), Galileo, April 1610 which reported on the discoveries he had just made with the telescope, including the mountains on the Moon, the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter and the existence of many more stars. The book is brief, written in an elegant but straightforward style, and it electrified both academics and ordinary people throughout Europe and beyond. By both introducing a new technology and giving the first convincing evidence for Copernican astronomy, this book made the Newtonian revolution inevitable.

    No publication in physics, even by Newton or Einstein, has so decisively and abruptly altered the direction of physics than either of these books.

  • Clifford


    I completely agree that your suggestions should be high on the list. Especially Galileo’s “The Starry Messenger”. Wouldn’t it be great to have those days come back, when a publication of astonishing new and profound results and ideas was in the form of a best-selling book that both public and professionals read alike?

    All part of my dream to hear science from the mouths of every man, woman and child in the general public….


  • Clifford

    Aswin, Under no circumstances must we separate theory from experiment. I said The Greatest Physics Paper!

    Physics is about Nature, and is therefore fundamentally an experimental and observational subject. We can’t leave out the papers which represents its core motivation. This is why Galileo is one of the top of my list of heroes of the subject.

    So bring on those experimental papers!

    It’s time Faraday showed up, for example. One of his writings has got to be one of the top contenders from experimental side of things, no?


  • Chaz

    I don’t hate you Clifford! I’m just having fun challenging people’s definition of “greatest paper” by steering things away from the obvious.

    I wouldn’t vote for Hawking in a “Greatest Popular Science Book” poll – I think there are much better books in that category nowadays. He’s worthwhile in your poll for reasons mentioned by Chad and Aaron.

    Lee has the right idea with Galileo, whose book “electrified both academics and ordinary people throughout Europe and beyond.” What can I say? I’m a soivent uh the little man.

  • Clifford

    I don’t hate you Clifford!

    Well, that’s good to hear. And I’m glad you’re a fan of Galileo too. See my suggestions in comment 15.



  • Aswin

    The idea was to do better justice to both aspects. How do we compare tycho + kepler’s achievement (it is probably inappropriate to leave out tycho.. it was his data that kepler used) and the success of newton’s formulation(principia). Both are as path-breaking as it can get and I won’t want to put one before the other. Sure, ‘understanding nature’ is the final motive..but still the difficulties in exp are quite different from theory. Why not make it top 3 exp and top 3 theory ?
    As far as other crucial experimental results are concerned…Faraday on induction, Hertz’s on EM waves, Cathode ray expts,Rutherford deserve mentions..
    And more on theory.. Boltzmann please!! Stat. Thermodyn was probably the first major unification of seemingly disjoint areas. .. a driving theme in modern theoretical physics.

    my theory list:
    3.noether ( there r enough pple to get maxwell, einstein and dirac in. so i will continue to push for this 😉 .It is one thing that struck me like hell)

    exp :
    1. galileo
    2.tycho + kepler
    3.thompson’s cathode ray
    4. stern-gerlach (my choice amogst the quantum expts)
    6. perlmutter

    to clifford :
    I guess, I have already exceeded all limitations on nominations !.. if u ask me to pool exp and th together.. i will be in greater confusion. So, spare me that pain.

  • Clark

    I’d have to suggest some of Gauss’. The Principia comes a close second. Maxwell third. It’s been a long time since I went through Gauss’ work. But he’s just got an elegance to his work. Newton’s very important, but his approaches are such that it’s honestly hard to read the Principia. I guess I just need a little Leibniz added to my Calculus.

  • Plato

    I don’t know how to pick five either Clifford, but it surely is interesting to see what might have been important to those Like Lee and othe s who have lead the way.

    I was looking for “Riemann’s thesis presentation” as Gauss sat and watched. Why did Gauss wait and publish, seeing that Riemann would take non-euclidean geometries in a positive direction? Gauss’s Coordinates?

    Faraday’s experimentation was intricate part, with Maxewell on, so every contributor would have advanced the relation to Einstein’s geometrical undertanding on, in General relativity.

    I like Kaluza and Klein contribution as well though, I’m not really voting but stuck.

    How does one choose with so many advances, each contributing?

  • Clark

    Actually I like both the EPR paper as well as Kaluza and Klein also.

    As for Gauss, he was kind of an interesting person. I think he just didn’t care about getting credit for ideas. His biography was probably my favorite physics biography I’ve ever read, although long out of print.

  • Clifford

    Hi All,

    Keep them coming, and do throw out thoughts while building your list of favourites, but do remember (I stress again) that we are not voting for our favourite scientists here. We are putting forward candidates for the greatest paper, with reasons. So -as in the last several comments- just saying, say, “Faraday”, or “Einstein” or “Galileo”, is no good. Pick one of their works, and make your case for it.

    If you don’t know what their specific works are, this is a good exercise to ask yourself “So is areally great contributor, and I learned about him/her in highschool/university/whereever, but what were the actualy papers of books that this stuff came out in?” Then go away and find out. (Google Goolge Google, for example.) Then come and share what you’ve learned here.

    I also repeat that we want papers from both experimental (+observational) and theoretical physics. So what about some great things like the laser? Bose-Einstein condensates? Transistor technology? What about the discovery of the positron? The crucial Millikan experiment? Rutherford Scattering (that’s got to be one, right?) I could go on…..

    We’re all learning some history and some physics here!

    Finally – all you people who keep coming in and yelling at me that string theorists don’t care about experiments….I seem to be in danger of putting you to shame so far in trying to get more firm experimentalists and experiments on the list. Yes, that’s fightin’ talk: I’m throwing down the gauntlet: Do better!



  • Steve

    Perhaps we could have two categories:

    (1) 20th century papers and breakthroughs;

    (2) Everything up to 1900.

    In category (2), I agree Galileo is immensely important, not just for his work but for suffering in it’s defence.

    In the 20th century, Feynman and Gellmann have been highly influential on modern physics: Feynman’s paper introducing path integrals for example and Gellmann’s work on quarks/baryons/strong forces, which introduced powerful group theoretical ideas into physics.

  • Aaron F.

    I would say the very first time some one put two dashes on a tree bark, a “=” sign which we call “equal”, was the greatest science break through in human history.

    Coincidentially, I was just reading Martin Gardner’s Penrose Tiles to Trapdoor Ciphers and found this line:

    A later book by [Robert] Recorde was the first in England to use the modern sign for equality. “I will settle as I doe often in woorke use, a pair of paralleles . . . thus: =, because noe 2 thynges, can be moare equalle.” (154)

    Of course, the famous = sign was probably in use long before this; does anyone else know more about it?

  • Clifford

    Steve: Interesting suggetion, but the game is interesting whatever rules we have, so lets stick to the ones originally proposed: No restrictions on dates.

    There are five to be shortlisted, so there’s wiggle room on pre- vs post- 20th Century ones showing up on the list.

    More Physics papers please!



  • Chad Orzel

    If you’d like some experimental papers, here are a few suggestions:

    Michelson and Morley (Wikipedia gives the citation as: “A. A. Michelson and E.W. Morley, Philos. Mag. S.5, 24 (151), 449-463 (1887),” though I’m not in a position to check that) did one of the all-time great experiments– anyone who has ever lined up a small Michelson interferometer using a lamp as a light source ought to be able to appreciate the effort involved in making an interferometer with an arm length greater than ten meters… It’s one of the more influential experiments out there, too.

    My personal favorite from the early history of quantum mehanics is the Davisson-Germer experiment (either “‘Diffraction of Electrons by a Crystal of Nickel,’ C. Davisson & L. H. Germer. Physical Review. Vol. 30, No. 6 (December 1927): 705-740.” or “‘Scattering of Electrons by a Single Crystal of Nickel,’ Davisson and Germer. Nature. Vol. 119 (1927): 558-560.”) that demonstrated electron diffraction off nickel atoms. It’s another seminal experiment, but the best part is that it was a total accident– the experiment only worked because they broke their apparatus.

    Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus (probably “The Scattering of Alpha and Beta Particles by Matter and the Structure of the Atom” Phil Mag ser 6, xxi 669-88 1911) is another great one, and produced one of the great quotes in the history of science: “It was quite the most incredible event that ever happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you had fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”

    Other greats might include Millikan and Compton, who played a crucial role in proving the photon theory of light. If you’d like something more recent, you might consider one of Alain Aspect’s experimental tests of Bell’s Inequality (for example: A. Aspect, P. Grangier, G. Roger: “Experimental realization of Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen-Bohm gedanken experiment; a new violation of Bell’s inequalities” Physical Review Letters 49 #2, 91 (12 July 1982).) I’m kind of partial to the first alkali vapor BEC (“Observation of Bose-Einstein Condensation in a Dilute Atomic Vapor,” M.H. Anderson, J.R. Ensher, M.R. Matthews, C.E. Wieman, and E.A. Cornell, Science 269, 198 (1995).), too.

  • Clifford

    Chad: Thanks! Does anyone want to endorse any of these? Strengthen their cases somewhat? Throw in some thoughts about why some of them mean a lot to you? (I don’t want my own suggestions to have to count…)


  • Tom Renbarger

    Penzias, A.A. & Wilson, R.W. 1965, “A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s.” ApJ, 142, 419.

    This is the paper that truly makes cosmology an observational science. Plus from the initial POV of P&W the CMB signal was a spurious one, which goes to show that meticulous attention to detail and things unlooked for can prove at least as interesting at what you initially set out to observe.

  • mtw

    Haven’t heard anything giving props to early 19th century mechanists like Hamilton and his refined principle of least action. You cannot escape the Hamiltonian in modern physics. Also popping into my mind is Mach, mostly for his analysis of mechanics and the notion of theoretical economy.

  • Clifford

    Yes Tom, thanks. That’s definitely one of the modern observational/experimental cornerstone papers for the field. For the non-experts, this is basically the paper that explicitly confirmed that the radiation left over from the Big Bang really was there, and with the correct properties.


  • Cosma

    I nominate Lars Onsager’s papers on “Reciprocal Relations in Irreversible Processes” (Physical Review 37 (1931): 405–426 and Physical Review 38 (1931): 2265–2279) for membership in the greatest papers of the 20th century. Using little more than microscopic reversibility and the fact of being near equilibrium, Onsager derived very beautiful and general symmetry relations which (1) actually hold experimentally, and (2) have been hugely influential over the whole subsequent development of irreversible thermodynamics (you could argue the field began with these papers) and non-equilibrium statistical mechanics generally. And the papers themselves are models of clarity.

  • Clark

    I think the problem is that many of us read their papers in college but getting access to 19th and 18th century papers now is a tad more difficult, even via interlibrary loan. Let alone to do so just for a semi-serious blog list.

    The 20th century ones are typically easy to get. But while I read several papers of Gauss in college, I’d have a hard time even remembering where they were published, let alone how to get them and reread them.

  • Clark

    OK, for Gauss, “Disquisitiones generales circa superficies curva” which brought us Gaussian surfaces, the math of curved surfaces and the notion of a geodesic. Some may say it is more mathematical than physical. But I’d probably still call it a physics paper. Especially given that the sciences hadn’t bifurcated quite as much in the early 19th century as by the end of the 19th century.

  • Mark Wilson

    Einstein, A. “Ãœber die von der molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wärme geforderte Bewegung von in ruhenden Flüssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen.” Ann. Phys. 17, 549, 1905.

  • Clifford

    Clark: Semi-serious blog!!!!? Ahem. :-)

    I found quite a bit of chatter on lots of interesting papers on Google. Even if you can’t find the original, it is a good way of seeing some of the impact and content of the paper.

    I don’t consider it time wasted.

    Mark Wilson: Want to tell us a bit about your choice?



  • jay

    Well, enough varieties! Shouldn’t we concentrate on some of those appeared up to now to make a shortlist anyway?

    I’m a conservative and in defense of common sense, so I go for Newton’s Principia. 😉 (Some complained about the inaccessability of the great book, but there is a relatively easy exposition by Chandrasekhar “Newton’s Principia for the common reader.”)

  • Clifford

    Hi Jay,

    I’m not going to shortlist in a hurry. I think I want to get lots of discussion and other suggestions from a variety of people interested in the topic. Will take more than a couple of days for the word to spread far and wide that this fun discussion is going on. So I’ll wait a while for the shortlisting phase. And then we go to the summary and voting phase. Exciting, eh?!


  • Plato

    Hey Clark,

    yes to Gauss and gaussian coordinates, not forgetting, Saccheri, Bolyai and Lobschevasky along this lineage of geometers.

    But I think I found a source here that might be of interest.

    On the Hypotheses which lie at the Bases of Geometry

    So parallel lines no longer exist in Riemann’s world, yet it’s hard to think that such extension to the fifth postulate could have ever been understood and moved to considerations of Alexander Friedmann’s equations and then gave one this sense not only of the ellitpical functions, but of spherical relations that were now understood in how we looked at Omega and shape in the universe.

    So such a challenge to society and the rise to non-euclidean perspective had to be quite a achievement. Did Grossman know this when Einstein became stumped as to how to proceed with the geometry?

    Very early on, and mention somewhere else, the mystery of what his compass could do had already attracted the ability of “insight,” to see the world in a different way. So you can see what a monumental achievement this continued evolution of geometry raises deep insight into what to become of these short distances?

    While cosmological things are smooth, how so at such quantum levels and one wonders, how would such a dynamical world work, taken to consideration of a quantum geometry?

  • Dave Bacon

    Ack, has anyon actually read Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, Phys Rev 47, 777 (1935) “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?” It’s pretty bad. Apparently Einstein was not very happy with it either (I think Podolsky or Rosen wrote the original draft.)

    To me, if you are going to nominate a paper along these lines it would have to be “On the Einstein Podolsky Rosen Paradox”. J. S. Bell. Physics., v1, n3, pp 195 – 200. While EPR said “quantum theory is strange”, John Bell saw this was an experimental question. Today I consider this the founding paper of quantum information science. Perhaps, however, this isn’t the greatest physics paper of all time, but I think it definitely is the most shocking physics paper of all time.

    If I had to vote, however, Newton’s Principia would get my vote. The number of problems Newton solved in that one work, and the view of the world it opened up just plain rocks.

  • mtw

    CVJ is correct, but for all those with university computer access I know of a tool more powerful then Google (yes), which is the University Online Journal Subscription. Oh yes, it is a might thing indeed. And sorry Clark but within a few minutes you can bring up James Rowan Hamilton’s (GO IRISH) papers on mechanics.

    On a General Method in Dynamics. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. (1834) Vol.124, pp247-308.

    Second Essay on a General Method in Dynamics. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. (1835) Vol.125, pp95-144.

    Those who have been siting papers with ease already know this, but further searchers, check out, Prola (at or any number of other journal databases. Makes researching for both work and play (ala procrastination) so much more enjoyable.

  • Moshe Rozali

    Another meta-comment, I am absolutely amazed that most commenters find that most great science was done long, long time ago. It’s like the antique road show around here…I speculated above about one possible reason (books summarizing lifetime of work vs. papers summarizing a few months of work), but I am still surprised. Maybe another reason is that old works, stripped from their historical context, tend to look more like giant leaps. Not sure.



  • mtw


    First off I think the split between modern and loosely defined classical physics in those post is about fifty-fifty though I am too lazy to make a precise count. Second, it is true that textbooks do often lack in historical narrative, but this is actually a good thing. You have to know the physics before you can go back and study the progression of a certain physical theory. I myself have spent the last six months going over and over again American journal articles from 1880s to 1920s on the topics of a luminiferous ether and Einstein’s relativity. Ironically, with more historical background, Relativity theory looks in some ways like an even greater leap forward then it did when discussed as the next logical step in electrodynamics and field theory.


  • Mike Molloy

    Heck, I don’t really buy this myself, but it’s no fun to just say “Yeah I agree it’s Newton’s Principia,” so… How ’bout Descartes *Principles of Philosophy*.

    It was a major attempt to systematize what had been learned in early modern natural philosophy into a comprehensive theory of the world.

    It was tremendously influential (A); anyone who was anybody in 17th C. continental science–Huuygens, Leibniz, the Bernoulli’s–was a Cartesian in worldview.

    It was tremendously influential (B); it’s what Newton was replying to in the MATHEMATICAL Principles of NATURAL Philosophy.

    Offers an actual mechanism to explain the revolution of the planets (in notable contrast to Newton).

    It features an early stab at the law of conservation of momentum (nothing on the conservation of JOEmentum, regrettably).

    On the other hand,

    It sure doesn’t seem real scienc-y, nowadays (but see below); it’s decidedly not mathematical.

    Newton’s Principia can be read as a lengthy attempt to refute Descartes and, …, erm, well done, that.

    Still, it’s fascinating to read along with Newton’s Principia, if only to really appreciate the difference between science before Newton, and science ever since.

  • Chad Orzel

    Another meta-comment, I am absolutely amazed that most commenters find that most great science was done long, long time ago.

    The problem here is the same as for any other “Greatest Noun Ever” list– recent Nouns just haven’t been around long enough to be put in proper perspective.

    Inevitably, these sorts of lists either end up being very heavily front-loaded with recent items (see, for example, the asinine “Greatest American” list that the Discovery Channel did back in July), or heavily back-loaded with dusty old classics (many literary “Best Ever” lists end up this way). The average age seems to depend on whether the list was constructed by experts (in which case it skews old) or the general public (in which case it ends up reflecting recent fads).

    I don’t think there’s really any way around that.

  • Clifford

    Well, folks, why don’t we try harder to think of really recent classics? What were the papers like that annouced some of the great results in astrophysics, observational cosmology, solid state physics, etc?


  • the one Intelligently designed

    Why every one is forgetting about stat mech? Why is no body nominating the work of Blotzmann , Gibbzs? Those were some realy original and hard to create abstract ideas.
    And talking about statistical mechanics, reminds me of Max Planck. He was the real father of Quantum mechanics. where is he?

  • Clifford

    Well, go ahead and make those nominations, tell us the specific papers, and make the case for them….go ahead! Thanks.



  • Moshe Rozali

    One very recent classic that comes to mind is the human genome project that was completed a couple of years ago. Not sure it is a paper, but there is a database somewhere… also it is not entirely physics, but large part of it was the sequencing techniques, so maybe it qualifies.

    But as a particle physicist, I have to show my stripes, no theory before the standard model ever stood decades of intense effort by thousands of people and billions of dollars to find something, anything, wrong with it. So, Weinberg’s “model of leptons”, reference somewhere above.

    This is too much fun, I’d better stop here…



  • Clifford

    No….don’t stop the fun! I seem to recall that the Georgi-Glashow SU(5) grand unified model of 1974 is a very beautiful paper, -power of group theory- although it might of course not be true. Also, should Gell-Mann and Nishijimas 1961 (62?) classification of hadronic resonances (I think it was that paper) using group theory was rather pretty, but I’m not sure if that is the paper I’m thinking of. And of course, should we be including Gell-Mann’s quark model (also Zwieg) (1964/5?) which also grew out of group theory… “The Eightfold Way”, etc.

    Worth a look. If you like..come back and support one of them. Group Theory and fundamental physics hand-in-hand here….


  • Moshe Rozali


    After a few nominations, it start being the ultimate challenge: how many contradictory opinions can one have simultaneously?

    But, we are theorists, I guess we can go on…

  • Clifford

    Right…. let’s try for 10^500 or so, or even a continuum….


  • Steve

    What powers the sun and stars had always been one of the biggest mysteries in all of science for a long time. Probably wondered about since the earliest of times. Finally answered in the very crucial astrophysical papers:

    Hans A. Bethe, Energy Production in Stars,
    Phys. Rev. 55, 434, (1939); Phys. Rev. 54, 248, 862 (1938)


    Fowler, Hoyle, Burbages, Rev. Mod. Phys.29, 547 (195?)

    Also, maybe Chandrasekhar’s work on collapsed stars, white dwarfs etc. These were great leaps in our understanding of the universe. These papers should certainly be mentioned.

  • Aaron

    Ah, George and Glashow. I’ve never read it, but I’ve read this footnote from Peskin and Schroeder (p 786 in my edition):

    H. Georgi and S. L. Glashow, Phys. Rev. Lett., 32, 438 (1974). The remarkable hubris of this paper makes it required reading for every student.

    As for the other, I think six impossible things before breakfast is the way to go. It’s always a bit annoying when one of those things is a part of a proof you thought you had completed, however. Ah well.

  • Clifford


    Yes, those are great. The last paper was 1957 I believe, and you should give Margaret and Geffrey Burbage their separate recognition on the paper. This is the famous BBFH bible of how the synthesis of elements happens in stars.

    But…one of my favourite papers of all time was by Hoyle himself. This is the only paper I know of where something that we would today call “Anthropic” reasoning played a role. At the time, Hoyle (being one of the (if not the) pioneers of the “we’re all made of star stuff” idea) was trying to work out how to get all the heavy elements that we know of to come from being cooked inside stars. He came to a point in the chain of nuclear reactions (getting heavier and heavier elements) where he realized that there was something wrong. You just could not use the known facts about nuclear physics to produce the right abundances of Carbon 12. Hoyle decided that, based on the fact that he – a carbon-based lifeform made of that quite abundant element- was around to ask the question, there must be a previously unknown resonance of Carbon that nobody has previously been aware of that would allow the nuclear reaction to take place. He computed the precise energy the resonance must have to get everything right, (and after great resistance from everyone in the field), convinced Willy Fowler to look for it experimentally. Fowler found it, at the energy that Hoyle had predicted!

    Now, I would give up every paper I’ve every written a thousand times over or more to have written that paper. I consider it one of the most beautiful papers of the 20th Century. I think it is this one:

    Hoyle, F., “On Nuclear Reactions Occurring in Very Hot Stars. I. The Synthesis of Elements from Carbon to Nickel,” Ap.J. Supps. 1, 121 (1954)

    [Update: I’m not sure if it is this paper. Maybe the prediction ws published together with the results in the big BBFH paper mentioned above. Hard to determine from where I am now, with no library access.]

    Anyway guess what folks? Fowler got the Nobel prize for that….Hoyle did not.

    Anyone else want to support that one as one of the 20th Century’s great papers?


  • Clifford

    Cosma (75), Thanks. I did not know those papers….


  • Diego

    I’m not seeing many experimentalists here. How about:
    Onnes, H. Kamerlingh, “The Superconductivity of Mercury.” Comm. Phys. Lab. Univ. Leiden, Nos. 122 and 124, 1911

    I will quote Feynman on that one: “I imagine experimental physicists must often look with envy at men like Kamerlingh Onnes, who discovered a field like low temperature, which seems to be bottomless and in which one can go down and down. Such a man is then a leader and has some temporary monopoly in a scientific adventure.”

    And many years later the phenomenon is explained:

    Theory of Superconductivity
    J Bardeen, LN Cooper, JR Schrieffer – Physical Review, 1957
    I also like very much the forementioned papers by Dirac. Perhaps Lagrange’s Mecanique Analytique deserves to be mentioned? A scientific poem, according to Hamilton…

  • Alejandro Rivero

    I would second the nomination of Kepler (#57) even if only it were because of the second lay; the idea of measuring Time by using an Area saved Newton from circular reasoning in the Principia, and it has become our cornerstone in mechanics, under the dress of angular momenta. In the same thend I would no vote for the Principia except an special nomination for the Greatest Figure in a physics document, namely Book I, Section II, prop & theorem II, a figure that modern readers will recognise as a path discretisation typical of Feynman approaches :-).

    We are failing on electricity, and it seems that some article on electricity and/or magnetism should make into the short list.

  • Chad Orzel

    What powers the sun and stars had always been one of the biggest mysteries in all of science for a long time. Probably wondered about since the earliest of times. Finally answered in the very crucial astrophysical papers:

    In that vein, there’s the classic Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper predicting the microwave background radiation.

    (Full disclosure: Ralph Alpher is an emeritus research professor in my department, and for a couple of years nominally had the office next to mine. He gave the office up two years ago, and now I have a big stack of his books in my office.

    (I’ve only met him a couple of times, but he seemed like a nice guy. He’s also high on the list of “Greatest Nobel Committee Slights.”)

  • Zelah


    Speaking as a amateur, I have these suggestions

    Mécanique analytique by Lagrange.

    I must confess to not having read this, but I have read other papers by Lagrange and they are quite simply classics of the French Language!

    More importantly, unlike Newton Principia, this is the prototype for how we do Mechanics today. I understand that Newton is the great physics god, but for a college educated person like myself his work is total unaccessible.

    Also has the important concept of Lagrangian Mechanics! And other goodies as well.

    My next nomination is Robert Hooke Micrographia.

    This is just so COOL!!!

    Great pictures and even now brings goose pimples to my neck.

    My next nomination would be Poincare’s

    Les Méthodes nouvelles de la mécanique céleste.

    I have only seen excerpts but this is absolutely HUGE outside of Physics! I mean Topology and Chaos Theory, cannot go wrong! Actually, I am surprised that Poincare gets so little attention nowadays. Must be that Einstein who changed Physicists taste in philosophy!


    Well anything between 1905 to 1918, but but I have only one pick so:

    On Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.

    Basically changed Fundemental Physics away from intuition towards simplicity.

    Finally and this will send a chill down everyones spine here:

    Leo Szilard, “Ãœber die Entropieverminderung in einem
    thermodynamischen System bei Eingriffen intelligenter
    Wesen,” Zeitschrift für Physik, 53 (1929)

    Of course Szilard is the father of the atomic bomb. But this little gem regarding
    Maxwell’s Demon allowed thermodynamics to escape out into the wider world!
    It influence on Information theory, Quantum Computing and Cybernetics is beyond doubt.

    Strange that one person could so divide the world!

    Finally, I have not included any experimental works as I am not in a position to judge that side of physics.

    I hope you have been enlightened!

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Hubble’s paper was a major breakthrough, but it is the case that Vesto Slipher had already published the first hints of Hubble’s Law – the data was rattier and the conclusions not as bold.

    I’d second Emmy Noether. And I’ll stick with EPR over Bell, even though I agree the latter is better written, puts the issues more clearly and notes the experimental tests.

    The bias towards “classics” is partly because we don’t know yet which of the papers in the last 20-30 years are actual classics, and which are fads. It is also slightly embarrassing to nominate papers by still active researchers.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    Orzel, ref #102,

    There is an Alpher, Bethe, Gamow on “The origin of chemical elements” (Phys Rev 73 p 803). Is there another one on microwave radiation?

  • Nathan Lundblad

    In sub-field, I’m a big fan of “Observation of Atoms Laser Cooled below the Doppler Limit” (‘below’ not capitalized, oddly enough): PRL 61, 169. (Chad: it’s possible there’s something equally cool in that JOSA B extravaganza, but I’m in a hurry…)

    It represents one of the rare moments in physics when Nature presents a result far, far more astounding than what you were expecting- in this case, the experimental goals were to cool atoms, and in an astonishing reversal of Murphy’s Law, it worked much, much better than it had theoretically (at the time) any right to…

    Also, the paper is an experimental joy in that it reveals how exhaustive the group was in measuring temperature- not content to use a single thermometer, they use *four* semi-independent methods. Good lessons for all.

    The great line is included: “While we have no explanation for these surprising results, we offer several observations and speculations.” Awesome.

  • Nathan Lundblad

    I’ll second this one:

    Davisson and Germer, PR 30 705 (1927): “Diffraction of electrons by a crystal of nickel.”

    I’d nominate the Stern-Gerlach paper, but I’ve never actually read it and can’t seem to track it down…for what it’s worth, Zeit.f.Physik 8 110 (1922).

  • Nathan Lundblad

    Oh holy crap- how can I forget these two:

    Good ol’ Albert making an atomic physics prediction: “Ãœber die von der molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wärme geforderte Bewegung von in ruhenden Flüssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen.” Ann. Phys. 17, 549, 1905.

    The resulting experimental confirmation by Perrin is huge, but I’ve never read it- need to track down either the original (in French), or the resulting book he compiled his results in. “Brownian Motion and Molecular Reality”, Ann. Chim. Phys. 118, 5-114 (1909), and “Atoms”, 1920…

    All in all, being able to dismiss continuist natterings, tell Ernst “have you seen it yet?” Mach to shove it, and (I think) enter the modern world: priceless.

  • Chad Orzel

    In sub-field, I’m a big fan of “Observation of Atoms Laser Cooled below the Doppler Limit” (‘below’ not capitalized, oddly enough): PRL 61, 169. (Chad: it’s possible there’s something equally cool in that JOSA B extravaganza, but I’m in a hurry…)

    The PRL is a better paper for this sort of thing. The JOSA B from 1989 includes a really excellent explanation of optical molasses, which was extremely useful in my undergrad days.

    Also, the paper is an experimental joy in that it reveals how exhaustive the group was in measuring temperature- not content to use a single thermometer, they use *four* semi-independent methods. Good lessons for all.

    They also quietly circulated the results among other leading groups in the field before publishing, just to give them a heads up, and to confirm that they weren’t just insane.

    It’s a great group, and I’m not just saying that because I used to work for them…

  • Tom Renbarger

    The point about not being able to determine the classics from the fads for recent papers is well-taken, but I feel safe in stating that this paper is a classic:

    Taylor, J. H. & Weisberg, J. M. 1982, “A new test of general relativity – Gravitational radiation and the binary pulsar PSR 1913+16,” ApJ, 253, 908.

    It’s still the best evidence for the existence of gravitational radiation short of an actual measurement of the phenomenon, and has been for nearly a quarter century now.

    On the downside, it is just one test of many of GR, although I happen to think it’s a particularly cool one.

    Others of recent release that might make the cut – one of the Alain Aspect et al. papers on QM non-locality, maybe a Bose-Einstein condensate paper. I’m not really in a position to judge, though, and won’t make any sort of case for these papers.

  • Gordon Chalmers

    I thought about this. I think John Bardeen and collaborators require a mention,

    Semiconductor Amplifier; Three-Electrode Circuit Element Utilizing Semiconductive Materials
    Patent Number(s) 2,502,488; 2,524,035

    due to the impact on the modern age, and all of the improvements to society that came from it.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Taylor and Weisberg is a classic, but I don’t know that it is even the best pulsar paper, much less the greatest physics paper. Heck, I’m not sure I’d even say it is Taylor’s best paper, and it is very good indeed.

    It is possible, if not likely, that in 50-100 years several papers on some or more of supersymmetry, string theory, quantum loop gravity or M-theory will be seen as classic, if not the greatest papers ever. Or not. Too early to tell which are fads and which are breakthroughs.

    Other problem with modern physics is that people gang-pile into hot topic areas, hard for modern geniuses to work in splendid isolation producing sequential masterpiece monographs; some snooty postdoc will cherry pick all the fun bits if you wait that long.

    So, talking of which – if supersymmetry works, what was the groundbreaking paper? Wess & Zumino? Or was the whole process too gradual and done by too many different people piecewise?

    Of course one should always be suspicious of any theory with type I and type II categories…

  • Jill

    Well, if we want a *modern* classic, it’s hard to ignore Ed Witten’s

    I’m told that this was the paper that made people sit up and take notice of AdS/CFT. And it is written with such power of insight and such hallucinatory clarity that even I think I understand it for about 10 minutes after each reading. *And* he talks about it in a much broader context, one that people have yet to fully explore even now.

  • Clifford

    Good Lord, Jill! That is bold!


  • Mark

    Well, I’m not going to stay out of this any longer – what a great discussion. I could try to be fair and balanced, but no, I suspect my list will show distinct bias, and I don’t care. I’m going for theoretical papers that have a direct inflluence on me, and I’m listing only four, because I am truly torn among a bunch of different ones for the number five slot! There are certainly experimental papers that can stand up to these, but other people will have to vote for them.

    1) Newton’s Principia.

    2) Einstein’s Grundlagen der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie, Annalen der Physik, (1916).

    3) Dirac’s (two-parter) The quantum theory of the electron, Proc. R. Soc. London A 117 610-612 (1928); and The quantum theory of the electron Part II, Proc. R. Soc. London A 118 351-361 (1928).

    4) Weinberg’s A Model of Leptons, Phys. Rev. Lett 19, 1264-1266, (1967).

    Obviously, I’m implicitly joining the call to consider number 3 as a single paper.

  • Mauro Guerra

    I would have to go with:

    “The quantum theory of the electron” Proc. R. Soc. London A 117 610-612 (1928) by P. A. M. Dirac
    “The quantum theory of the electron Part II Proc. R. Soc. London A 118 351-361 (1928) by P. A. M. Dirac

    because it presents us the first successful Lorentz-invariant wave equation altough it’s only for fermions, the positron was predicted (i don’t like very much the idea of the electrons sea), and the explanation for the source of electron spin.

    Also we are almost forgetting about Feynman.

  • Jill

    cvj said:
    Good Lord, Jill! That is bold!

    2531 citations can’t be wrong! :-)

    I’m talking long-term here….

  • Aswin

    I was probably not specific enough. Some clarifications to comment no.62
    1. Galileo : “Starry Messenger”
    2. Tycho + Kepler : “Astronomia nova”
    3. Boltzmann : his paper on equipartition of energy..+ his paper on ‘entropy’ (wikipedia/wolfrom refer to his papers only this way.. no complete references!..some help please)

    And nobody interested in Noether??..too bad!

  • Monte Davis

    Onsager: yesss! for me, if not For Physics as a Hole…

    I was doing undergraduate p-chem in the late 1960s, when Prigogine and B-Z reactions and all that were percolating. It was a religious moment, chills and neck hair and all, when I realized that (1) these ideas were moving away from the equilibrium assumption that had given themodynamics so much of its power, but (2) they were getting results anyway! My professor pointed me to Lars O, and it was love.

    People must have felt the same way when Poincare tackled the stability of orbits: “I can’t solve it, but I can tell you how the solution space is organized…”

  • robert

    Onsager is emerging as the people’s choice (rather like Dirty Diana) so what about ‘Crystal statistics. I. A two-dimensional model with an order-disoder transition’ Phys. Rev. Vol. 65, 117-214, 1944. So much from such a simple model – the inspiration for the critical phenomena industry and countless insights into the renormalisation group – and the math is so cool. So big it up for Lars.

  • Arun

    Would it make sense to have a rule that one can only nominate a paper that one has actually read?

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Selecting the most important physics paper, or the 5 most important physics papers, is like selecting the most important link, or most important five links, in a chain that spans a gorge, or which one of your ancestors could most easily be dispensed with.

    It might be interesting to nominate best physics textbooks, though.

  • Gordon Chalmers

    I think Robert might have a point. Could you
    elaborate further?

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  • robert

    The Ising model, of up and down spins on a lattice with nearest neighbour couplings, is as simple as one might conceive of for an interacting many body system. In one dimension the model is readily soluble but does not display critical behaviour; the two dimensional model is, however, far from tractable. Onsager’s solution, which demonstrated his mastery of group theory and quaternions (and introduced infinite algebras in a physics context for the first time) coupled with a virtuouso display of ‘Whitaker and Watson’ style analysis, established incontrovertibly that classical statistical mechanics was able to capture the salient features of the critical point. In doing this Onsager highlighted the inadequacy of mean field and other approximate methods and identified conditions for critcal behaviour, the non-analyticity of thermodynamic functions at the critcal point, the form taken by the specific heat in the critical region and interface and finite size effects. This, and subsequent work with Kaufman, ushered in a new era of exactly soluble model solutions in statistical mechanics that continues to provide insights into the interaction between physics and math to this day.

    Onsager’s account of his solution is not an easy read (perhaps this was the burden of Arun’s remark); Kaufman’s development of a spinor based solution did much to make it more accessible. In his Nobel lecture Wilson cites his study of Schultz, Mattis and Lieb’s exegesis (Rev. Mod. Phys., Vol. 36, 856, 1964) as a defining moment in the development of the renormalisation group and the recognition of its relevance to critical phenomena.

    The praise of more curmudgeonly fellows should not be overlooked. Thus Pauli informed Casimir that he had missed nothing of consequence in being cut off from ‘Allied physics’ during World War II, save for Onsager’s solution. Landau claimed that, while the work of other theoreticians of his generation presented no real challenges to him, he could not imagine himself pre-empting Onsager’s solution. What more need one say?

    The ‘human interest’ factor should not be overlooked: Onsager’s recollections of his struggle with the problem in his autobiographical commentary (Critical Phenomena in Alloys, Magnets and Superconductors, R.E. Mills et al. (Eds.), McGraw Hill, 1971) are an inspiration, both in their modesty and the way in which they capture the agonies and ecstasies of scientific reseach. This commentary also reveals the breadth and mastery of mathematical techniques that Onsager could bring to the solution of physical problems, when the occasion demanded it.

    So, all round, it’s a gem, a snapshot of physics at its most exalted.

  • amanda

    ummm…I know I’m going to be fried for this…but, guys, this is supposed to be about the *greatest* physics papers. I’m sure that Bardeen, Onsager et al did great work, but do you *really* think they rate higher than papers by Einstein and Schrodinger?????!!!!

  • robert

    You have a point Amanda; we all have favorites and all lists are personal. There is a reasonable, if slightly eccentric, case for Einstein’s 1905 output sweeping the poll. As for the other fellow:

    Jill states his case as

    “Why Schrodinger? Well, the idea that quantization might after all have something to do with continuous things was a pretty amazing insight…who else was guessing that all those quantum things could come out of a good old-fashioned partial differential equation?”

    However, as E.U. Condon relates

    Born and Heisenberg went to Hilbert to get help with matrices, he told them that “the only times that he had ever had anything to do with matrices was when they came up as a sort of by-product of the eigenvalues of the boundary-value problem of a differential equation. So if you look for the differential equation which has these matrices you can probably do more with that. They had thought it was a goofy idea and that Hilbert did not know what he was talking about. So he was having a lot of fun pointing out to them that they could have discovered Schrödinger’s wave mechanics six months earlier if they had paid a little more attention to him.”

    And all that malarkey with cats in boxes has been rather counter-productive when it comes to de-mystifying quantum mewchanics.

    Hermann Weyl did most of the math in Schroedinger’s papers anyway, to salve his conscience because he was getting jiggy with Frau Schroedinger at the time.

    Not that I’ve reacted badly to my nominee’s being disparaged, of course; this is descending to the level of political debate.

  • Clifford

    Hi Robert, Amanda: It’s worth repeating again that one can find wonderful physics papers in the most quiet of corners. They are not all written by the great and famous. I don’t think that Einstein should neccessarily sweep the top five. Nor any single scientist.

    Hi CapitalistImperialistPig: I think we get that. It’s the conversation that’s the interesting part, not the final list


  • Andreas


    I find Condon’s anecdote about Born, Heisenberg and Hilbert strange and, actually, irrelevant. Even if the Goettinger had succeed in solving the inverse problem and had identified the wave equation, there still would remain the bigger task to take the result as physically relevant. It was Schroedinger’s bold achievement to put this most mysterious equation into the realm of physics (Likewise, Einstein put vaccum GR into physics although the corresponding equation was well-known long before 1916 among mathematicians). As for Hilbert’s remark, Schroedinger worked on partial differential equations and on their eigenvalue problems under Hasenoehrl in the years since he had enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1906, i.e. long before the formulation of QM in the mid 1920s. So, he was very aware of the relationships between matrices and PDE. In other words, Hilbert’s remark was not a prophetic secret but rather an ordinary and common point of view even among physicists, and it took Schroedinger’s genius and intuition to bring an obscure mathematical structure into physical existence.

  • Clifford

    Jill, I have some sympathy with your thoughts on the Witten paper. It is beautiful (like so very many of his) but time will tell as to what their place in history will be. But for sheer beauty, he does have a way of writing and thinking which is captivating.

    Then you said:

    2531 citations can’t be wrong! :-)

    …and you reminded me of a really funny moment supplied by two of my students (Ken and David) some years back when I was full time at Durham. We were all sitting together looking up some papers on the SPIRES database. I might have been showing them how to look up citations for the first time, and then as a sidetrack showed them how to display the “citesummary” data. Anyway, as everyone must see it sooner rather than later, I showed them the data for Witten (You know…. 35+ renowned papers, 110+ famous papers, 40+ well-known, 70,000+ total citations). Then one of them had the idea of looking up Einstein (jokingly, of course, knowing that the data would be skewed low). He has only four famous papers and 1000+ citations, according to SPIRES, and so Ken or David said, and the other echoed (jokingly, and you have to imagine a sort of fake cliched south London accent to get the joke) “What’s all the fuss about this Einstein chap then? He’s rubbish, i’n’t ‘e? Rubbish!”

    I hasten to add that they knew full well that the database is very patchy on early material, and that nobody cites Einstein’s papers directly any more since they are part of the vocabulary. And before anyone gets offended, “rubbish” in the vernacular they were using can simply mean “not very good in comparison”…For non-experts, I have to say explicitly: they were being ironic!


  • Steve

    I think I will be very controversial indeed and nominate the following for a mention:

    S. A. Ulam and E. Teller, Hydrodynamic Lenses and Radiation Mirrors, 1951 (Classified).

    Not too many people have read it though due its classified nature, even though the general principles are now well known. The hydrodynamics and radiation-induced implosion of hydrogen isotope fusion fuels–the Teller-Ulam system at the heart of the hydrogen bomb. Physics that is both very beautiful and very terrifying. (In the Soviet Union it was worked out independently and was known as “Sakharov’s third idea”.)

    Regardless of what you think of it, this particular physics paper/work has had enormous impact and implications for humanity. I guess it has few citations though:)

  • Shantanu

    I would add Baade and Zwicky, Phys. Rev. 45 138. Even if this paper
    may not be the greatest I am sure everyone will agree that this paper
    (which is shorter than most posts in this . this paper thread) contains the maximum amount of information per length.

    Have a look at (which is the abstract of a talk
    given at a AAS meeting in 1999 by one of my profs from BU on the
    origin of neutron stars)

  • Aaron F.

    Okay, no popularizations this time. :)

    “I would add Baade and Zwicky, Phys. Rev. 45 138.”

    Which reminds me! What about Zwicky, F. 1933, Helvetica Phys. Acta, 6, 110? According to this, the above article is the one where Zwicky introduced the idea of dark matter, to explain why many galaxies rotate faster than their visible mass would seem to allow.

  • Aaron F.

    Oops… forgot my argument!

    Dark matter is absolutely essential to modern cosmology, and probably to modern astronomy as well, and Zwicky’s introduction of it was several decades ahead of its time. Moreover, postulating the existence of huge amounts of invisible matter from such indirect evidence was a very gutsy move, and Zwicky should be recognized for it.

    Actually, speaking of gutsy moves, I also nominate the paper that predicted the existence of black holes (too lazy to look it up right now).

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  • Clifford

    So, as I said in a recent post (from which there is a ping-back above), I’d like to submit for your consideration the marvellous paper of Henrietta Leavitt. Please read the post. Do follow the PBS link there to more information about her. You can also find out more by Googling.

    Our view of the universe was altered because of her careful work to develop a “standard candle” to allow for later crucial galaxy distance measurements by Hubble.


  • Aaron F.

    I second Leavitt’s paper! Modern astronomy and cosmology would certainly be impossible without standard candles. I have one question I haven’t been able to find the answer to, though. Were Cephid variabes the first standard candle? If not, my nomination should realy go to the person who discovered the first one, even if it didn’t turn out to be as useful as later ones.

  • Andreas

    To call the idea of dark matter ‘great’ is absurd (“We don’t know what it is, but let’s give it a name”). IMHO, dark matter and energy are the biggest embarassments in physics history, an unacceptable failure of modern cosmology as we know it.

  • collin

    I may be a bit late for this topic, but let me offer a couple of HEP papers which I think (perhaps from a disadvantaged vantage point) had an enormous impact on the field.

    S.M. Berman, J.D. Bjorken, John B. Kogut (SLAC), Phys.Rev.D4:3388,1971

    This was the paper which told high energy experimentalists that high p_t physics is interesting and worthwhile. It also introduced Bjorken scaling.

    There’s also:

    J.H. Christenson, J.W. Cronin, V.L. Fitch, R. Turlay, Phys.Rev.Lett.13:138-140,1964

    A beautiful experiment with a most impressive result (CP violation). It’s also a wonderful example of serendipity (a key to good science) — as searching for CP violation was not the primary goal of this experiment.

    Finally, just for kicks, three great papers from Nambu:

    M.Y. Han (Syracuse U.), Yoichiro Nambu (Chicago U., EFI), Phys.Rev.139:B1006-B1010,1965

    This (from what I can tell) introduced the idea of color for the strong interactions.


    Yoichiro Nambu, G. Jona-Lasinio, Phys.Rev.122:345-358,1961;
    Yoichiro Nambu, G. Jona-Lasinio, Phys.Rev.124:246-254,1961.

    These two (again, from what I can tell) introduced the utility of the idea of spontaneous symmetry breaking to HEP, which has been somewhat important over the years.

  • Clifford

    Collin. Thanks! Those are really good examples.

    Everyone: No it is not too late to contribute. This discussion should run and run for a bit before we go to the next level.


  • blah

    Hmm…most of the nominated papers seem to be from high energy physics or cosmology (with some notable exceptions from condensed matter & astrophysics). Does that reflect the fact that most of this blog’s readers are more familiar with those fields of physics or does it have to do with a bias toward papers that address “fundamental” physics? I’m not saying this is wrong, but surely a paper need not address “fundamental” physics to be great.

    Anyway, here are some suggestions: I haven’t read the paper, but Onsager’s solution to the 2D Ising model is definitely one of the great achievements of theoretical physics. I suspect the paper gets bogged down in details, but I don’t really know. In all fairness, this suggestion has been made before but I am seconding the nomination.

    Here’s another paper I haven’t managed to read: A. L. Schawlow and C. H. Townes, “Infrared and Optical Masers”, Phys. Rev. 112, 1940 (1958). Why is it great? Because it’s the paper that first describes the laser, that’s why!

    Also, does anyone know what paper introduces Landau theory? Or Fermi Liquid Theory? Both of those contributions should at least be considered.

  • Clifford

    blah, I agree. I did try to get some enthusiasm about other papers from other fields. Some people did respond, but I’d like to see more. (But there were several Onsager fans, and the Dirac papers….) So if you agree, do lead a campaign to set the balance right! I think that a number of the papers you mentioned are an excellent start!



  • Fyodor

    blah said: “but surely a paper need not address “fundamental” physics to be great.”

    Sure, the answer depends on who you ask — jeez, some people think mathematical economics is more important than differential geometry. So what? They are wrong. Einstein changed the way we think about time and space. Onsager was not fit to tie his shoelaces. It’s not very egalitarian of me I know, but let’s face the facts. I suppose there are people out there who think that Elvis was every bit as important as Mozart. Who cares?

  • Thomas Larsson

    If one wants a slant towards more modern papers, the question could be changed into “What paper/discovery will win the 2005 Nobel prize?”. That question will not be settled by a vote (actually it will, but not in this forum), so there will actually be a right answer. Apart from my own suggestion at #45, the only likely candidate I have seen is Nambu at #139. The latter might actually be quite probable, although my standard bet is some completely unknown (to me) experimentalist.

  • Clifford

    Well, Thomas, that may be an interesting topic to some, but it is not the topic under discussion on this thread. It is interesting, instructive, and fun to consider the whole landscape of contributions to physics without breaking the problem up into little bite-sized chunks. I’ve certainly learned something from this discussion (history, etc)…I hope other have too. Let’s continue on the broad theme.

    Fyodor (and others): It is easy to get confused about what is “fundamental” and what is not in physics. Just like particle and string physicists think that they’re doing the most fundamental thing because the objects they study are really small. No. That’s silly. Fundamental contributions can potentially arise in any field of physics. So be careful about that classification.


  • Clifford

    Hi, All: MobyDikc pointed out something interesting here and here on the Mount Wilson post about Hubble’s writings concerning the interpretation of the motion of the galaxies. Just thought you’d like to know. -cvj

  • Alejandro Rivero

    #129, Nambu is always very surprising. Every time I speak an idea, as mad as I can think, with Japanese physicists, they answer me “ah, as Nambu suggested in such and such papers”.

  • Kaleberg

    Glad to see someone else mentioned Perrin. His book, Les Atomes, more or less clinched atomic theory. Basically, he shows about a dozen derivations of Avogadro’s number using work by Einstein, himself and a host of others. The English translation I read has a few errors, but the book is great.

    Of course, nowadays we know that atomic theory, the theory that all matter at ordinary pressures and temperatures is made up of atoms, is just a theory, and therefore is wide open to challenge.

  • cliff

    i must agree with sean here: newton invented the math he needed at the same time as he invented the physics which has changed our world-view ever since.

    to make a bad analogy, this would be like shakespeare writing beautiful prose *and* inventing english along the way in order to do so.

    nothing else even comes close…..

  • Gordon Chalmers

    I was thinking of nominating my papers, but probably this is not fashionable.

  • Clifford

    Cliff….What you said about Shakespeare happens to be true, to some extent. I don’t mean basic owrds and syntax, but the next level. It is amazing how much of the common usage of modern English various phrases all come straight from the Bard’s writing……Or at least were formalised and standardised there.

    But we need five nominees….They can’t all be Newton!


  • Gordon Chalmers

    Perhaps the naming of the quarks should also deserve a mention, by Gelmann.

    If you put the six quarks around the clock in the even positions, then you can even tell history and the names of people you know. The permutations even spell out sentences, which is amazing. I dont know why quarks are so important in multiple bases, but in evidence they are.

  • Clifford

    Ok Gordon, thanks. No doubt a century from now we’ll all be nominating your “quark-clock” paper as the best thing since Newton, but right now, I’d like us to stick to discussing the pre-Chalmers classics, so spare us further details of how this all works. Write it up and send it to a journal.

    Sorry to be rude, but you’ve been awfully generous to us with results of your revolutionary theories, calculations, and computer programs on several threads (relevant or not) and I’d like to suggest that you keep us a bit more in suspense.
    We want to live the mystery a bit more, ok? Too many riches regularly like this and you’ll spoil us.



  • Shantanu

    Here are some of the most important papers (at least IMHO) in the last
    10 years.

    Phys. Rev. Lett. 81, 1562 which was the first smoking gun evidence
    for non-zero neutrino mass and is the only evidence for
    physics beyond standard model.

    also the various papers from the type 1a supernova groups which demonstrated
    that the expansion of universe is accelerating.


  • Gordon Chalmers


    Sorry to blow the cover. You might find a GUT and string theory there though. I really still dont believe in it though.


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  • Gordon Chalmers

    Oh, and I should mention Clifford, that you can find the supersymmetry scales also, and some of the particle content. I guess I missd my five nobels.


  • Clifford

    Gordon, thanks. No more please. Please.


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  • Peter Sloane

    I should like to nominate the series of papers entitled “In preparation”. They contain the solution to most of the fundamental problems in physics. :)

  • Clifford

    Yes, it is rather like that most popular seminar and colloquium topic, the “Thermodynamic Bethe Ansastz”, commonly abbreiviated “TBA”.


  • joke

    Coleman and de Luccia.

  • Aaron F.

    “To call the idea of dark matter ‘great’ is absurd (‘We don’t know what it is, but let’s give it a name’).”

    More like, “We don’t know what it is, and unless we give it a name and start talking about it, we never will.”

  • Clifford

    Historically, this is often a good way to proceed. I note other examples of useful names that helped focus the people of the day on the big physics questions of the day: “Ether”, “Big Bang”, “Dark Energy”, “Nebula”, and maybe even “Atom”.



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  • Anon

    The biases of the community shows. I’m not an experimentalist myself, but the Geiger Marsden Rutherford experiment should be mentioned, and Michelson and Morley should certainly get some more votes…

    But to offer something outside of the areas already covered:

    A.N. Kolmogorov. Dissipation of energy in a locally isotropic turbulence, Doklady Akad. Nauk SSSR, 32, 141.

    A tremendous step from what we knew about turbulence before the paper (a little bit) to what we know now (a little bit more). I do not mean this as faint praise.

    And I do not have access to a reference library at the moment, so I’ll just mention:

    Poincare was more than fit to tie Einstein’s shoelaces, and his relativity papers are worth perusing.

    As for a sentimental pick, there’s probably a protoypical Lord Rayleigh paper, you know, where he suggests an experiment, performs it, carefully tabulates and presents the data, gives a governing equation for the phenomenon, solves the equation (usually via an infinite series), gives some recurrence relations for said series, and ends with a meticulous table of numerical values calculated for various parameter regimes. Of course, everybody did that back then, didn’t they?…


  • Plato

    Making my case again:) Can we do this?

    Bound and Determined, I am still looking for paper by Riemann, on, On Hypothese at Foundations of Geometry Any help and in English

    This is the foundation of comprehension on the metric?

    What person would not see this dynamical reality as a foundational change in our perspectives on space?

    Gauss’s introduction on Curvature very applicable, and if such equations of Maxwell would exist, could it have existed without Gauss and the geometries lead to by Riemann.

    Now I ask you. What do you think? Should not the work on the fifth postulate by Sacchheri not recieve the credit due by Riemann’s recognition?

  • Cassandra

    I nominate ceiiinosssttuv by Robert Hooke. If books can be nominated why not anagrams?

  • David

    What makes a physics paper great? People will have different opinions about it, but for me the criterion is that it should come at a time of crisis or confusion, when experiments that probe nature at a deeper level than before have given results that are unexplainable by previously developed theories, and people are groping for a new framework to make sense of them. The paper should arrive like a knight in shining armor (on a white horse, of course) and lead the way down the correct path to understanding nature at this new level. This is excluding another kind of greatness, namely the foundational works that provide a conceptual and theoretical framework for understanding things that were already well-known empirically at some level. But despite their importance, the latter are just not that exciting or dramatic. For this reason the greats Galileo and Newton don’t make it onto my list; even more controversially I’m leaving out Albert as well, although a very strong case could be made that his special relativity paper is the greatest by almost any measure.

    Surely the greatest develpments in physics have been the deciphering of how nature works at non-macroscopic levels, i.e. at very large and small scales. As far as theory goes (and I’m a theorist, so there’ll be no experimantal nominations here) the understanding at small scales is in much better shape than at large scales. In fact the main complaint about subatomic physics is that the Standard Model is just *too* damn successful. So it is only natural that the greatest papers should be the key ones that led to this.

    The greatest crisis in physics was in the time leading up to it greatest development: quantum mechanics. Clearly then, for its central role in pointing the way towards QM as the correct
    theory of nature at the atomic level, the greatest physics paper of all time has to be:

    1) N. Bohr, “On the constitution of atoms and molecules”, Philosophical Magazine, series 6, vol. 26, 1913, p.1-25.

    Can’t believe I’m the first person to nominate the Great Dane! Of course, there were lots of important papers in the development of QM but this one stands out more than the others for me. It’s the one with the “Bohr atom” that we learn about in undergrad QM courses: Not only are the spectral lines of hydrogen derived from a quantisation postulate on the electron, but the Rydberg constant, previously thought to be a fundamental constant of nature, is derived in terms of the “real” fundamental constants (electron charge and mass and Planck constant).
    This is the epitome of a great physics paper.

    Out of QM grew QED and there was a bit of a crisis with infinities which got resolved by renormalisation. A case could be made for nominating the papers by Tomonaga, Schwinger and Feynman on this. But I’m going to skip them because the problem came again, and more severely, with the Weinberg-Salam electroweak theory. For showing that the latter really is a viable framework for describing the electroweak interactions, the 2nd greatest physics paper of all time must be:

    2) G. ‘t Hooft and M. Veltman, “Regularisation and renormalisation of gauge fields”, Nucl. Phys. B 44, 1972, p.189-213.

    Apparently there was real crisis at this time — people were at the point of giving up on the W-S theory, despite its successes, due to inability to actually calculate stuff with it, and were moving towards non-QFT approaches to electroweak interactions. To see how this could have ended up were it not for ‘t Hooft and Veltman, think of the current state of theoretical cosmology today: All kinds of things are invoked/put in by hand (dark matter, dark energy, fine-tuned cosmological constant, various inflaton fields etc) to get consistency between theory and observation. Basically they’re making it up as they go along! (Being deliberately provocative here — feel free to flame me, astro-folks.) Subatomic physics could have ended up like that as well, if ‘t H. and V. hadn’t come to the rescue. But thanks to them we now know that QFT (for nonabelian gauge fields) *is* the correct description of nature at the subatomic level; it provides wonderful self-contained framework with very few free parameters, and, as mentioned earlier, is just too successful. So the importance of this paper cannot be overstated. (Ok, it should be admitted that the Higgs mechanism is just as ad hoc as the things the cosmo-folks come up with, but this is only *one* thing, whereas there are many such things in theoretical cosmology.)

    Apparently the ‘t Hooft-Veltman paper is incomprehensible though, so as the 3rd greatest physics paper we nominate

    3) B.W. Lee and J. Zinn-Justin, “Spontaneously broken gauge symmetries. II. Perturbation theory and renormalisation”, Phys. Rev. D 5, 1972, p.3137-3155

    for giving the first “understandable” demonstration that QFT for nonabelian gauge fields (and with spontaneously broken gauge symmetry) is viable.

    So much of the good stuff in the QFT description of subatomic physics (and aparently also in condensed matter) has come from applications of renormalisation group techniques, so I really want to nominate

    4) K. Wilson, “Renormalisation group…..”

    but don’t know what the key paper should be — he seems to have a body of work on this. Maybe someone can help me out here. (Someone mentioned a review paper earlier but I’ld prefer to nominate an original research paper.) I only know this stuff (poorly) from textbooks; haven’t read the original articles. Wilson’s lattice gauge theory paper is also a worthy contender for nomination.

    And finally…..

    5) G. Chalmers, hep-th/0209072

    :) (sorry, couldn’t resist)

  • Shantanu

    how about PRL 11, 237 by Roy Kerr
    it has been described as the “most important exact solution to any
    equation in physics. Probably one of the best papers post 2nd world war.

    I was having a look at the website of Kerr festchrift and especially the guestbook.
    amazing. never realized how amazing and important this solution is.

    Ths first quote by Frederick Ernst says that it took Chandrasekhar 9 months to convicnce himself that the Kerr solution is indeed a solution of the Einstein’s equation.

  • Frank

    The most influential physics paper/work ever should probably be the one that showed that it is possible to describe the dynamics of bodies using a simple set of rules/equations; was Galilei the first to realize that?

  • Plato

    Relativity and Post Reimannian Differential Geometry,” published in 1980, by S.S. Chern

    I am actually looking for it. Anyone know?

  • Tim D

    So. cvj, what’s on the shortlist?

  • Philip

    I’m an English teacher (who just discovered this blog, immediately added it to his list of favorites, and is amazed at your wit, erudition, and literacy–you guys even know where to put the commas), not a physicist.

    But the greatest physics paper ever has got to be a tie between Einstein (1916) and Newtton’s Principia. Try to imagine what physics or cosmology would be without these.

    As Tim D says, “So, cvj, what’s on the shortlist?”

  • Clifford

    The shortlist is coming. Really. Very soon.


  • anees khan

    i think luminiferous ether is present but due to our own limitations of scientific knowledge , we are unable to detect it.

  • Elliot

    OK here’s a curveball entry but IMHO a classic paper that has been largely ignored

    Information, measurement, and quantum mechanics. Science, 114. 1951 by Jerome Rothstein.

    It lays out a clear program for an information theoretic interpretation of QM.

    If you are still trying to figure out what QM “really means” then maybe this paper can help solidify your thinking.



  • Aswin

    Whatz up??

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  • fh

    I second Bell’s paper.

    In a way Newton and Einstein are not competitors, their work goes together, Einstein finished what Newton started. A deterministic, local theory underlying all of physics. Against this centuries of philosophical, mathematical and finally physical ideas stands in Bells paper the condensation of a simple empirical fact. A fact that gradually arose out of the work of some of the most brilliant minds, theoretical and experimental, of the 20th century, but only in this paper comes into full empirical force:

    The great program that spans Newton to Einstein is incomplete. The very epistemological and onthological foundations upon which the empiricism of this program is founded are inadequate to describe reality.

    This isn’t the greates physical theory ever, nor the most enormous effort, norcan the results of this paper be attributed to Bell alone without taking into consideration the backdrop of Quantum Mechanics.

    But in summarizing the strangeness of the world, much stranger then anyone could have come up with, and by making it empirical it stands at the greatest physics paper available at the moment.

  • fh

    Boy was I ever late for that one, only saw the date of that post now…

  • Clifford

    fh.. does not matter…..the discussion is still on….. thanks!


  • Mike Beedle

    Thanks to everyone, great posts… I think most papers suggested are very important — but none is as important as the whole collection :-)

    Imnsho, it is them “in collection” and “in-syergy” which really provide, as dots in an impressionist painting, the “big picture”… from the big bang, to our final future destiny; and from the Universe, in all of its magnitue and content, to our smallest unit (still to be found and understood).

    So let me just add to the already collectively provided great list, and in the spirit of “the big (but arguably quantized) spacetime picture” above:

    1) Hawking Radiation paper, for letting us understand our
    final destinity… evaporting black holes ever so far apart that eventually become a sea of radiation.

    S.W. Hawking, Nature 248, 30 (1974); Comm. Math. Phys. 43, 199 (1975). (Combine as one.)

    2) Beckenstein limit paper, for letting us understand
    in no uncertain terms the discreteness of space-time
    and perhaps suggest our true “physical units”.. for surely we will find a representation:

    J.D. Beckenstein, Phys. Rev. D 7, 2333 (1973); Phys. Rev. D 9, 3292 (1974).

    perhaps like those suggested by Finkelstein:

    3) Yang-Mills contributions for local gauge theories…
    for without local gauge theories we would not have gone as far as we have in the SM.

    Yang, Mills 1954 Physical Review 95, 631.
    Yang, Mills 1954 Physical Review 96, 191.

    4) Kingdon Clifford, for giving us Clifford Algebras, and the vision of General Relativity. Surely the trend to describe things with Clifford/Geometric algebras will continue to emerge as a better way to describe physical reality in the next few years.

    But, remarkably, Clifford should also get much of the credit for the vision of General Relativity. Einstein indeed left a great legacy: he completed Clifford’s dream of describing gravity, space-time and mass interactions using Riemmannian geometry, and waves in curved space. (Good thing he was good at tying shoe laces.)

    If you are not convinced, see the archives of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 1870:

    “That this variation of the curvature of space is what really happens in that phenomenon which we call the motion of matter, whether ponderable or etherial.”

    “That in the physical world nothing else takes place but this variation, subject (possibly) to the laws of continuity.” etc.

    As for futures, (and I apologize, these sound fundamental to me, but of course, it depends on perspective , how about:

    1) Nambu original paper on Strings (maybe with some reference to Susskind and Nielssen)
    2) “Anomaly cancelations” by Green and Schwarz,
    3) Gross’s et al original paper on Heterotic strings
    4) papers by Penrose on the structure of space time,
    5) papers by Ashtekar, Smolin, Rovelli describing LQG,
    and its “alternate way” of doing quantum mechanics…
    6) Sherck (and later Wess-Zumino!, or was it
    Yuri Golfand and E. Likhtman ??) for SUSY,

    or perhaps some unified version of the above like:

    Thomas Thiemann, The LQG — String: Loop Quantum Gravity Quantization of String Theory I. Flat Target Space

    … only these, only time will tell.

    Sorry for the longish post,

    – Mike

    ** For fun, check also top cited HEP articles:

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  • Andrew C Skibo

    My vote is for Dirac, paper or book, whichever seems to hit the spot. He predicted something completely outrageous (positron), and was vindicated not that long thereafter.

    I think Hawking’s Brief History of Time has been overrated. My introduction to physics started with Gamow’s books; many years later Feynman and Dirac were icing on the cake.

    Even if only an honorable mention, there should be some room for the paper of Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow — not particularly for content, but the author list was incredibly creative.

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  • Smart Lighting Bulb

    It is a nice blog. I suggest make some another experiment for physics papers.

  • V H Satheesh Kumar

    Hi Clifford, I don’t know why do you want to do such a survey?? You better name it as “Most popular paper in physics” rather “the greatest paper in Physics”. Because, the methodology you are using is quite probabilistic in nature and you may come up with some Tom, Dick and Harry’s paper as the GREATEST which may insult the REAL great works! Please give it a thought.

  • Clifford

    Please follow the pingbacks. eg 184. The point was never entirely about what exactly the greatest was, which is pretty meaningless. The point was the conversation. It was good.




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