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PRL Showcases Milestone Papers

Physical Review Letters has published many important papers during its 50-year history.  As part of the Physical Review Letters 50th anniversary, former editor-in-chief Martin Blume is compiling a series of “Milestone Letters,” showcasing some significant papers from each year of the journal, starting in 1958 and continuing through 2000.  

The “milestone letters” are papers that made important contributions to physics, announced significant discoveries, or started new areas of research. Many of these papers report research that resulted in Nobel prizes for their authors. The series covers a diverse range of subfields, and also gives a glimpse into the history and development of physics over the past 50 years.

Physical Review Letters started as a separate journal in 1958 as a way to quickly publish short research papers that had been published as letters to the editor in the Physical Review. Right from the start of the new journal, important papers were published. The two Milestone Letters for 1958 are John Bardeen’s paper, “Two-Fluid Model of Superconductivity,” which was a follow-up on the BCS theory of superconductivity reported in Phys. Rev. a year earlier, and a paper announcing the first synthesis of element 102.

The Milestone Letters series began appearing in January, on the PRL website, with papers from 1958. Approximately each week this year, another year’s worth of Milestone letters is being posted. Previous week’s entries also remain accessible.

The featured PRL papers can be read without a subscription by accessing them through the Milestone Letters website.

For each milestone letter, Blume has written a summary explaining the significance of the paper. These short summaries can be read and understood by students and non-specialists. Some of the papers themselves are difficult to read. Blume points to Roy Kerr’s 1963 paper describing what is now known as the Kerr metric, which he says people in the field did read, understand and build upon, despite the “impenetrable mathematics.”

In the summaries, Blume also points out some interesting facts and stories related to some of the papers. For instance, the most-cited particle physics paper, Steven Weinberg’s 1967 paper, “A Model of Leptons,” wasn’t cited in the first year after its publication and was only cited twice in the following two years.

Selecting the milestone letters and writing the short summaries requires a lot of research, says Blume. Since he can’t possibly read every single PRL paper published each year, Blume begins the selection process by looking through lists of the most cited and most downloaded papers for each year.  

Some years have more than one PRL paper that led to a Nobel Prize, and all years have plenty of significant papers to choose from.  “There’s an overabundance,” says Blume. “It shows how important Physical Review Letters has been.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff