Top Eleven: Time to Vote!

The Top Eleven is now complete. Here's the full list of experiments, with links to my summaries:

  • Galileo Galilei: ~1610: Discovery of the moons of Jupiter, and measurements of the acceleration of falling objects.
  • Ole Roemer ~1675: Measurement of the speed of light by timing the eclipses of Io.
  • Isaac Newton ~1700: Dispersion of light and measurements of circulating fluids.
  • Henry Cavendish, ~1797: Measurement of the gravitational constant G.
  • Michael Faraday ~1831: Discovery of electromagnetic induction.
  • Michelson and Morley ~1887: Disproving the existence of the luminiferous aether.
  • Heinrich Hertz ~1888: Creation and detection of electromagnetic waves.
  • Ernest Rutherford ~1909: Discovery of the nucleus of the atom.
  • Edwin Hubble ~1929: Determination of the distance to galaxies, and measurement of the expansion of the universe.
  • Rudolf Mössbauer ~1957: Discovery of the Mössbauer Effect and gamma-ray spectroscopy.
  • Alain Aspect ~1981: Experimental tests of Bell's Inequality.

Happily, and not at all coincidentally, I'm going out of town for the weekend, so this is the perfect time for a vote. Pick your favorite experiment, and leave a comment to this post saying which one you vote for. One vote per commenter, please, and make sure your choice is clearly indicated.

Voting will remain open at least through Sunday night. The winner (as determined by me) gets declared the Greatest Experiment in Physics. Tell your friends, relatives, and graduate students, and get out the vote.

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My vote: Michelson-Morley.

AA hasn't had enough time to stew. Might have hoped for some earlier QM- Stern-Gerlach, Davisson-Germer...

Cool Mossbauer fact: he was John Poindexter's thesis advisor at Caltech. (Yes, that John Poindexter)

How about the g-2 experiment that measures the anomaly in the gyromagnetic ratio of the electron? The latest version was done by Hans Dehmelt, but the original version was done at the University of Michigan at a time when theorists said it couldn't be done. It is still the most accurate test of QED, and I think the most precise experiment in physics.

By Mike Elzinga (not verified) on 16 Feb 2006 #permalink

can't reason it out, but my gut says Michelson and Morley.

Cavendish, I say -- that experiment was just ingenious and amazing.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 16 Feb 2006 #permalink

I vote for Rutherford.

Roemer, because first measurement of any fundamental constant
and a lot of people didn't think light had a finite velocity until
he figured out that it did, and measured it. you could say he
discovered the speed of light as well as measured it.

I vote for Michelson-Morley. For the implications of their work, the difficulty of the measurement, and the coolness of using the motion of the earth (and indeed the entire solar system) as an experimental variable.

When I saw the ex-FAQueen's LJ post about this, I'd picked the Michelson Morley even before I came here. Gratified to see that it's listed.

Faraday - There simply is no rival to faraday and his experiments on electromagnetism.

From the fundamental physics point of view, his electromagnetic induction experiment is a pointer towards the theme of unification. And let us not forget this - Einstein's 1905 relativity paper does not quote Michelson-Morley but starts off with moving magnets. In fact, the word "electrodynamics" in its name clearly shows where the inspiration for relativity came from -from Faraday's experiments and Maxwell's theory.

From the point of view of technology, when you think of Faraday think of generators and batteries, think of electricity that has changed our life ! With all due respect to other nominations, no other experiment in this list(except probably Hertz) had such a direct technological impact.

A bit off topic here, but add to this the fact that his life which was itself a stuff of a legend - it's not often that you come across a boy binding books getting interested in science and reaching the topmost echelons of physics. Anyone who has read his popular science lecture titled "The Chemical History of a Candle" will fall in love with this guy. In this, Faraday was truly the Feynman of the previous century.And that is why I'll campaign/vote for Faraday any day :)

My gut makes me want to go with the precision measurement (Cavendish), but it doesn't quite have the far-reaching ramifications:


Gotta go with the Faraday, there.

I'll go with Rutherford. Showed the general utility of scattering and provided the single most significant piece of information about atomic structure (next to the existence of atoms).

Galileo. For their time, his experiments are as important as any on the list, but he practically had to invent the concept of experiment itself in order to do them.

Galileo - really got physics going. Roemer
a close second.

By Tracy P. Hamilton (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

Michelson and Morley easily get my vote. Cavendish's G measurement is a close runner up in my opinion, because I know how damn hard it is to measure G!

A tougher question than the greatest science paper. My first thought was Aspect since he showed just how weird quantum can be but it has not had major ramifications (I think most phsysists expected the outcome). I have to go with Roemer. Not only did he do the measurements of the moons he acted on his early data to make a new hypothsis and then tested that.

By CanuckRob (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink


Future ramifications will be major.

Faraday wasn't bad, but I have to go with Aspect if only based on current future potential interest. Er, I guess that reveals me as a theorist...

Galileo. Figuring out that we were not at the center of the universe is more important than figuring out that all inertial frames are equivalent.

Aspect, though it is all good stuff.

I will have to go with Faraday, though they are all wonderful experiments. Now if only we didn't have to pay taxes on this stuff....

IMHO, Roemer. The measurement of the speed of light is the first tangible clue into the complexity of nature. Remember that the speed of light also ties time, thus the farther the object, the farther back in time you see. Newton's view was mechanical and deterministic, and this measurement eventually became its undoing.


By Mike Molloy (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

The fact that they set out to find the ether, and in doing so effectly killed it off for the rest of time inspires my faith in scientists looking for truth and not looking for what they want to find.

The list is truly excellent and it is hard to choose. I would go for Faraday, followed by Rutherford, followed by Michelson-Morley, followed by Newton...

Roemer. I brought it up. I'll stick with it.

All are beautiful and truly amazing. No losers that I can see.

By Mr. Upright (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

Aspect or Cavandish.

Alain Aspect. I'm not convinced by the arguement that Galileo's are the most important, just because they come first cronologically. Aspect's experiment tells us something very fundamental about the universe, far more so than the Michelson-Morley experiment, at least in my opinion.

Michelson - Morley, not only because it is one of the most mentioned experiments in almost every course of physics, but also by its consequences in the history of science.

My vote is for Cavendish. I've always been impressed by the simplicity and precision of this experiment, especially for the eighteenth century.

Gotta give Hertz as my final answer. My job would not exist without Hertz.

For mathematical elegance, gotta say Faraday, for completing Maxwell's Equations, which are extraordinarily beautiful expressions, but I wasn't much on the experiments he did.

For sheer, bloodyminded perseverence and upholding the adage the genius is 1% inspiration and 99% sweat, then someone you didn't mention: Millikan. And because knowing the highschool level details of the oil drop experiment got me a science contest prize.

But final answer? Hertz, for professional loyalty. THere are no RF engineers, but for Hertz.

By John Novak (not verified) on 19 Feb 2006 #permalink

There are no RF engineers but for Faraday. You can't get to Hertz without going through Faraday. His significance is the extent to which the modern world is directly a product of his work.

Michelson-Morley. Because the Michelson-Morley experiment showed that proving a hypothesis wrong is as important as proving a hypothesis right.

By Alejandro (not verified) on 19 Feb 2006 #permalink

Benjamin Franklin! Oh, wait! No, I mean Faraday! Yes, Faraday.

By Lord Chimmy (not verified) on 19 Feb 2006 #permalink

Hmmm... I guess I'll vote for Newton, but I am selfishly considering doing a write-in vote for more recent ones directly related to my career (simply for their role in helping me have a career). Maybe I should instead do a write-in for Poincare's three-volume treatise, even though it's theory rather than experiment? I'm a theorist, so it's my inborn (or inbred) right to go off the beaten path occasionally...

Gotta be Rutherford discovering the nucleus.

By Sam Adams (not verified) on 19 Feb 2006 #permalink

Edwin Hubble

I vote for Faraday but I am more amazed by the works of Tesla.

Galileo Galilei for kicking off this whole enterprise of western scientific enterprise. Ingenious work with hanging chains and optics.

My Vote is for Roemer's estimation of c. What I really love about this is that it is in principle, so simple, yet it was a daring move in those times to extend the concept that terrestrial and celestial phenomena are in essence governed by the same laws. This in spite of a lesser known null experiment done by Galileo with two people atop different hilltops and timing the light from lanterns.

I guess I turned up here too late, but speaking of measurments of the speed of light, was Fizzeau's experiment in contention for this best experiment thing?

By Yagnavalkya (not verified) on 20 Feb 2006 #permalink

Alain Aspect

Ernest Rutherford


By a cornellian (not verified) on 20 Feb 2006 #permalink

My vote is for Michelson and Morley.

By Alden Jurling (not verified) on 21 Feb 2006 #permalink

After dithering a bit, I have to join the growing "Michelson-Morley" landslide.
But only because the question is most important "experiment", not "observation." Galileo's explanation of the moons of Jupiter did more to change our world-view, but it's harder to describe it as an actual "experiment".

But really, a case can be constructed for each of them. "It's an honor just to be nominated."

By Bob Oldendorf (not verified) on 21 Feb 2006 #permalink

Michelson and Morley, my favorite since I was a kid.

My quantum physicist heart is telling me Aspect, but I think I'll actually go for Rutherford, and the glory of an unexpected, hugely significant, discovery.

Arrrgh, Rutherford it is, ye scalawags!

By shhiggins (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

tough tough tough....
Faraday, for unification and magnificent intuition.

Rutherford, although it's tough to decide. Elegant, beautiful, conclusive.

By Paul Orwin (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Galileo, Rutherford - both very tempting - but it has to be:

Michelson-Morley, what better way to discount anti-relativists than to ask them to explain this wonderfully failed experiment.

My vote is for Galileo. My reasons:

-Created systematic experimental science with the falling bodies experiments.
-Destroyed medieval worldview with a few weeks of telescopic observations (ok, I'm exaggerating, but he was far more crucial than Copernicus, Newton or any other in this respect).
-Described his results in wonderful prose we can still enjoy today (just try reading Two New Sciences and compare to the Principia, or to any paper published last week).
-Only experimentalist in the pantheon trio of physicists known in popular culture: Galileo, Newton and Einstein (yes, Newton did experiments, but in pop culture Galileo goes together with the telescope, and Newton with a theorist's Eureka moment with an appple).
-Perpetual source of embarassment to the Church.
-Hero of Brecht's play.

My physics and astronomy background says Galileo. But for sheer impact on how people live their lives, gotta go with Faraday.


I've always had a great deal of affection for Rutherford, so that's my vote.

By James Angove (not verified) on 23 Feb 2006 #permalink

Rudolf M�ssbauer. The Mossbauer effect is almost as weird as the EPR effect.
Jim Graber

By Jim Graber (not verified) on 23 Feb 2006 #permalink

Roemer. I'm amazed that c was measured that long ago.

By Clay Blankenship (not verified) on 23 Feb 2006 #permalink

Michael Faraday ~1831: Discovery of electromagnetic induction.

Rutherford (I too would go with Milliken, were he in the list).

Alain Aspect, no question.

By G. cuvier (not verified) on 25 Feb 2006 #permalink



The most important experiments in the history of Physics!

How a physicist, using only a pencil five blank sheets of paper and the power of his intellect (without performing a single physics experiment) can prove that Einstein was wrong!!!


Even Physics has Foibles. But thinking about Chaos, Entropy, Heisenberg Uncertainty and Godel Incompleteness has open our minds.

By Melvin Goldstein (not verified) on 28 Feb 2009 #permalink