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Top Ten Physics Experiments Of All Times 296

Posted by Hemos
from the beating-back-the-unknown dept.
MarkedMan writes "The New York Times is running an article about the top ten physics experiments of all time. You may disagree with the order, but it is hard to imagine pulling any one of these from the top ten. And most of them could be done by a patient amateur, at least one with access to cannonballs." The Times article wraps up the work by Robert P. Crease mentioned a few weeks ago.
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Top Ten Physics Experiments Of All Times

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  • physics (Score:2, Funny)

    i remember when i first tried to make a perpetual motion machine... then somehow it caught fire in my living room... i dont remember how i tried to build it though...
    • Re:physics (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      You take a piece of buttered bread and strap it to a cat (buttered side up). Then you drop the cat from a few feet up. Since buttered bread always lands buttered side down and a cat always lands on its feet, the cat will hover a foot or so off the ground spinning perpetually.
      • Re:physics (Score:3, Interesting)

        Eventually the butter would dry up, leaving the toast bare.

        It's also quite obvious that you've never tried to strap something to a cat.
        • Re:physics (Score:4, Funny)

          by forgotmypassword (602349) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @06:43PM (#4331804)
          My professor wondered why a cat always lands right side up.

          He took a cat and video taped it falling.

          He looked at the footage and noticed that the cat's tail was spinning in the opposite direction - to conserve angular momentum.

          So he decided to tape the cat's tail down and rerun the experiment.

          All this while running the video camera.

          The cat was sick of experiments and violently lashed out at him.

          All on tape.
  • A physics experiment on a grand scale and ... uh ... earth shattering.

    Hopefully not duplicatable in a garage.

    • Fortunately, it was less earth-shattering than some people were worried about - there was some scientific speculation about the bomb doing Really Bad Things to the planet once the fission reaction started. Fortunately (though not surprisingly), it didn't, though we have had 60 years of having to worry whether the people we hired as governments are crazy enough to go nuking each other.

      On the other hand, fits just fine in a garage, at least in a big garage - some of the larger bombs were ~20 feet long, but most designs are smaller. THe uranium refinement equipment takes up more space, but they say that the centrifuge-based systems are a lot more compact and realistic than the huge UF6 gas-diffusion plants used in the first nukes.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @02:05AM (#4325556)
    For all the lamers who don't want to register, Google News is your friend [].
  • My favorite would have to be the wave vs. particle experiment involving the two slits. Is it jsut called the double slit experiment?
  • by Thatto (258697) <boogiechillin AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @02:10AM (#4325568) Journal
    What could you do with 50Lbs. of Silly Putty?
    Check out the link:

    This one simple act covers physics(gravity Acceleration, fluid dynamics and whatnot) and is so simple but so fun.

    Too bad its sponsored by a windows software publishing house.
  • by BitterOak (537666) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @02:12AM (#4325575)
    I find it astonishing that the Michaelson-Morley experiment, which was the basis for Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity didn't make the top ten list.

    Special relativity changed the direction of physics in the 20th century. All modern physics incorporates it at a fundamental level. In some sense it is one of the most influential physics experiments of all time.

    • > I find it astonishing that the Michaelson-Morley experiment, which was the basis for Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity didn't make the top ten list.

      Yeah, M/M is always the first thing that comes to mind when the subject of "classic experiment" comes up.

    • One point speaking against including MM is that it was not really relevant to Einstein's work, he tried to solve theoretical inconsistencies between mechanics and electrodynamics.
      • by pmc (40532) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @03:19AM (#4325755) Homepage
        Not really - MM experiment completely destroyed the worldview at the time. Depending on you criteria this has to be one of the top ten.

        Other ones missing are

        JJ Thompsons backscattering of alpha particles from gold foil - changed to model of the atom from the plum pudding model to the nuclear model

        Penzia and Wilson discovery of the microwave background - changed the model of the universe.

        Discovery of superconductivity.

        Any of Faraday's electromagnetism experiments - lead directly to Maxwell's field theory of electromagnetism, and hence to moden field based physics.

        There are load more - the NYT list is poor.

        • by RedWizzard (192002) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @04:17AM (#4325901)
          JJ Thompsons backscattering of alpha particles from gold foil - changed to model of the atom from the plum pudding model to the nuclear model
          You're confused. The plum pudding atom was JJ Thompson's - it was Ernest Rutherford who did the scattering experiment and proposed the nuclear model of the atom. And that experiment is on the list at number 9.
        • Not including the Penzia / Wilson microwave background is a real travesty!

          There are load more - the NYT list is poor.

          Tis true. I've never understood the point of these "greatest" lists. Apparently Americans don't care about science unless it's formulated into some sort of ersatz popularity contest like the Emmys...
        • by Wind_Walker (83965) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @10:02AM (#4326939) Homepage Journal
          The New York Times wasn't writing for us Physicists - they were writing for the average Joe Schmoe who barely knows what an electron is, let alone the fundamentals of superconductivity or Maxwell's theory. The NYT list is a list of old experiments (I don't think any of them were after 1900 or so) because they're easily understood by the masses and easily explained by a journalist who doesn't fully comprehend it, either.

          How do you think the article would be received if the NYT said "M-M thought that there was ether all around us, and they could prove it. They would analyze the doppler shift in light between perpendicular readings of the same aparatus, and the motion of the Earth, travelling through that medium, would lead to a finding. But they were wrong, so I told you all that for nothing".

          Normal people can understand that heavier things do not fall faster than light things. Normal people can't understand a lot of wonderful physics experiments.

        • Michaelson was an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy at the time, and the experiment took place there (one end of it, anyway). There's a series of two-inch brass markers in the concrete between two of the Naval Academy's academic buildings indicating the path over which the experiment took place.

          It's right between Chauvenet, and - wait for it - Michaelson halls.

    • I find it astonishing that the Michaelson-Morley experiment, which was the basis for Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity didn't make the top ten list.

      Actually, Einstein claimed that he was unaware of the Michaelson-Morely result when he formulated Special Relativity. He was aware of the constant speed of light predicted by Maxwell's equations though.

    • by The Fun Guy (21791) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @07:03AM (#4326223) Homepage Journal
      Absolutely! I am always amazed when this experiment doesn't get its due when people compose "Top Ten" lists. Aside from the impact it had, it is one of the great examples of the significance of negative results. They tried to find the Doppler shift in light caused by the aether, and when they didn't find it, did they just shrug and say, "Negative results.", and drop it? NO! This was the classic "dog that didn't bark", and it was important!

      I apologize for getting up on this soapbox, but I've several times had the expereience of submitting a manuscript to a journal and having the reviewers criticize me for including negative results along with the positive ones, as though we shouldn't even discuss negative results, much less try to draw conclusions from them. IMNSHO, if the experiment was well designed and there are no artifacts creeping in, then an experiment is only a failure if you don't learn anything from it.
      • Nice to see someone with a true scientific attitude these days. (No this isn't sarcasm)

        I get despressed about the pseudo-sciences where experiments aren't repeated because someone else has done it already - what happened to verification? And as you say, a negative result can be every bit as important as a positive.

        Just think how much money would have been wasted if Fleishman & Pons had been taken at face value..... (yes, this is irony)

    • The reason is probably that they stipulated that all experiments were to be so simple that they could be done by anyone with a slide rule or calculator (and a creative mind). The Michelson-Morley experiment, IIRC, required several expensive mirrors or a great deal of mercury which was used as a mirror. That's one reason why Morley was involved, I think; to obtain all that mercury. I could be wrong with this, but that's how I remember it.
    • by gosand (234100) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @09:38AM (#4326787)
      The top ten list wasn't about the most influential physics experiments. It was about the most beautiful - the moment of clarity experiments. The article explained that at the beginning. I am sure that if they polled the same people and had them come up with the most influential experiments, the list would come out a little different.
    • There were lots of physics experiments that changed the world in terribly significant ways. Personally, I would have included the displacement test/experiment from Archimedes, because it's such a great story - however, it doesn't rank quite THAT elegantly above the experiements mentioned in the article.

      This article asks for the most BEAUTIFUL experiments, not their impact on the world. These experiments most certainly did have a large impact, but what sets them apart from other experiments is how simply they were done (the article even states as much before you even get into the experiments).

      I can understand your confusion - /. itself can be guilty of "Broken Telephone" news coverage, too. That, or the editors have no appreciation of beauty (the idea or the word that's missing in the headline =P ).

  • by jukal (523582) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @02:13AM (#4325579) Journal
    which ended 15 minutes, experiments like this [] (TRAFFIC "EXPERIMENTS" AND A CURE FOR WAVES & JAMS) easily beats Newton, Galilei and Young.

    If anyone from this morning's traffic jam is listening, learn from the webpage linked above:
    On my evening commute on I-5 southbound from Everett there is always a right-lane traffic jam at one of the Lynnwood off-ramps. Close-packed cars must crawl along at 2mph for a very long time. Therefore I intentionally approached that distant jam in the right lane, and started letting a REALLY huge empty space open up ahead of me. By the time I hit the jam, there was maybe 1000ft of empty road ahead of me. Sure enough, my big empty space stopped traffic from feeding it from behind, while the front of the jam kept dissolving as usual. By the time I arrived, the jam was about half the size it had been. Amazing. This wasn't any little traffic wave, yet one single driver was able to take a huge bite out of it.


    • > which ended 15 minutes ago.
    • I'm glad someone else has figured this stuff out. Here is a principle I think he hints at understanding, but doesn't state outright:

      Imagine that everyone has to go at half their usual speed to work. Then it takes each person twice as long to get to work. This means at any given time, there are twice as many cars on the road. With twice as many cars, things are likely to slow down even more...
      • No, the principle is that paradoxically, if you want to drive faster overall, you need to drive slower at some points. If you continually go as fast as you can go right behind the car in front of you, it creates traffic jams. Driving at the average speed and leaving a large gap between you and the car ahead of you can speed up all the traffic behind you.
    • How the heck did he keep 30 cars from cutting in from the next lane over?
      • I started leaving a large gap between my car and the car ahead of me in stop and go traffic several years ago. I've never had significant problems with cars cutting in and filling up the gap. Read the FAQ on his web page to get some explanations why.
        • I started leaving a large gap between my car and the car ahead of me in stop and go traffic several years ago. I've never had significant problems with cars cutting in and filling up the gap. Read the FAQ on his web page to get some explanations why.

          This doesn't work around Birmingham, Alabama. Damn NASCAR fans don't think they're going anywhere if they aren't passing people and cutting them off.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @02:16AM (#4325593)

    Conducted in 7th grade; proved that farts are flammable.
  • by RichardtheSmith (157470) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @02:17AM (#4325599)
    Just because the Michelson-Morley experiment was based on the wrong
    idea doesn't mean it's not an important experiment in the history of
    science. It's probably the one that gets pounded into the heads of
    high-school physics students the most. I mean, you can't explain
    *why* it was wrong without understanding Special Relativity and
    E=MC^2, which is pretty cool. And the whole discussion of SR vs. the
    Lorentz Transform is fascinating in itself. I think the editors of
    this article were biased toward experiments that were easy to explain
    and understand, and shied away from experiments that failed but still
    advanced science.
  • Is to drink 30 beers, and measure how long I spend at the porcalin alter. I hypothesise that the more beers I drink the actual time at the alter seems to slow down... more experiments needed though. Hence the more beers, the more time seems to dilate. Interesting.
    • " the porcalin alter. I hypothesise that..."

      This evenings experiment is well underway I see!

      And now you've left me with the mental image of morphing-pig-toilet-thing...thanks.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    I don't think the top 3 physics experiments of all times are:

    1. Create an account

    2. Tell us about yourself


    3. Select exclusive benefits

    where's the cat-buttered-toast infinite power engine in all of this?
  • by grungebox (578982) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @02:43AM (#4325661) Homepage
    Um...Theodore Maiman/Charles Townes and the Laser! Anyone heard of those? I hear they're all the rage in Europe...and everywhere else. Maiman single-handedly took the theoretical ideas of Townes and constructed the first crude but working laser. That was a landmark achievement, and it was an important if not ingenious experiment in the history of science. Of course, since Townes got the Nobel prize, Maiman has sort of been relegated to obscurity, but that doesn't make his laser work any less important. Remember that next time you load up Warcraft III in that CDROM drive. How do you think it's being read, anyway?
  • All they need now is comments and I'll never come here again... Oh, thats right, they run the Groups...

    Never mind, usenet went to the dogs a long time ago..
  • by Jim.McGinness (38527) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @03:06AM (#4325728) Homepage
    What I find interesting is that two of the experiments were not experiments at all in the traditional sense. They were thought experiments: Galileo is generally thought not to have dropped cannonballs from the Leaning Tower of Pisa -- instead, his writings describe a thought experiment involving two unequal weights tied together with a rope. And Young's double slit experiment was also a thought experiment -- the verification came many years later.
  • by guttentag (313541) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @03:08AM (#4325731) Journal
    • In the late 1500's, everyone knew that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones. After all, Aristotle had said so. That an ancient Greek scholar still held such sway was a sign of how far science had declined during the dark ages. Galileo Galilei, who held a chair in mathematics at the University of Pisa, was impudent enough to question the common knowledge.

    • Aristotle would have predicted that the velocity of a rolling ball was constant: double its time in transit and you would double the distance it traversed. Galileo was able to show that the distance is actually proportional to the square of the time: Double it and the ball would go four times as far.

    • The common wisdom held that white light is the purest form (Aristotle again)...
    Article summary: Three out of ten great scientists rose to prominence by proving Aristotle was an idiot. Dissing Aristotle is a sure fire way to impress your friends in scientific circles.
    • er... make that two out of nine. Ah, it's all marketing anyway. Same point conveyed.
    • Aristotle "talked out of his ass" in a LOT of different fields. This is by far my FAVORITE single Aristotle quote... (From Poetics, Part VII)

      Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and also has another after it.
    • by Sivar (316343) <charlesnburns[&]gmail,com> on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @03:59AM (#4325848)
      Article summary: Three out of ten great scientists rose to prominence by proving Aristotle was an idiot.

      Proving that *Aristotle* was an idiot? Aristotle is widely known as a person who was probably among the most intelligent humans ever to have lived.

      Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. His studies on animals laid the foundation for the biological sciences and weren't superceded until two THOUSAND years after his death.

      Aristotle made significant contributions to logic (He and Plato founded the basic principals of logic, such as some of the rules of inference), physics, astronomy, meteorology, zoology, metaphysics, theology, psychology, political science, economics, ethics, rhetoric, and poetics However, still more astounding is the fact that the majority of these subjects did not exist as such before him, so that he would have been the first to conceive of and establish them, as systematic disciplines.

      His writings, some of which you should recognize as some of the most influential documents ever written, include:
      On logic
      On Interpretation
      Prior Analytics
      Posterior Analytics
      Sophistical Refutations

      On physics
      On The Heavens
      On Generation and Corruption

      On psychology and natural history
      On The Soul
      On The Parts Of Animals
      On The Motion Of Animals
      On The History Of Animals
      On The Gait Of Animals
      On The Generation Of Animals

      On ethics
      Nicomachean Ethics
      Eudemian Ethics
      Magna Moralia

      General investigation of the things

      Other works
      On Dreams
      On Longevity and Shortness Of Life
      On Memory and Reminiscence
      On Prophesying by Dreams
      On Sense and The Sensible
      On Sleep and Sleeplessness
      On Youth and Old Age, On Life And Death, On Breathing

      This person contributed more and to more areas than any other who has ever lived. That some of his sciences were found to be incorrect does not change this, particularly when you consider that he laid the foundation of the principal ideas of what we call physics more than two thousand years before his physics were superceded. Calling this man a moron is like calling Linux Torvalds a newbie programmer, or Windows 95 a reliable server operating system. In fact, I cannot think of anything more wrong than to use "Aristotle" and "idiot" in the same sentence without a "not". Name one person who has done even close to as much for human knowledge and understanding.
      • by Alsee (515537) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @07:47AM (#4326320) Homepage
        Your 3.5 page essay on the greatness of Aristotle earned you a +5 interesting/insightfull/informative, but...

        Article summary: Three out of ten great scientists rose to prominence by proving Aristotle was an idiot +5 funny

        is pure gold :)

        (How do I know it's pure gold? Well, I was taking a bath and some of the water spilled over the side...)

      • Ok, I obviously haven't read the much of the Aristotle "canon", but I did read (or at least tried to read) Nicomachean Ethics, and boy, what a useless boring worthless piece of crap that was. Remember it is good to be virtuous because virtuous means being right in the middle not that extreme or this extreme, not too much to the left of the middle and not to much to the right of the middle although we know that sometimes people want to act other than virtuous which is to say some extreme which is to say farther to the left or right of absolute middle than will be commonly accepted in this work, and by straying from the middle, that is to say virtue, they are being less than virtous. Now class, let us empirically quantify and categorize every single fucking category of "virtue" and all degrees of virtue, remembering not to be too zealous in such pursuit, nor too apathetic. *GNAW MY LEG OFF TO ESCAPE* I have had a grudge against Aristotle since then.
      • by shren (134692) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @08:58AM (#4326569) Homepage Journal

        Science lived in Aristotle's shadow for a long time. This was both good and bad. Good, becuase Aristotle was quite clever and there was a lot of useful stuff in his shadow. Bad, because his work was taken as gospel, complete and correct in all areas.

        I think it's very easy to forget about how different the minds of people are between now and then. Concepts we take for granted - uniform space, causality, the scientific method, non-contact forces - wern't even a part of the intellectual landscape. I think if anyone ever actually invented a time machine, going back far enough would encounter humans almost alien in thought. We all share premises from growing up in this era. They had different premises, perhaps different enough to hinder communication even if a common language was found.

        Every time you read something obvious in one of Aristotle's works, remember - it's only obvious now because he wrote it then. Imagine, perhaps, a world where it's not obvious and think about how we got from there to here.

      • Effectively, Aristotle recorded what was accepted by the aristocracy as the common sense of the day. (No danger of him being asked to drink hemlock.) I am not aware that he actually performed a single experiment. Aristotle regarded experimentation 'beneath right thinkers'. His 'thought exercises' laid the foundation for idiocy that has lasted over two thousand years, culminating in the Catholic church and western religion. Essentially, he passed his opinion off as fact and the western world bought it. Plato would not have been pleased nor proud. Sorry, his science was and is bad.
        • I am not aware that he actually performed a single experiment. Aristotle regarded experimentation 'beneath right thinkers'.

          This attitude is still found today in much of the social sciences and humanities, hence their uselessness

          Essentially, he passed his opinion off as fact and the western world bought it.

          To this date, much of sociology is an argument of opinions the levi-straussites against the marxists against the flavour-of-the-day-theory. Not once does it occur to them to set up experiments to start discriminating between the different theories.

          • by King Babar (19862) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @12:31PM (#4328241) Homepage
            I am not aware that he actually performed a single experiment. Aristotle regarded experimentation 'beneath right thinkers'.

            This attitude is still found today in much of the social sciences and humanities, hence their uselessness.

            OK, so I think this is slightly unfair. In a previous life (or so it sometimes seems...) I was an English Literature major. As it turned out, I was one of the most unhappy English Literature majors there ever was, precisely because of the lack of empirical content in something like literary theory. Reading great literature for its own sweet sake was very easy; sometimes gaining insight or greater appreciation for a work of literature or art via thoughtful and persuasive criticism clearly also has its place. Mere arguments about the content or validity of critical theories...that was hell. The humanities are intellectual endeavors whose use lies in the fact that they make us glad and help us see beauty. But I have no idea how you can make any of it empirical in and of itself, or why you should think that critical theory could ever be improved by experiments...

            Now, social sciences have different problems. In most cases, I would argue the problem is not that social scientists don't want to do experiments but that the correct experiments to do are difficult or impossible to execute. This is obviously a big problem that can get compounded by attempts to argue that flawed experiments are just as good, that minor results are far-sweeping, etc.

            Frankly, another problem is that people who get very interested in the problems studied by social scientists are often tragically enough the people whose appreciation and aptitude for "real" science is not as high. (Now this is why I find economics a particularly weird field; economists usually *do* have a "hard science" orientation, but some of them are still pretty massively opposed to empirical work in their own field. Some of this has to be because good experiments would be very tough, but not all of it.)

            I think a fairer statement about the social sciences is not that they are useless, but that they progress only very slowly due to the difficulty of experimentation and the massive complexity of the phenomena being studied.

            • In most cases, I would argue the problem is not that social scientists don't want to do experiments but that the correct experiments to do are difficult or impossible to execute.

              This is the standard cop-out that social scientists use: we would like to do experiments, is just that is too difficult.

              The same could be said about astronomy or economics, yet those disciplines have found a (limited) way to perform experiments. For many years economists used the same cop-out: it is impossible to experiment with economies. Well it turns out that running simulated games with $10 prices amongst undergrad students are amazingly good predictors of what real economic players would do in similar but much larger situations. So their lame excuse was just that, a lame excuse.

              In fact, recently a foundation was established with the aim of selecting scientifically valid data points for use in the social sciences. The scientific panel is making good progress and projected, IIRC ten thousand such scientifically validated studies within a year or so ... The idea is to provide the experimental basis to start discriminating between theories. As you can imagine, the effort came through a wealthy donor from outside the social sciences.

      • The fact that he stated that for an object rolling down an inclined plane d=tv (i.e., didn't accelerate), while it can be disproven by simple everyday observation, shows his internal combustion engine wasn't firing on all the cylinders. Or he was lazy.
      • I know, it is probably too late to get modded up, but here it goes anyway...

        IMHO Aristotle would have been very proud to have been called an idiot. The term idiot comes from the Ancient Greek word "ho idiotos" (or "hae idiotae" for the female form).

        The word means "the private man" or "one who thinks for himself". In my opinion being called an idiot is one of the greatest compliments a man can receive.

  • by panurge (573432) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @03:09AM (#4325734)
    The NYT is guilty of trying to reduce physics to the "one great man" syndrome - the idea that the team leader is everything and everyone else is nothing. Rutherford's unnamed assistants were no less than Geiger and Marsden, major physicists in their own right, and the equation of scattering from the nucleus was never thought up by Rutherford - he gave the problem to a mathematician, according to Cambridge legend without telling what the results were needed for so the mathematician wouldn't claim part of the credit.

    In the same way Mrs. Einstein did much of the work on special relativity (the divorce settlement gave her the Nobel money but Einstein was allowed to have the prize in his sole name), Geoffrey Hewish managed to leave Jocelyn Bell out of the account when she discovered pulsars, and Newton was in touch with most of the scientific talent of his day - and famously tried to rubbish anyone who might have had any of his ideas first (Leibnitz and calculus, for instance.)

    I think this list itself is OK - but I'd rather have a less pop science look at the attributions, which might show a lot more about how science REALLY works, i.e. not mad scientist with weird assistant raising the lightning rod.

    • Its not just the NYT; its journalism in general. It is much easier to report the story as a miracle scientist who breaks new ground (re: Dean Kamen), than a company of hundreds uses established research from many sources, and after years of testing and development come up with a prototype that may or may not have an impact on modern travel.

      This extends to all careers. I'm a game developer, and it's very common to see big names credited with an entire project. It's impossible for 1 man to create most types of modern games. Instead of giving credit to the entire team, it's easier to report that a "Designer" thought of a great idea that is selling millions instead of mentioning the joint effort by the programmers, artists, testers, etc. Warren Spector joked about this on an article, and was quoted as Warren Spector - Maker of Deus Ex :) Even recently Slashdot reported on Spirited Away [] often referring it to as Miyazaki's film. Did Miyazaki have a significant affect on the film? Obviously; But 99% of the film was drawn by other team members. Most likely you will never hear their names.

      Journalism will never tell you the full behind the scenes on a large project. To fully understand the process of science, film, or even game development, you have to work in it. On top of that, most of the public either doesn't care, or won't believe the significant team effort that goes into a big project. I bet you the majority of people believe Bill Gates programs most if not all of windows.
    • "When Robert P. Crease, a member of the philosophy department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the historian at Brookhaven National Laboratory, recently asked physicists to nominate the most beautiful experiment of all time, the 10 winners were largely solo performances, involving at most a few assistants. Most of the experiments -- which are listed in this month's Physics World -- took place on tabletops and none required more computational power than that of a slide rule or calculator."

      Note that the NY Times is just telling us what's been published elsewhere. Physicists themselves voted on the experiments.
    • by KarlH (602252) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @04:09AM (#4325880)
      Albert Einstein didn't get the Nobel Prize for his work on relativity. By 1921 that was still in dispute, not established science. He got it for discovering the law of the photoelectric effect -- and to some lesser extent for his model describing the kinetics of Brownian motion.

      • Well, yes and no. The award of the prize was
        for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.

        The theoretical physics bit is though to refer to his work on relativity and Brownian motion.

        The reason why the award was couched in such vague terms was that, at the time, no one was sure what to make of the theory - it stood in splendid isolation: difficult to do experiments on, and difficult to integrate with the rest of physics (some things don't change). And as it was an unusual theory nobody was really sure of it's importance. E=mc^2 was yet to be demonstrated (in the shape of a mushroom cloud) and drive home exactly what its importance was.

        So the Nobel prize committee hedged.
  • From the article:
    Erastothenes had measured how far around the planet was. Cavendish had weighed it: 6.0 x 1024 kilograms...
    6144kg? So the weights Cavendish used were almost 5% of the planet's mass.

    Now either the Earth's been packing on the pounds over the last 200 years like a pregnant 30-year-old Polynesian, or the Times has some serious problem with HTML formatting.


  • Do good links (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gerardrj (207690) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @03:12AM (#4325740) Journal
    PLEASE! When you link to a NYT article, link to the anonymizer page for it instead.
  • Lightweight earth. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gafferted (560272)
    The NYT writes: Cavendish had weighed [the earth]: 6.0 x 1024 kilograms

    Which is around 6 tons. Perhaps 6.0 x 10^24 kilograms would be a little closer...


  • by guttentag (313541) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @03:17AM (#4325748) Journal
    In the late 1500's, everyone knew that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones. After all, Aristotle had said so. That an ancient Greek scholar still held such sway was a sign of how far science had declined during the dark ages. Galileo Galilei, who held a chair in mathematics at the University of Pisa, was impudent enough to question the common knowledge.
    The man's job was holding a chair? This explains everything. No wonder he understood gravity so well. His arms must have tired and he kept dropping the thing.

    People who have the most menial, boring jobs have the most time to intimately study commonly-ignored things like gravity.

    • Notice that no physicists that still have a pulse made that list. It is easier to recognize genius hundreds of years later. It is much harder to distinguish it now. I believe the reason for this is that there are fewer novel was to approach a scientific problem today.

      I recall in grad school in the mid-80s sitting in the library pouring over scientific journal volumes from the 50s 60s and even 70s. The science seemed more elegant and relevant back then. Today scientific focus is so narrow but scientific production in terms of publication is greater than ever before.

      There are a lot of papers being published on irrelevant minutia that are filling the library shelves. Current scientific research may be technically correct but that just doesn't make it good science.

  • Experiment #3, Millikan's oil drop, is widely regarded as the most famous example of cooking data in scientific history. This analysis [] by David Goodstein gives compelling evidence to the contrary. It in Goodstein claims that some of Millikan's unused data was the most supportive of his theory, and that even if he had used all the data he had gathered, it would not have made his results any less compelling.

    (It seems Millikan had many other strikes against him. The question of fraud is brought up on page 3.)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @03:25AM (#4325766)
    In our high school science class, we had to built an interesting contraption that was a glass tube filled with water, with a big plastic syringe on one end and a small tube on the other. A cigarette was attached to the small tube, and the smoke was pulled into the contraption.

    I never understood why our science teacher winked at us as he left the room, but years later I realised that everyone in the class had effectively built a bong.
  • Egg into the bottle!!!!
  • Looks like Robert P. Crease got trolled by you lot when he first came here. If you read his poll results [] he mentions that the poll was reported on Slashdot and prints some of the Slashdotters views on science:
    One of the contributors described watching small plastic bags circulating in wind pockets, commenting that "sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I just can't take it".
    Hmmmm - he doesn't get to the cinema much does he?
  • by Alsee (515537) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @04:08AM (#4325874) Homepage
    gravity, which holds that the strength of attraction between two objects increases with the square of their masses and decreases with the square of the distance between them.

    No, attraction between two objects increases with the PRODUCT of their masses.

    each droplet picked up a slight charge of static electricity as it traveled through the air

    No, he used radiation to alter the charge on the drops. I believe he used an alpha particle source.

    • of the Young's double slit experiment with single electrons. This showed that a single electron interacted with both slits as a wave (i.e. it passed through both slits at once), then interfered with itself before interacting with the detector as a particle at a point. A truly stunning demonstration of the reality of wave-particle duality, and the reason this one got the top slot.


    • No, he used radiation to alter the charge on the drops. I believe he used an alpha particle source.

      Actually, you're both wrong. He used an alpha particle source to ionize the air in the chamber, which then ionized the drops of oil.

      • Millikan didn't do anything other than publish the paper that Fletcher wrote. Fletcher performed the experiment. Later they agreed that Millikan could be sole author of Fletcher's paper. You would think that now that the truth is know people would give credit where it is due.
  • The NYT describes these as the 10 best "science" experiments, when, of course, these are only *physics* experiments. If we include other realms of science, people like Mendel, Mendeleev, Chargoff, Watson and Crick, Kelvin, Burbank, Fleming, etc., etc., would pretty much have to get in there somewhere.
  • by galo_2099 (555243) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @07:37AM (#4326281) Homepage
    "You may disagree with the order, but it is hard to imagine pulling any one of these from the top ten"
    How can you disagree with the order if it is chronological order?
    Oh, I forgot that time is relative...
  • by panurge (573432) on Wednesday September 25, 2002 @07:49AM (#4326325)
    /.ers might like to know that the Museum of the History of Science (Storia della Scienza) at Florence has explanatory models of what Galileo actually did, experimentally, along with some other very nice stuff which I won't spoil for you by telling. It was fun watching a class of Italian schoolkids having it demonstrated to them by an enthusiastic teacher when I was there. It also has some of his mathematical instruments: in terms of the technology of the time, Galileo was like the HP of his day, designing and building instruments to further technological progress.
  • Aspect's experiment that demonstrates that Bell's inequality is violated. That is, that particle separated in space still act on one another in order to preserve the uncertainty principle.
  • For great science, you definately should include the twinkie project, a web page that has been on the web for a decade...
  • His challenges to Aristotle may have cost Galileo his job, but he had demonstrated the importance of taking nature, not human authority, as the final arbiter in matters of science.

    500 years and geeks still have not learned to stop upsetting PHB's via reality.

    I like how the "but he has demonstrated..." is given more emphasis than the first part.
    • Here is another example of famous early scientists lacking social rythm:

      [Thomas Young's] medical career was not particularly successful, and his favourite maxim that a medical diagnosis is only a balance of probabilities was not appreciated by his patients, who looked for certainty in return for their fee.

      I am fascinated by good scientists who bump into social walls for some reason. Perhaps it just reminds me of the workplace.

      (From onic/RouseBall/RB_EngExpPhys.html)
  • One they forgot to mention:

    Kevin Costner's demonstration of the attraction of white trash to ridiculous attractions. Know better as the "If you build it they will come" hypothesis

  • in your face, Aristotle!

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