A Short (Physical Review) Letter!

I think it is Blaise Pascal who is to be credited with the quote frequently paraphrased as “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so here’s a long one instead” but, whoever it was, this afternoon’s interesting theoretical physics seminar at Maynooth University about Magnetic Molecules by Jürgen Schnack of Bielefeld University provided a great example of how a short letter can pay off.

William Giauque was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1949 for his work on the properties (including magnetic properties) of matter at very low temperatures. Among the many achievements that led to this award Giauque was the first person to generate matter in a laboratory with a temperature below 1 Kelvin. This result was described in a publication in Physical Review Letters in 1933. Here is the letter in full:

I’ve seen a number of surprisingly short short communications from this era, but I think this one is the record. I’m not sure how many marks this would get as a lab report from an undergraduate physics student, but it doesn’t seem to have done Giauque any harm to keep it extremely brief!

While I’m here I’ll also mention that this also the common practice of awarding the Nobel Prize for Chemistry on the basis of work that is really Physics is clearly not a recent innovation!

6 Responses to “A Short (Physical Review) Letter!”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    At the research level, chemistry appears to have been almost hollowed out and is now either biochemistry or physics. Certainly the Nobel prize in chemistry routinely goes for work in one or the other.

    Without googling, I thought that the “short letter” comment was due to GK Chesterton.

    The Watson-Crick DNA paper is probably the shortest paper to report a Nobel discovery. It includes the famously laconic sentence, “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

    Click to access WatsonCrick1953.pdf

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      You are right about Pascal:


      I can’t find the Cicero attribution mentioned with a reference to Cicero himself; nor is it on his Wikiquote page, which requires direct attribution.

      The most fun of this sort I had was chasing the source of the quote that a powerful ruler, upon asking for a proof of God, got the reply, “Your Majesty: the Jews” (meaning their continued existence as a people for more than 1000 years without occupation of a homeland). At least four people are supposed to have said it to Frederick the Great (Jean-Baptiste de Boyer who was the Marquis d’Argens; Joachim von Zieten; Christian Gellert; Zimmerman, who was a physician); then there is Pascal to Louis XIV, Bismarck to the Kaiser, and Disraeli to Queen Victoria.

      There is also the tale that a Pope showed a wise man round the papal treasury and boasted “See, we can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none’…” (a quote from St Peter in Acts 3:6), and the wise man answered “And neither can you say ‘In the Name of Christ, walk’!” (Peter’s continuation, the implication being that the papacy had lost the faith needed to do miracles). Sometimes the wise man is Thomas Aquinas; sometimes Francis of Assisi or Dominic Guzman, in which case the Pope is Innocent III, the most powerful Pope of all.Proving a negative is difficult, but I chased this quote intensively enough to believe that nobody said it to a Pope. I can’t recall what the earliest source was, but I’d guess it began with Erasmus or a protestant soon after the Reformation began in the 16th century. The matching diversity of attributions in the case of “Your Majesty: the Jews” makes me suspect that nobody gave that answer to a ruler.

    • Nash’s ‘Equilibrium Points in N-Person Games’, which was one of the results that got him his economics prize, is even shorter.

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    This wins for the shortest abstract:


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