A hundredth happy birthday

The Physical Review
December 8, 1995

This collection of 1,000 seminal papers from The Physical Review and Physical Review Letters is published in celebration of 100 years of The Physical Review. All of these papers are recorded on CD-ROM grouped under 12 section headings, and about a fifth of the papers under each heading have been printed in the book.

Each section begins with an introduction and a survey of the selected papers by one or two physicists. Most of the surveys are extremely illuminating, containing many informative comments not easy to find elsewhere. These printed sections also contain interesting photographs of many of the physicists concerned, although the principles of their selection are not clear three pictures of Wolfgang Pauli on three successive pages seems rather out of proportion..

It is remarkable that such useful surveys can be based almost entirely on the discussion of papers from The Physical Review. It illustrates explicitly how quickly the journal came to have such importance for the development of physics. However, the commentators have not hesitated to go beyond this source in the few cases where this has been necessary in order to begin the story properly.

It is asserted in the book that Physical Review Letters is "the major physics publication today". Is this really the case now? It was once so, I would agree, but the journal fell on bad times when it became at least rather uneven in its quality and coverage of the field. The causes of this situation merits analysis by historians of physics. I have not seen any written discussions, although I have heard many opinions expressed about it by physicists over the years. No doubt the journal is on the rise again, but this relatively recent history needs more consideration and public discussion.

The guidance given to the use of the CD-ROM is not really adequate. It provides more freedom than is apparent initially. With some playing about over a week or two, much of the freedom becomes evident, but even then the user cannot be sure that he is using the medium in the best possible way. This situation seems to indicate some ambivalence in the editor's attitude towards the use of the CD-ROM. Its use is not essential, but this fact is not spelled out clearly. A substantial fraction of the CD-ROM's contents are also printed; is it really necessary to give some of the papers twice in this way? Perhaps the duplication results from some uncertainty about the attitude to the use of the computer by the anticipated readership. Undoubtedly the content of the CD-ROM is impressive but it should not be overrated: it is not a convenient way to study these 1,000 papers. Comparison of papers on CD-ROM is inconvenient, for example; the book is much easier to use for this purpose; and a normal physics library is much more convenient again, containing all the The Physical Review volumes and related papers near at hand. Perhaps it is easy to print from the CD-ROM hard copies are more convenient to use and allow comparisons between papers to be made more easily however this possibility is not mentioned. But if only direct reference is needed, the CD-ROM does have great advantages when a library is not near at hand.

This publication constitutes a wonderful celebration of the first century of The Physical Review. It contains an enormous amount of first-rate material and it is a pleasure to browse through it, dipping into paper after paper outside one's immediate field; papers which one had always meant to look at more closely. The American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society are to be congratulated on a great book, as is CD-ROM for its good judgement in sponsoring this centenary project.

R. H. Dalitz is emeritus professor of theoretical physics, University of Oxford.

The Physical Review: The First Hundred Years: A Selection of Seminal Papers and Commentaries

Author - H. Henry Stoke
ISBN - 1 56396 188 1
Publisher - Stoke AIP Press
Price - £55.00
Pages - 1,266pp & CD-ROM

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