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Science past and present

Tom Siegfried



Top 10 papers from Physical Review’s first 125 years

The most prestigious journal in physics highlights dozens of its most famous papers

illustration of a black hole

Black holes have captured our imaginations for decades. The process of black hole formation was first described in 1939 in a paper in Physical Review, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

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No anniversary list is ever complete. Just last month, for instance, my Top 10 scientific anniversaries of 2018 omitted the publication two centuries ago of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It should have at least received honorable mention.

Perhaps more egregious, though, was overlooking the 125th anniversary of the physics journal Physical Review. Since 1893, the Physical Review has published hundreds of thousands of papers and has been long regarded as the premier repository for reports of advances in humankind’s knowledge of the physical world. In recent decades it has split itself into subjournals (A through E, plus L — for Letters — and also X) to prevent excessive muscle building by librarians and also better organize papers by physics subfield. (You don’t want to know what sorts of things get published in X.) 

To celebrate the Physical Review anniversary, the American Physical Society (which itself is younger, forming in 1899 and taking charge of the journal in 1913), has released a list, selected by the journals’ editors, of noteworthy papers from Physical Review history.

The list comprises more than four dozen papers, oblivious to the concerns of journalists composing Top 10 lists. If you prefer the full list without a selective, arbitrary and idiosyncratic Top 10 filter, you can go straight to the Physical Review journals’ own list. But if you want to know which two papers the journal editors missed, you’ll have to read on.

10. Millikan measures the electron’s charge, 1913.

When J.J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897, it was by proving the rays in cathode ray tubes were made up of a stream of particles. They carried a unit of electrical charge (hence their name). Thomson did not publish in the Physical Review. But Robert Millikan did in 1913 when he measured the strength of the electric charge on a single electron. He used oil drops, measuring how fast they fell through an electric field. Interacting with ions in the air gave each drop more or fewer electric charges, affecting how fast the drops fell. It was easy to calculate the smallest amount of charge consistent with the various changes in speed. (OK, it was not easy at all — it was a tough experiment and the calculations required corrections for all sorts of things.) Millikan’s answer was very close to today’s accepted value, and he won the Nobel Prize in 1923.

9. Wave nature of electron, Davisson and Germer, 1927.

J.J. Thomson’s son George also experimented with electrons, and showed that despite his father’s proof that they were particles, they also sometimes behaved like waves. George did not publish in the Physical Review. But Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer did; their paper established what came to be called the wave-particle duality. Their experiment confirmed the suspicions of Louis de Broglie, who had suggested the wave nature of electrons in 1924.

8. Particle nature of X-rays, Compton, 1923.

Actually, wave-particle duality was already on the physics agenda before de Broglie’s paper or Davisson and Germer’s experiment, thanks to Arthur Holly Compton. His experiments on X-rays showed that when they collided with electrons, momentum was transferred just as in collisions of particles. Nevertheless X-rays were definitely a form of electromagnetic radiation that moved as a wave, like light. Compton’s result was good news for Einstein, who had long argued that light had particle-like properties and could travel in the form of packets (later called photons).

7. Discovery of antimatter, Carl Anderson, 1933.

In the late 1920s, in the wake of the arrival of quantum mechanics, English physicist Paul Dirac was also interested in electrons. He applied his mathematical powers to devise an equation to explain them, and he succeeded. But he got out more than he put in. His equation yielded correct answers for an electron’s energy but also contained a negative root. That perplexed him; a negative energy for an electron seemed to make no physical sense. Still, the math was the math, and Dirac couldn’t ignore his own equation’s solutions. After some false steps, he decided that the negative energy implied the existence of a new kind of particle, identical to an electron except with an opposite electric charge (equal in magnitude to the charge that Millikan had measured). Dirac did not publish in the Physical Review. But Carl Anderson, who actually found Dirac’s antimatter electron in 1933, did. In cloud chamber observations of cosmic rays, Anderson spotted tracks of a lightweight positively charged particle, apparently Dirac’s antielectron. He titled his paper “The Positive Electron” and referred to the new particles as positrons. They were the first example of antimatter.

6. How stars shine, Hans Bethe, 1939.

Since the dawn of science, astronomers had wondered how the sun shines. Some experiments in the 19th century suggested gravity. But a sun powered by gravitational contraction would have burned itself out long ago. A new option for powering the sun appeared in the 1930s when physicists began to understand the energy released in nuclear reactions. In the simplest such reaction, two protons fused. That made sense as a solar power source, because a proton is the nucleus of a hydrogen atom and stars are made mostly of hydrogen. But at a conference in April 1938, experts including Hans Bethe of Cornell University concluded that proton fusion could not create the temperatures observed in the brightest stars. On the train back to Cornell, though, Bethe figured out the correct, more complicated nuclear reactions and soon sent a paper to the Physical Review. He asked the journal to delay publishing it so he could enter it in a contest (open to unpublished papers only). Bethe won the contest and then OK’d publication of his paper, which appeared in March 1939. For winning the contest, he received $500. For the published paper, his prize was delayed — until 1967. In that year he got the Nobel Prize: $61,700.

5. Is quantum mechanics complete? Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, 1935.

Einstein was famous for a lot of things, including a stubborn resistance to the implications of quantum mechanics. His main objection was articulated in the Physical Review in May 1935 in a paper coauthored with physicists Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky. It presented a complicated argument that is frequently misrepresented or misunderstood (as I’ve discussed here previously), but the gist is he thought quantum mechanics was incomplete. Its math could not describe properties that were simultaneously “real” for two separated particles that had previously interacted. Decades later multiple experiments showed that quantum mechanics was in fact complete; reality is not as simple a concept as Einstein and colleagues would have liked. The “EPR paper” stimulated an enormous amount of interest in the foundations of quantum mechanics, though. And some people continue to believe E, P and R had a point.

4. Is quantum mechanics complete? (Yes.) Bohr, 1935.

Here’s one of the missing papers. Physical Review’s editors somehow forgot to include Niels Bohr’s reply to the EPR paper. In October 1935, Bohr published a detailed response in the Physical Review, outlining the misunderstandings that EPR had perpetrated. Later EPR experiments turned out exactly as Bohr would have expected. (An early example from 1982 is among the Physical Review anniversary papers, but not this Top 10 list.) Yet some present-day critics still believe that somehow Bohr was wrong and Einstein was right. He wasn’t.

3. Gravitational waves detected by LIGO, 2016.

Einstein was right about gravitational waves. After devising his general theory of relativity to explain gravity, he realized that it implied ripples in the very fabric of spacetime itself. Later he backed off, doubting his original conclusion. But he was right the first time: A mass abruptly changing its speed or direction of movement should emit waves in space. Violent explosions or collisions would create ripples sufficiently strong to be detectable, if you spent a billion dollars or so to build some giant detectors. In a hopeful sign for humankind, the U.S. National Science Foundation put up the money and two black holes provided the collision in 2015, as reported in February 2016 in Physical Review Letters and widely celebrated by bloggers.

2. Explaining nuclear fission, Bohr and Wheeler, 1939.

On September 1, 1939, the opening day of World War II, the Physical Review published a landmark paper describing the theory of nuclear fission. It was a quick turnaround, as fission had been discovered only in December 1938, in Germany. While Einstein was writing a letter to warn President Roosevelt of fission’s potential danger in the hands of Nazis, Bohr and John Archibald Wheeler figured out how fission happened. Their paper provided essential theoretical knowledge for the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic bomb, and later to the use of nuclear energy as a power source.

1. Oppenheimer and Snyder describe black holes, 1939.

The process of black hole formation was first described by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hartland Snyder in the same issue of the Physical Review as Bohr and Wheeler’s fission paper. Of course, the name black hole didn’t exist yet, but Oppenheimer and Snyder thoroughly explained how a massive star contracting under the inward pull of its own gravity would eventually disappear from view. “The star thus tends to close itself off from any communication with a distant observer; only its gravitational field persists,” they wrote. Nobody paid any attention to black holes then, though, because Oppenheimer soon became director of the Manhattan Project (requiring him to read Bohr and Wheeler’s paper). It wasn’t until the late 1960s when black holes became a household name thanks to Wheeler (who eventually got around to reading Oppenheimer and Snyder’s paper). Yet for some reason the Physical Review editors omitted the Oppenheimer-Snyder paper from their list, verifying that no such list is ever complete, even if you have dozens of items instead of only 10.

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

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