Call For Blog Posts

Newton’s Principia has won the prestigious Cosmic Variance Greatest Paper contest, with Dirac’s theory of the electron coming in second. I’m still accepting nominations for the greatest physics experiment ever (probably until the weekend, when I’ll have time to do something with the list…).

Thinking about this, it occurs to me that this might be a good topic for some cross-ScienceBlogs discussion, if any of my co-bloggers are interested. I’ve got a decent idea of what the great experiments in physics are, but I’m pretty hazy on what would be considered the short list in the other fields we have represented.

We’ve got several bio-bloggers on board (Aetiology, Evolgen, Gene Expression, Living the Scientific Life, Pharyngula, and Stranger Fruit, by a rough count), and it’d be interesting to hear what they think is the most important experiment or observation in biology. Something by Darwin? Watson and Crick?

I can’t even begin to guess for some of the other fields. What’s the most important work in anthropology (Afarensis)? Cognitive Science (Cognitive Daily)? Computer Science (Deltoid)?

(It’s less clear to me what field I should be asking the others about. I suppose we could hit Dr. Freeride (Adventures in Ethics and Science) up for opinions about chemistry, and Kevin Vranes (No Se Nada Commentary) for geophysics, but I have no idea what to ask Ed Brayton (Dispatches from the Culture Wars) or Chris Mooney (The Intersection) about…)

I’d be interested to hea what the rest of the ScienceBlogs community thinks are the most important works in their own fields of interest. What’s the “greatest” experiment, observation, or paper in your field?

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Munger
    January 17, 2006

    I should probably be leaving this one for Greta, who has written a book on the history of psychology, but I think a pretty good case could be made for Shepard and Metzler’s 1971 experiment on mental rotation. It demonstrated that the amount of time it took to determine if two three-dimensional objects were identical was proportional to how far one of the objects was rotated compared to the other. This suggests that the way we decide if one object is the same as another is to mentally rotate one object so that the two mental representations overlap, then compare them.

    The experiment blew a hole in the behaviorist dictum that we can’t ever understand what’s going on in the mind, and led to a blossoming of new research in cognitive psychology. Now literally thousands of experiments offer converging evidence that we can understand not just observable behavior, but also how we think.

  2. #2 Dr. Free-Ride
    January 17, 2006

    In chemistry, it’s really hard to come up with the Best Experiment Ever, just because there are so very many experiments, and a reasonably high proportion that are fairly clever. So, how do you choose between Lavoisier’s isolation of oxygen (which undermines the phlogiston-based explanations people were futzing with and lays the groundwork for the modern concept of chemical elements); or the Walden inversion (1896) which transformed l-malic acid to d-chlorosuccinic acid to d-malic acid to l-chlorosuccinic acid bact to l-malic acid (whew!) and gave organic chemists a good test of their mechanistic explanations; or any of a number of cool syntheses (Bucky-balls? Silly Putty?); or (dear to my heart) the Belousov-Zhabotinskii reaction, which was instrumental in demonstrating that chemical oscillations in closed systems were NOT impossible, and which gave a good kick-start to the study of far-from-equilibrium dynamics and thermodynamics.

    Any chemist who tells you “X is the Best Chemistry Experiment ever” is playing favorites — like deciding which of his or her offspring s/he loves best. Not to say people don’t do this kind of thing — just that I won’t.

    (Unless, of course, I think of the experiment in chemistry that really is the best, and then I’ll be back.)

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    January 17, 2006

    In chemistry, it’s really hard to come up with the Best Experiment Ever, just because there are so very many experiments, and a reasonably high proportion that are fairly clever.

    Oh, absolutely. The same is true in physics– there are a hgue number of great experiments out there, and any “best of” list is necessarily a matter of opinion.

    I’m just curious as to what people’s opinions are.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    January 17, 2006

    Yeah, Chris Mooney and I are kind of tough to peg, aren’t we? We’re not scientists with a field. We’re really more like the ScienceBlogs’ gossip columnists or op-ed writers. Hell, I don’t know what to ask me either.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    January 17, 2006

    Yeah, Chris Mooney and I are kind of tough to peg, aren’t we? We’re not scientists with a field. We’re really more like the ScienceBlogs’ gossip columnists or op-ed writers. Hell, I don’t know what to ask me either.

    I suppose you’d be free to suggest a favorite expeiment from any science. Or maybe a favorite science policy decision (“The 1901 act creating the National Bureau of Standards totally rocked…”).

  6. #6 Dennis
    January 17, 2006

    I nominate Nusslein-Volhard and Wieschaus’ systematic mutagenesis of the fruit fly as the greatest experiment of developmental biology.

  7. #7 Brian Postow
    January 17, 2006

    A good complexity theory blog (theory of CS) is http://weblog.fortnow.com/ By Lance Fortnow…

  8. #8 Tim Lambert
    January 17, 2006

    Like any field with “Science” in its name, Compter Science isn’t a science. There have many clever and important innovations (eg packet switching, programming languages, bump mapping), but it isn’t an experimental science.

  9. #9 afarensis
    January 17, 2006

    I’ll have mine up tomorrow. I’m still trying to make up my mind about how broadly or narrowly to answer (all of anthro…cultural…archaeology…forensics…paleo…).

  10. #10 razib
    January 17, 2006

    for the record i wouldn’t say i’m a scientist either. i have a biochemistry degree, and have a lot of course work in genetics, and plan to pursue grad work in evolutionary genetics at some point….

  11. #11 Chad Orzel
    January 18, 2006

    razib: for the record i wouldn’t say i’m a scientist either. i have a biochemistry degree, and have a lot of course work in genetics, and plan to pursue grad work in evolutionary genetics at some point….

    I probably could’ve phrased that better, but it was an idea that struck me on my lunch break, and I posted it pretty quickly. The point was not so much to appeal to credentialed expertise, as to try to use the topic as a way to get a little cross-linking going on.

    I mean, if we’re going to share a Web host, we might as well get to know each other…

    And, for that matter, I’d be interested to see some “Greatest Experiment” lists from people on other blog hosts. I enjoy reading that stuff, even when it’s not my field.

  12. #12 Brian Postow
    January 18, 2006

    Lambert: Like any field with “Science” in its name, Compter Science isn’t a science.

    I agree completely. It’s more of a cross between math and engineering, but there are some social similarities… and Chad asked…

  13. #13 John Novak
    January 18, 2006

    Speaking as someone who is both a computer scientist and an engineer, it’s not engineering. It’s also not strictly math nor a science.

    At best, it occupies the same position with respect to mathematics as electrical engineering occupies with respect to physics. But generally, it is its own thing.

    As such, there is no “best experiment” for computer science, unless you want to poach from the physicists and steal a quantum computation experiment… in about five to seven years. Best papers would (to reveal my biases) probably be Turing’s and Church’s independent papers on the Halting Problem, and Cook’s definition of NP-Completeness.

  14. #14 Dr. Free-Ride
    January 18, 2006

    OK, I just read about two of Benjamin Franklin’s experiments (on monologist Josh Kornbluth’s blog), and given that BF’s 300 birthday is this week, and that they’re cool experiments, I thought I’d toss them into contention. Quoting Josh:

    And I promise I won’t go on much further about Ben, but my father-in-law, who is himself a great scientist, loves to talk about two of Franklin’s lesser-known scientific experiments. In the first, he wanted to find out whether different colors absorb different amounts of heat — so he placed several strips of paper, of different colors, in the snow on a sunny winter’s day. Sure enough, the differently colored paper strips absorbed different amounts of heat from the sun: the proof was that the ones that had absorbed more heat had melted further down into the snow. … In the other experiment, Franklin wanted to determine the exact width of a molecule. So he poured a bit of oil in a French pond and waited for it to completely spread out on top of the water, figuring that its ultimate thickness would be that of one molecule. (Okay, I admit I’m kind of lost here myself — but the guy sitting next to me at dinner last night confirmed that Franklin’s measurement was incredibly close to being accurate.) …

  15. #15 gene berman
    January 22, 2006

    I’m (also) not a professional scientist (nor a professional or scientist) of any kind but, in reading the “picks,” I’m impressed that no one has mentioned one
    that I thought was deserving.

    My pick is neither a theory nor an experiment but, nonetheless, a true scientific breakthrough: the observation of the differential adsorption of complex fractions in organic materials on various substrate media:
    the phenomenon from which has arisen the entire field of chromatographic separation (and analysis) and including the electrophoretic sub-category.

    The original observations were all the more remarkable in that one guy deduced the principle when he tried to store
    alcohol-extracted plant pigments in blotting paper and noticed various spots; at almost the same time, another man attributed different colors of several types in different geological strata to a process involving the same basic phenomenon. The practical analytical world hasn’t been the same since and today, the various types of separation techniques are routinely coupled with other analytical, sensing, and computational devices in such profusion as would certainly astound either of the two originators.

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