I should really know better than to click any tweeted link with a huff.to shortened URL, but for some reason, I actually followed one to an article with the limited-reach clickbait title Curious About Quantum Physics? Read These 10 Articles!. Which is only part one, because Huffington Post, so it’s actually five articles.
Three of the five articles are Einstein papers from 1905, which is sort of the equivalent of making a Ten Essential Rock Albums list that includes Revolver, Abbey Road, and the White Album. One of the goals of a well-done list of “essential” whatever is to give a sense of the breadth of a subject, not just focus on a single example, so this is a big failure right off the bat.
But it’s even worse than that, because none of the three 1905 articles is the photoelectric effect paper, which is the only one of the lot that has any quantum physics in it. There’s a fourth Einstein paper on the list, as well, the theory of general relativity, which is famous for not being compatible with quantum mechanics. So this is really like a list of Ten Essential Rock Albums that includes three country songs and a Bach concerto.
I thought about using this as an opportunity to generate a better Ten Essential Quantum Papers list, including stuff like Bell’s Theorem (the physics equivalent of the first Velvet Underground record) and the No-Cloning Theorem (the physics equivalent of punk rock) (brief pause to let those who know Bill Wootters try to reconcile that mental image). And if you would like to make suggestions of things that ought to be on such a list in the comments, feel free.
(I’m also open to suggestions of better musical analogies– maybe the EPR paper is the real Velvet Underground record? With Bell’s paper being punk rock, making Wootters and Zurek… Nirvana, maybe? Or maybe Shor’s algorithm is the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of quantum physics (Again, a brief pause while those who know Peter Shor try to picture him as Kurt Cobain)…)
But, really, on reflection, the whole exercise is kind of silly even by the standards of clickbait blog topics, because that’s not how science works. In science, and particularly a highly mathematical science like physics, there’s not that much real benefit to reading the original source material. The best explanation of a central concept is rarely if ever found in the first paper to present it. This goes right back to the start of the discipline, with Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which nobody reads because it’s written in really opaque Latin, a move he claimed in a letter was deliberate so as to avoid “being baited by little smatterers in mathematics” (Newton was kind of a dick). Newton’s mathematical notation is also pretty awful, and I’ve heard it claimed that the reason physics advanced faster in mainland Europe than in England during the 1700s was that on the continent, they adopted Leibniz’s system, which was way more user-friendly and is the basis for modern calculus notation. Similarly, Maxwell’s original presentation of his eponymous equations is really difficult to follow, and it’s only after the work of folks like Heaviside that they become the clear, elegant, and bumper-sticker-friendly version we know today.
That’s not to say that there’s no value in reading old papers– I’ve had a lot of fun writing up old MS theses from our department, and older work can be fascinating to read. But unlike primary works of (pop) culture, they’re much better if you come to them already knowing what they’re about. The fascination comes from seeing how people fumbled their way toward ideas that we now know to be correct. It’s rare for a “classic” paper to get all the way to the modern understanding of things, or even most of the way there– most of the great original works contain what we now know to be errors of interpretation. Others are revered today for discoveries that were somewhat tangential to what the original author thought was the main point– the Cavendish experiment is thought of today as a measurement of “big G,” but he presents it as a determination of the density of the Earth, because that was of more pressing practical interest at the time.
If you want to learn science, you’re much better off looking up the best modern treatment than going back to the original papers. A good recent textbook will have the bugs worked out, and present it in something close to the language used by working scientists today. A good popular-audience treatment (ahem) will cover the basic concepts starting from a more complete understanding of the field as it has developed, and with an eye toward making those concepts accessible to a modern reader. It’s not foolproof, of course– the steady progress of science over a stretch of decades often means that newer books need to cover a huge amount of material to get to the sexy cutting-edge stuff, and sometimes scant the basics a bit. But by and large, if you’re curious about quantum physics, you’d be much better off hitting the physics section of your local bookstore or library than digging through archived journals for the original papers.
So, a list of “Ten Essential Papers on Quantum Physics” is a deeply flawed concept right from the start, at least if the goal is to learn something about quantum physics that you didn’t already know. The same is true of almost every science, with a few exception– Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is still a really good read, but it’s the exception, not the rule. Such a list can be useful as a sort of historical map, or for providing some insight into the thought processes of the great scientists of yesteryear, and those can be very rewarding. But if you’re curious and want to learn, I don’t think any original papers can really be considered “essential.”