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Recently I got the book "On the Shoulders of Giant" from Stephen Hawkings. It consists of more than 1000 pages of classical publications in physics. However 900 pages are given to the work of Copernicus, Galilei and Newton and 100 pages are given to the papers of Einstein. Therefore I think this books gives a wrong impression about what is really important for our knowledge in physics today.

If you could fill a book with the most important papers relevant for our knowledge in physics today, which ones would you select?

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Actually, there is a Wikipedia article about this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_important_publications_in_physics –  Robert Smith Feb 2 '11 at 22:43
Interesting! I didn't know about this list. So maybe you should make your comment into an answer? However as I look into this list I see it includes a lot of books, and I'm asking specifically about papers here. –  asmaier Feb 2 '11 at 22:59
Community wiki? –  Marek Feb 2 '11 at 22:59
@asmaler: Right, a lot of books are also included, even so, you can look at quite a few of papers there. I agree this should be a community wiki since this question doesn't have a correct answer. –  Robert Smith Feb 2 '11 at 23:03
There's a fantastic page of classic papers in quantum mechanics at dieumsnh.qfb.umich.mx/archivoshistoricosmq. –  AdamRedwine Dec 19 '11 at 12:32

7 Answers 7

The number of citations a paper receives is a good indicator of its importance.

Top Cited Articles of All Time (2010 edition) can be found at:


1.37791 Review of Particle Physics By Particle Data Group (Claude Amsler et al.). Citations are counted for all versions of the RPP, most recent version is: Published in:Phys.Lett.B667:1-1340,2008 [3679 Total citations in HEP] [37799 Total Citations to all copies of RPP in HEP]

2.7328 A Model of Leptons By Steven Weinberg (MIT, LNS). Published in:Phys.Rev.Lett.19:1264-1266,1967 [7328 Total citations in HEP]

3.7135 The Large N limit of superconformal field theories and supergravity By Juan Martin Maldacena (Harvard U.). Published in:Adv.Theor.Math.Phys.2:231-252,1998, Int.J.Theor.Phys.38:1113-1133,1999 (arXiv: hep-th/9711200) [7192 Total citations in HEP]

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A Model of Leptons was a paper that, really, changed the way I see physics. –  Rafael Feb 2 '11 at 23:18
A problem with citations for experimental particle physicist papers is that the number of authors usually approaches the number of citations :) –  Gordon Feb 2 '11 at 23:20

The birth of computational physics:

N. Metropolis, A.W. Rosenbluth, M.N. Rosenbluth, A.H. Teller, and E. Teller (1953). "Equation of State Calculations by Fast Computing Machines". Journal of Chemical Physics 21 (6): 1087–1092. doi:10.1063/1.1699114.

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Well, the birth of efficient Monte Carlo methods, anyway. Good paper. –  dmckee Feb 2 '11 at 23:04

These days, the most important papers are generally the ones that get the most citations. Papers' citations are listed at Spires (or Inspires) at Inspires. Simply look up an author then click on his/her name and go to citations. They rank the papers by means of citations from "unknown papers" to "renowned papers". It is hard to rank the older guard of physicists this way. Stephen Hawking collected what he regards as important original papers of the greats(I note that you have that) in "On the Shoulders of Giants" and a similar book of original math papers And God Created the Integers As an aside, Sidney Coleman said that if he had seen farther than others it was because he was standing behind the shoulders of dwarfs....:) Oh, I see you have On the Shoulders,...well others are George Johnson's , The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, or The Great Equations, by Robert Crease.

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The two papers of fundamentals of Density Functional Theory.

1) P. Hohenberg and W. Kohn. Phys. Rev. 136, B864–B871 (1964)

2) W. Kohn and L. J. Sham. Phys. Rev. 140, A1133–A1138 (1965)

The Kohn-Sham paper have 10,575 citations and the Hohenberg-Kohn have 8,714 citations. These papers are importants for Condensed Matter Physics, Atomic and Molecular Physics, Quantum Chemistry and Nanoscience in general. It is a prime example of interdisciplinarity.

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In the field of statistical physics there is nothing more famous than Onsager's solution for the Ising ferromagnet on a square lattice.

Crystal Statistics. I. A Two-Dimensional Model with an Order-Disorder Transition

The paper itself isn't that important nowadays because there are both better solutions and better pedagogical approaches to the problem. Nevertheless, historically it was the first full solution of a non-trivial physical system which exhibits phase transitions.

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Actually, when I say there is nothing more famous, I am not being completely honest :) There is of course the Renormalization Group of Leo Kadanoff and Kenneth Wilson. But this is already mentioned in the wikipedia link given by Robert. –  Marek Feb 2 '11 at 23:50

I know it's been mentioned already here, but:

A Model of Leptons

is worth every bit of its (almost) 4 pages.

Recently, the one that changed everything in theoretical physics is:

The Large N limit of superconformal field theories and supergravity

perhaps it already deserves to be in this listing.

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E. Wigner, "On Unitary Representations of the Inhomogeneous Lorentz Group"

Because of the apocryphal story of how it got published.

Edit: It was originally rejected by one of the leading physics journals as not being of general interest. Then Wigner mentioned it to von Neumann (his classmate from school back in Hungary). J. von Neumann told Wigner to send it to the Annals of Math., where von Neumann was the chief editor. It was immediately accepted there! Years later, Wigner received a leter from the AMS, saying that after a survey his paper had been found to be one of the most influential papers.

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