10 Most Beautiful Physics Experiments

Posted on September 8, 2008  Comments (1)

Science’s 10 Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson

Galileo’s experiment on falling objects

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 story has become part of the folklore of science: he is reputed to have dropped two different weights from the town’s Leaning Tower showing that they landed at the same time. 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.

Young’s double-slit experiment applied to the interference of single electrons

Though it is not simply made of particles, neither can it be described purely as a wave. In the first five years of the 20th century, Max Planck and then Albert Einstein showed, respectively, that light is emitted and absorbed in packets — called photons. But other experiments continued to verify that light is also wavelike.

It took quantum theory, developed over the next few decades, to reconcile how both ideas could be true: photons and other subatomic particles — electrons, protons, and so forth — exhibit two complementary qualities; they are, as one physicist put it, ”wavicles.”

Eratosthenes’ measurement of the Earth’s circumference -the librarian at Alexandria in the third century B.C. estimated the circumference of the planet

Assuming the earth is spherical, its circumference spans 360 degrees. So if the two cities are seven degrees apart, that would constitute seven-360ths of the full circle — about one-fiftieth. Estimating from travel time that the towns were 5,000 ”stadia” apart, Eratosthenes concluded that the earth must be 50 times that size — 250,000 stadia in girth.

Related: Book, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson (not the same experiments) – Home Experiments: Quantum ErasingParticles and Wavestheory of knowledgescientific experiments

One Response to “10 Most Beautiful Physics Experiments”

  1. Raj Krishnaswamy
    September 9th, 2008 @ 7:47 am

    Interesting reading. Of all experiments, I love the thought experiment by Einstein of moving along a packet of light, that led to the relativity theory. Then again, Einstein has been my physics hero.

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