The Greatest Physics Paper! The Vote

By cjohnson | January 9, 2006 1:33 am

Well, after a long wait (sorry), I’m going to initiate the next phase of your choosing of The Greatest Physics Paper! Before you write in with your terribly original observation that such a concept is silly, flawed, problematic, juvenile, etc, please consider reading my original post on the subject, and then the truly wonderful lively and informative 183-comment (to date) discussion that followed. To have such a valuable discussion was, of course, the intent.

However, for completeness, it is time to do the last part I promised which is to list a top five, and then get you to vote for them. I’ll do this by making a post for each of the top five. What you do is you come to the comment section of that post and you make a noise. Any noise. Once. That’s your vote. If you come in and say “this paper sucks!” it’ll count as a vote too, so best to save any new dissent for the original thread, or on the thread of this post, and not on the voting threads. The total number of comments that each voting thread gets -subtracting any annoying repetitions (which I will delete if I find them)- by the end of the voting period (shall we say about week from now – 9:00pm, Jan 16th Pacific Standard Time?) is what will be used to determine the winner. That’s it.

I was supposed to get various super-star science journalists to write learned essays about each of the nominees. Or maybe super-star bloggers, such as my four Cosmic Variance colleagues plus maybe some other guy. But since I’ve left this so late, I thought of another -probably better- idea. It is actually much more interesting to read what you have to say, to be honest. I re-read all the comments from the original thread and I think it is one of the most interesting (and potentially useful for some readers) discussions we’ve ever had. So what I’m going to do is let you come in and make just a simple noise if you want to, as a vote, but if you want to say a few (or even more) words about what that paper means to you and why you are voting for it, then do so. I will delete more than one occurence of a post from you, so please make that one comment count. It is your one shot.

So here are the five:

The first three were easy to pick out:

(1)A. Einstein, Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitaetstheorie, Annalen der Physik 49 (1916), 769-822.

(Einstein’s 1916 General Relativity paper. A strong contender from the man who had the whole year to himself in 2005.) (I did a post about some of this work’s development here.)

(2)I. Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687

(Newton’s Principia. Yeah, it counts as a paper….deal with it. The entry that is going in as the clear favourite. Is it a bit cocky? Too overconfident? We shall see. Scans of the covers, etc, here. Link to Chandrasekhar’s digest version here.

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

(These two papers we’ll count as one. Brought to you by the quiet but firm hand of Paul Dirac. Where would we be today without this level of understanding of the physics of the electron. There’d be no electronics, for example. Imagine our communications without that! Can this work push out the competition, upsetting the bookies?)

The next two were harder. This is because there was an awful lot of diversity of opnion by the nominators, and lack of clarity among the distinction between nominating a paper and nominating a person. Onsager was an example of someone who was very popular, but there was little consensus as to which paper to nominate. It also looks like there won’t be much in the way of experimental papers making the final list. I should say that despite what some may want to believe (based on a weird view that since all of us here at Cosmic Variance are theoreticians, and moreover, concerned with somewhat esoteric things, we are somehow uninterested in experiments) there was actually quite a bit of discussion of (and appreciation expressed for) experimental papers.

No experimental paper jumped to the top because the nominations were rather diverse. Actually, I think that this is a rather healthy sign. It indeed should be the case that there are more great experimental papers than theoretical ones that spring to mind….otherwise we theorists could be accused of not doing one of our key jobs, which is finding the few underlying reasons for a wide range of observed physical phenomena. It is for this reason that I’m not surprised or dismayed to see so few experimental papers make a clear run for the top. It is not just a reflection of the readership’s bias, but rather, the nature of the field’s priorities to not only observe (several experiments) but to explain as simply as possible (fewer theories).

Anyway, going back to the task in hand, I found it hard to see a clear next two favourites from your nominations. There were several that all came out about equal, including the classic work of James Clerk Maxwell on E&M, Boltzmann, the EPR paper, Noether’s symmetry paper, Edwin Hubble’s expansion law, Davisson and Germer, Albert Einstein’s Special Relativity, Young’s double slits, and a host more. I think that I saw a slight edge in the enthusiasm stakes for the EPR paper, and so I’ll list that. Among the others, I’m going to use my own “vote” (which I had not been counting so far) to nudge Emmy Noether’s paper clear a touch. I think it is one of the most fundamental papers of the 20th Century. End of Story.

So there you have it. Final two:

(4) A. Einstein, B. Podolsky and N. Rosen, Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? Phys Rev 47, 777 (1935).

(Another strong modern entry that might stand on the highest bit of the podium at the end of the day if the crowd gets entangled with excitement about it. This is the begining of the “maturing” of quantum mechanics, and forms the conceptual foundations of how we have (and will) come to increasingly appreciate and develop “macroscopic” applications of quantum mechanics in science and technology. The quantum computer starts here, for example. This looks -at a glance- like a decent Wikipedia article on it.)

(5) E. Noether, “Invariante Variationsprobleme,” Nachr. v. d. Ges. d. Wiss. zu Göttingen 1918, pp235-257.

(It’s often forgotten just how central symmetry is in modern physics. This is the paper that gave us the tools to make symmetry work for us in a modern context. Will the punters recognize their debt to Emmy Noether and push her all the way to gold? We shall see. See this site for links to English translation.)


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  • Sean

    Newton’s Principia is definitely the best paper, but let me give props to fh’s argument for EPR, which is quite interesting. The claim being that this paper is great not despite, but because of, the fact that it is wrong — it reminds us of the limits of our understanding. Said another way, EPR is great because it signals how difficult it is to truly move beyond Newton.

    On the other hand, similar reasoning might suggest that Leon Spinks was the greatest boxer of all time. So we shouldn’t get carried away.

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  • Matt B.

    Kind of OT, but why not use one of wordpresses poll plugins for this?

  • bittergradstudent

    Commentator agm seems to imply in the comments to the EPR paper that there is an experiment that has ruled out one of the equivalence principles. If this is true, what experiment, and which version of the equivalance principle, and why isn’t this a bigger story that has the whole theoretical community aflutter?

  • Plato

    Feeling the constraint on choices I just wanted to plug Einstein here if I can without having created a second choice.

    It would be consistent with my choice of Dirac for the same reasons which I illucidate. Which I had to be careful to expand on, least I suffer a deletion fate.

    But giving such a clue, I find the geometrical insights given to Einstein by Reimann’s inclusions(gauss) as part of the developing insight that runs into Dirac’s abilities. As they have been exposed and delved on, much farther away from the “selection vote” I cast to Dirac.

    Please forgive my layman excitement:)

    The choice posed by most, were poised previously and supported by Smolin himself. That would be no reason to vote for Newton because you belong to the crowd would it? :)

    I think you should have to summarize why. Okay not I guess, since the rules had been defined?

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    If a new voting, say for the best modern paper comes up, I will probably make Clifford happy by voting for Noether. Alas, it was not to be this time.

    On another note, I am glad that a female ranks in the top five. I am a huge fan of females. :-)

  • Clifford

    Hi All,

    Let’s try to get past the “female” thing. Noether’s paper is there because it is a hugely important paper which was nominated in the earlier process, and not because the author is female. It’s a nice addtional fact that she’s female, but it is irrelevant when considering the physics.

    Keep those votes coming in!!



  • Paul Valletta

    I vote as shown/placed by Clfford in blog.

  • Levi

    Clifford should have allowed trifecta betting, uh voting here, with such a strong favorite.

  • Sean

    bittergradstudent– I don’t know of any such experiments. GR has so far passed all tests with flying colors.

  • fh

    Sean, thanks for the kind words. Thank god physics is not like boxing either. (at least to my limited knowledge of the boxing world). It’s more like cooking imo…

    One of the problems with this vote is of course if we vote purely on the paper and it’s quality in the context of it’s own time, or on some quality that the paper represents.
    Obviously my vote was by the latter criterium, by the former there is probably no contest to Newtons Principia. Though I’d say if we had taken Einsteins collected papers it might have been a closer contest, as it is Einstein is represented twice in the Top 5, and Newton will take the top spot. Fair compromise.

  • bittergradstudent

    Thanks, Sean, that’s what I thought.

  • Eugene

    I wonder what would the vote results be if Newton’s principia is not in the list. :(. Not fair. Not fair!

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    Of course, Clifford.

    But I _said_ “on another note” (than the ranking itself), so I will let myself off this time. 😉

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  • fh

    Another observation, don’t know if somebody pointed that out anywhere, all the papers are from 1916 to 1935. Except for Newton.

    That’s a pretty drastic concentration! Out of four centuries since Newton we picked everything from two decades!

  • Clifford

    Torbjorn Larsson: – Fair enough.

    fh:- Yes, I noticed that too. It is interesting. (I’m still shocked that Faraday hardly showed up…… shocked shocked shocked….).


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  • Jimbo

    Newton’s Principia clearly is the foundation of all physics, & as such, is in a class by itself. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it was ever published in the PRS, so despite Cliff’s admonition to “deal with it”, is a joke, since its really is not a paper, in the modern sense.
    Deciding between Dirac’s paper & Einstein’s GR, the bases for Modern Physics, is like deciding between a
    T-bone & a NY Strip steak: impossible.

    What PO’s me is that we would not be having this online forum, or most anything else we take for granted were it not for JC Maxwell’s treatise, who was not even included, thereby ensuring that this `vote’ is total BS.

  • Clifford

    Jimbo, I admire your passion. But with respect…you’re missing the point of the exercise. See what I wrote in the post, and the other posts linked to from earlier.



  • Igor T.

    I like Emmy Noether’s paper. I have been using her ideas over ten years. Great, inspiring work!

  • mulaudzi m.g

    newton`s paper can be regarded as the greatet paper ever.because everything is called physics if and only if it contents consile or not consile with the contents of words from newton paper.physics is easily just ant newton and pro newton. infact, according to the general truth and superstition law of opinion .he is the greatest scientist ever unless acted upon by majority rule as it applieses everywhere.

  • adam

    I’d say Principia on balance, but I’m not convinced that picking ‘best single paper’ makes a lot of sense, even though I am also inclined to make ordered lists at every opportunity (although as I age, I am getting over it). I’d not have had the EPR paper on the list (not because it’s not important, I just don’t think that it’s top 5). Maybe I’d have had me some Maxwell in there instead.


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