When Robert P. Crease 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.
What they have in common is that they epitomize the elusive quality scientists call beauty. This is beauty in the classical sense: the logical simplicity of the apparatus, like the logical simplicity of the analysis, seems as inevitable and pure as the lines of a Greek monument. Confusion and ambiguity are momentarily swept aside, and something new about nature becomes clear.
The 10 experiments are:
1. Young’s double-slit experiment applied to the interference of single electrons
2. Galileo’s experiment on falling objects
3. Millikan’s oil-drop experiment
4. Newton’s decomposition of sunlight with a prism
5. Young’s light-interference experiment
6. Cavendish’s torsion-bar experiment
7. Eratosthenes’ measurement of the Earth’s circumference
8. Galileo’s experiments with rolling balls down inclined planes
9. Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus
10. Foucault’s pendulum
It’s nice to read about these experiments – I must have last thought about them in school!