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By Jessica Thomas
This July 14th, while France admires fireworks for its national holiday, the editors of Physics will open a bottle of champagne (maybe two) and celebrate the publication turning 10. While younger than most of the journals in the Physical Review collection — which celebrates its 125th birthday this year — Physics has covered a lot of ground and is now much valued by the physics community.
Like the “front half” of many print journals, Physics highlights newsworthy papers — in this case, from the Physical Review — providing context for results that would otherwise be obvious only to specialists. The difference is that Physics doesn’t live inside any one journal, but instead exists as a separate online publication. And all the articles in it are free-to-read, with no journal subscription required.
Why Physics? That was the question David Voss, the founding editor of Physics (now editor of APS News), asked in his first editorial. The answer then and now remains the same: to help physicists keep up with the field as a whole. Researchers understandably write their papers for other experts, using specialized language to concisely convey their results. But would you know the meaning of “charmoniumlike structure” if you weren’t a particle physicist or “valley degeneracy” if you didn’t study semiconductors? Even if you had an encyclopedic mind, digesting the more than 300 papers per week published in the Physical Review journals would be a tall order.
Physics therefore serves as a filter, offering one or two new stories per day on papers our editors think the community will want to know about. Our storytellers are experts, journalists, and Physics staff writers, who are asked to explain a new result and why it matters. What were the researchers after? What special thing did they do to succeed? What can the field do with this result?
This method of highlighting papers isn’t unique — journals like Science and Nature have been doing it for decades. What gives Physics its own flavor is that the stories are culled from the Physical Review journals, which publish incredibly diverse research. There are the big topics — like topological phases, quantum computing, and dark matter searches. But there are also surprising and quirky studies, like physics models for financial markets, experiments that yield laundry advice, tricks with Bose-Einstein condensates, or a “macroscopicity scale” that ranks a quantum superposition of cats as a 57.
Physics has evolved since its launch. Initially, it featured only expert commentaries known as Viewpoints or editor-written summaries called Synopses, plus longer review-style articles, or “Trends.” In 2011, Physical Review Focus, a pioneering website that had featured physics stories written by journalists since 1998, was incorporated into Physics as a section called Focus. And in 2012 we used our knowledge of interesting papers to issue a weekly “tip sheet” of top stories to journalists.
Mining the pages of the Physical Review journals has given us no end of great stories. But physics is more than papers, and we want the publication to reflect the people, debates, and events behind the reported research. Physics therefore regularly features interviews with physicists, news stories from conferences, and pieces about the influence of physics in the arts, and the publication will continue to grow in volume and diversity in the coming years.
A question we are often asked is how we decide which papers to cover. For ideas, credit largely goes to the editors of the Physical Review journals who suggest recently accepted papers and explain why the results matter. We complement these suggestions by keeping a close eye on the journals.
We are also fortunate to have a bank of international experts who give input — either from the review process or from an email or phone call — and help us make a decision. Some results — such as the discovery of a new atomic element and the first detection of gravitational waves — are obvious choices. But science is usually more incremental, pushing forward in fits and starts. So when considering a paper we ask: what is the advance and how influential is it likely to be? We also leave room for results that are simply fun, weird, or curious. But in all cases, we ask the same question: Will physicists appreciate a tale about this paper even if they know nothing about the topic?
To that, one might ask: Is it worth trying to explain the latest result from CERN to a condensed matter physicist, or the observation of a new spin liquid to a cosmologist? We think so. At the end of the day, all physicists are trying to understand how the world works, reining it in with a little bit (or a lot) of math. Sharing their discoveries — big or small — is a reminder of this unifying trait.
As Physics editors, we’ve had front-row seats to many great findings over the last 10 years and we’re looking forward to more of the same in the next decade. So, thank you to all of the storytellers — the science writers, editors, and, at last count, the nearly 800 scientists who have contributed their time to explaining research.
Jessica Thomas is the Editor of Physics
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik