The Greatest Physics Paper! The Result

By cjohnson | January 16, 2006 11:56 pm

Well, the result is in for The Greatest Physics Paper!

The vote counts, at close of play (9:00pm PST, 16th January), are:

25 votes: I. Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. (This counted as a paper.) Link here for the votes.

18 votes: 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 counted as one.) Link here for the votes.

14 votes: E. Noether, “Invariante Variationsprobleme,” Nachr. v. d. Ges. d. Wiss. zu Göttingen 1918, pp235-257. Link here for the votes.

11 votes: A. Einstein, Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitaetstheorie, Annalen der Physik 49 (1916), 769-822. Link here for the votes.

7 votes: A. Einstein, B. Podolsky and N. Rosen, Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? Phys Rev 47, 777 (1935). Link here for the votes.

So Newton does it again!

But we all know that it’s not really the “winner” that’s the most interesting thing. Have a look at the links to the voting threads, and to the original nominations thread for some very interesting and informative comments from several readers. You see, this high quality discussion is what counted here: Not what I think is the greatest physics paper (a meaningless -or at least unquantifiable- concept anyway) but your opinions and thoughts about what makes a great paper, what the great papers are, and why you chose your candidates…..

Thanks to all for contributing, and let’s all promise that very soon we’ll each go out and read at least one classic paper in the original.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Science
  • Paul Valletta

    A just result, and perfect thread?

    I have to admit to only reading two papers, so the others will have to be investigated.

  • Clifford

    Paul Valletta: – Thanks! -cvj

  • JoAnne

    Indeed, over the holidays I purchased a copy of ‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin. It is supposed to be a replica of the original and I am anxious to plow through it!

  • Plato

    Lee Smolin:

    Its hard to disagree with the choise of Newton’s Principia

    I think it would have been nicer for people to expand on why they choose instead of following like sheep? Sore looser here. :)

    All and all, a good learning exercise. Thanks Clifford

  • Pingback: 【格志】 最伟大物理论文投票ç»"æžœ()

  • Arun

    Does reading S. Chandrasekhar’s “Newton’s Principia for the common reader” count as reading the original?

  • Elliot


    You still have the opportunity write the greatest physics paper ever. None of the top 5 can. :)


  • Ken Muldrew

    Thread for a rainy day…It would be fun to hear people’s choices for the most entertaining physics paper. Stuff like Einstein’s explanation of river meanders or Newton’s paper on optics where he writes in a narrative style that gives you the impression that he held up a prism last Sunday and the whole theory poured forth before sundown.

  • Sean

    By “the original,” are you hoping we read the Principia in Latin? I don’t think that even my German is up to the Einstein and Noether papers.

  • Clifford

    Hi Sean,

    By “original”, I mean not the reports and digests of a piece of material that we get in a textbook. No matter how fine the textbook on a subject, it is often very illuminating to read (perhaps in translation, for the kids who don’t read Latin and German any more (sigh) 😉 ) the way it was originally presented, getting a feel for the context of the time it was written, etc. It makes it feel fresher sometimes, and it can even be more undertandable….. It is also illuminating with regards the process of research… see my earlier post about Einstein’s series of papers trying to get GR right…..

    See also excellent books that help you do the above and see the context, etc, like those of Abraham Pais on Einstein, another on Bohr, and another on particle physics…..and others (like Moore’s “Schrodinger”) These are some of the best aspects of my physics education when I was an undergraduate…. all done outside the lecture theatre.


  • Pingback: Uncertain Principles()

  • Lubos Motl

    Congratulations to Isaac Newton. He has not only made the greatest breakthrough, but he was also the smartest guy. I wonder whether it was politically correct to choose Newton, given the fact that his brain was also the most male brain among all. 😉

    Did you ever wonder whether Newton, if revived from his DNA, would be able to help us with string theory? Would he like it? I think that he would be thrilled by the modern developments.

  • Plato


    I see why not Lubos. Plato is trying

    Of course “bits and pieces” of Plato are all over the place, so to say, from any beginning about those “eides,” what credibility comes from Plato?


    If they want introduction to new models, why use me as illustration, as to a sun shining behind and shadows?

    Are we all prisoners with chains that bind?:) That some will see these other eides, better as they move to the opening of the cave/perspective of fire?

    Like Newton, Dirac, Einstein, Noether and EPR?

  • david

    while this is an impressive list, i am quite surprised and somewhat dissapointed that it omitted maxwell

  • Clifford

    Well David, you should have made a case for him and rallied for support. As I tried to encourage people to do……. It was all open to be shaped by the readers….Faraday also never saw the light of day, which I thought was weird…..



  • Arun

    Newton cloned from his DNA, and with the same development cues that he had in his mother’s womb would probably be close to the original, otherwise not.

  • Chad Orzel

    Did you ever wonder whether Newton, if revived from his DNA, would be able to help us with string theory? Would he like it? I think that he would be thrilled by the modern developments.

    He was really into alchemy, after all…

    (Oh, come on, I couldn’t just leave that sitting there. I mean, the fish were right there in the barrel, and the gun was so tempting…)

  • X^2

    I think Newton is highly overrated. If he didnt do it, someone else would have done it. Someone else did the calculus better, someone else did the optics and as well the [some of the] dynamics although he tended not to develop his ideas to full fruition. Robert Hooke, I speak of. Newton was very vain and ultrasensitive.

    If Hooke was already so close I do not think Newton’s acheivement more remarkable than that he did so first. It is so far in the past that most people do not notice but much of the hard work required in the paradigm shifts had already been undertaken by Galilieo (mathematics into Natural philosophy, exprimentation) , Descartes (his coordinate system), Huygens (suceeded Galileo +descartes predynamics), Pascal, Cavalieri and Fermat (furtherers of forerunner calculus). I could go on.

  • X^2

    On the key connection of same laws governing all bodies, I am most certain that someone else was on such a track. Already Hooke had considered that gravity could be measured with a pendulum and that there existed an inverse square law of gravitational attraction within the celestial bodies (motivated by studies of centripetal motions). Had he chosen or been able (had a tendancy to jump from idea to idea) he might have preceded Newton. He conjectured (probably without the benefit of Kepler’s work) that the earth’s orbit might be elliptical and not circular. I only mention Hooke since it is only he I kow, but I am sure that if history is to serve as a reference on the emergance of new ideas, that there were others working on the same track as Newton.

  • Clifford

    X^2 said:

    “I think Newton is highly overrated. If he didnt do it, someone else would have done it.”

    Sure…maybe…… but the bottom line is that he did do it. So he deserves a lot of credit. There are always several other people working on similar things at the time of the vast majority of breakthroughs…..then history tends to forget about the also-rans and takes the person who was “first past the post” and makes them into a super-visionary giant who saw way further than everybody else. I think that is often true. Newton might deserve a bit more credit than just being a “first past the post” -er because he was first (or first-ish) past the post on so many different topics and techniques all at once…. That was pretty special.

    But either way…. it was he who wrote the Principia, and so that is what we were giving credit for. If it were Hooke who wrote it, then….



  • weight

    I completely agree, we are giving so much credit to all of those old timers.

  • Lubos Motl

    Einstein and Newton had some form of autism

    This condition is believed to be a consequence of an extreme male brain.

    Newton was exceptional and if he did not make his discoveries, 5 other people would had to collectively make the same discoveries 50 years later or more, if at all. You won’t find a second person who would be as irreplacable as Isaac Newton – or you won’t find too many of them.

    Chad Orzel’s dismissive comment about Newton’s alchemy is completely absurd. Newton’s alchemy was the best chemistry that was available in his era, and whoever humiliates this portion of Newton’s interests is equally ignorant as someone who does not understand why we study string theory today.

  • Elliot


    Newton most certainly should have been aware of Boyle’s work in chemistry which was pretty far from Alchemy.



  • bittergradstudent

    The thing that bothers me about Newton is his nastiness toward Leibniz, who probably did develop calculus first (with a vastly superior notation), and who was completely right on the matter of the existence of a global stationary reference frame. To my understanding, Newton simply smeared Leibniz until he got his way, due to his reputation.

    Now, most of my complaint is that Leibniz gets too little credit, rather than NEwton getting too much, but the one is related to the other.

  • Elliot

    Newton handpicked the committee to “determine” who the actual inventor was. Of course he won. Reminiscent of contemporary GOP politics.


  • Count Iblis


    I find it strange that Dirac isn’t mentioned in these articles about Autism.

    See here an interview of Dirac in the Wisconsin State Journal

    “Dirac’s introversive style and his interest in abstract theory were rather foreign to the scientists at the University of Wisconsin. They recognized his genius but had difficulties in comprehending his symbolic version of quantum theory. The Americans also found him a bit of a strange character. A local newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, wanted to interview the visiting physicist from Europe and assigned this task to a humorous columnist known as ‘Roundy’. His encounter with Dirac is quoted here in extenso because it not only reveals some characteristic features of Dirac’s personality but also is an amusing piece of journalism:

    ‘I been hearing about a fellow they have up at the U. this spring — a mathematical physicist, or something, they call him — who is pushing Sir Isaac Newton, Einstein and all the others off the front page. So I thought I better go up and interview him for the benefit of the State Journal readers, same as I do all the other top notchers. His name is Dirac and he is an Englishman. He has been giving lectures for the intelligensia of the math and physics department — and a few other guys who got in by mistake.

    So the other afternoon I knocks at the door of Dr. Dirac’s office in Sterling Hall and a pleasant voice says, “Come in.” And I want to say here and now that this sentence “come in” was about the longest one emitted by the doctor during our interview. He sure is all for efficiency in conversation. It suits me. I hate a talkative guy.

    I found the doctor a tall youngish-looking man, and the minute I see the twinkle in his eye I knew I was going to like him. His friends at the U. say he is a real fellow too and good company on a hike — if you can keep him in sight, that is.

    The thing that hit me in the eye about him was that he did not seem to be at all busy. Why if I went to interview an American scientist of his class — supposing I could find one — I would have to stick around an hour first. Then he would blow in carrying a big briefcase, and while he talked he would be pulling lecture notes, proof, reprints, books, manuscripts, or what have you, out of his bag. But Dirac is different. he seems to have all the time there is in the world and his heaviest work is looking out the window. If he is a typical Englishman it’s me for England on my next vacation!

    Then we sat down and the interview began. “Professor,” says I, “I notice you have quite a few letters in front of your last name. Do they stand for anything in particular?”

    “No.” says he.

    “You mean I can write my own ticket?”

    “Yes,” says he.

    “Will it be all right if I say that P. A. M. stands for Poincare Aloysius Mussolini?”

    “Yes,” says he.

    “Fine,” says I, “We are getting along great! Now doctor will you give me in a few words the low-down on all your investigations?”

    “No,” says he.

    “Good,” says I. “Will it be all right if I put it this way — ‘Professor Dirac solves all the problems of mathematical physics, but is unable to find a better way of figuring out Babe Ruth’s batting average’?”

    “Yes,” says he.

    “What do you like best in America?” says I.

    “Potatoes,” says he.

    “Same here,” says I. “What is your favorite sport?”

    “Chinese chess,” says he.

    That knocked me cold! It sure was a new one to me! Then I went on: “Do you go to the movies?”

    “Yes,” says he.

    “When?” says I.

    “In 1920 — perhaps also 1930,” says he.

    “Do you like to read the Sunday comics?”

    “Yes,” says he, warming up a bit more than usual.

    “This is the most important thing yet Doctor,” says I. “It shows that me and you are more alike than I thought. And now I want to ask you something more: They tell me that you and Einstein are the only two real sure-enough high-brows and the only ones who can really understand each other. I won’t ask you if this is straight stuff for I know you are too modest to admit it. But I want to know this — Do you ever run across a fellow that even you can’t understand?”

    “Yes,” says he.

    “This will make great reading for the boys down at the office,” says I. “do you mind releasing to me who he is?”

    “Weyl,” says he.

    The interview came to a sudden end just then for the doctor pulled out his watch and I dodged and jumped for the door. But he let loose a smile as we parted and I knew that all the time he had been talking to me he was solving some problem no one else could touch.

    But if that Professor Weyl ever lectures in this town again I sure am going to take a try at understanding him! A fellow ought to test his intelligence once in a while.’

  • Chris Chatham

    Extreme male brain is, of course, just one theory of autism, and considering how difficult it is to find cross-culturally consistent psychological differences between men and women … it seems to me that mirror neuron dysfunction is a much more likely cause of autism.

    (and now, back to the regularly scheduled program)

  • Clifford

    Count Iblis:- That was a longer quote in comment than we would normallly prefer, but I enjoy Dirac stories so much, I left it in…thanks!


  • Count Iblis


    Yes, I was thinking that this quote could be a bit too long, but it was so funny that I couldn’t resist posting the entire interview.

  • Pingback: Uncertain Principles()

  • Pingback: Get out the vote! | Cosmic Variance()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar