I'm looking for a physics paper which a typical high school student who is new to physics would be able to read and grasp the general idea of the purpose, setup and results, if not the details. To be clear, I don't expect that high school students will understand much of the math or technical details, but with guidance, the general idea. Ideally it would be something simple and elegant, without a lot of calculation or complicated data analysis. The purpose is to give them a sense of the style, tone, and organization of a real physics paper.

It is not necessary, but desirable, that this paper

  • is relevant to classical mechanics, electromagnetism, or thermodynamics (basic parts of the high school curriculum)
  • describes a result that might be a part of an introductory physics curriculum
  • is written by someone famous

What physics paper meets these specifications?

I realize this is kind of on the edge of the domain of acceptable questions here - if the consensus is that it's over the edge, I'll delete the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Search the old papers from 19th, beginning of 20th century. With these older works there is higher chance of finding something usable for your purpose. $\endgroup$ – Ján Lalinský May 18 '15 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ Those should both be answers. $\endgroup$ – rob May 18 '15 at 1:41
  • $\begingroup$ This question (v2) seems to be a list question. $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic May 18 '15 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ The American Journal of Physics hosts a good number of articles on lower education pedagogy, often with suggested experiments. While these aren't quite what we normally consider physics research papers they may be relevant and may direct you to what you're really after. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank May 18 '15 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ I actually don't think this is on topic. It's not a content-based resource recommendation, which is the type of resource recommendation we allow. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 19 '15 at 5:33

If you want research-level physics papers about topics high school students can understand, your best bet might be to look to the past. Older papers are great fun to read, but with their archaic language and notation they're not always the most efficient way to learn.

One famous exception is Einstein's 1905 classic On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies. This is where special relativity was first introduced to the world. A high school student might struggle with the second half, once electrodynamics comes into play, but the first 12 pages or so are mathematically simple, and a rewarding read. If they can get through the whole thing, however, they'll be rewarded with a little bonus addendum, which derives a certain famous $E=mc^2$.

In thermodynamics, Sadi Carnot's Reflections on the Motive Power of Heat is quite readable, and Joule's On the Motive Power of Heat is fascinating. That said, neither of these authors write like Einstein, and there are better places to learn thermodynamics today.


It seems to me Fermi's 1949 paper On the origin of the cosmic radiation (pdf copy link) is fairly accessible, requiring basic E&M and conservation of energy & momentum.

The paper was written as a proposal for a mechanism to accelerate cosmic rays from thermal velocities to relativistic ones. The mechanism he proposes (based on Alfven waves) involves "magnetized clouds of gas" in space that reflect particles upon collision of the two (particle & cloud). He finds that the average gain in energy is quadratic in velocity, $\Delta E\propto v^2$, and is often called second-order Fermi for this reason1, though this calculation is more for protons than other energetic particles (e.g., $\alpha$-particles).

I would like to point out that Fermi's style in this paper is rather unlike more modern papers (and even papers at the time). He hand waves a lot of math & rationale and makes statements that are obvious (to him) that are not necessarily straight-forward to derive on one's own. I still think it'd be mostly accessible to high school students, but some of the finer points of the physics hidden in the paper might be missed.

1. Turns out this mechanism is too slow to account for the energetics seen in cosmic rays. Fortunately, a first-order mechanism, usually called diffusive shock acceleration (arXiv link), was discovered that is the major line of research in cosmic ray acceleration


I'll give it a try: Jesse L. Silverberg, Matthew Bierbaum, James P. Sethna, and Itai Cohen, Phys. Rev. Lett. 110, 228701 (2013): "Collective Motion of Humans in Mosh and Circle Pits at Heavy Metal Concerts". (I got the idea from a Sixty Symbols video.)


It's not written by someone famous but it is quite readable, has a very practical real-world application and still is used to combine their results with fundamentals from thermodynamics (in that the mass of people basically behaves like an ideal gas). The paper has some math in it, but only mildly, so, combined with the very modern methods that the students can relate to (they use YouTube videos as data sources), it should keep the students interested. It is also not very long :-)

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As noted in P. Weinberger's revisit of Louis de Broglie's 1924 doctoral thesis:

De Broglie's contribution in the Philosophical Magazine from 1924 is fascinating from many standpoints: for its moderate use of mathematics, the close connection to Einstein's special theory of relativity, and of course for the proposal of matter waves. We revisit this mostly speculative publication, which contributed crucially to the birth of quantum mechanics.

Although probably not publishable in today's environment, due to being purely speculative, the paper did win de Broglie the Nobel Prize in physics only 5 years later, for his ground breaking hypothesis of wave-particle duality, after experimental verification of his hypothesis was obtained.

The paper could be contrasted to the Michelson Morley experiment for the complementary way in which both experiment and theory are complementary essentials to the development of new physics. Sometimes an experiment thought to be routine provides a result totally unexpected; and sometimes a novel idea must be conceived so that one can look for the unexpected.


I'm going to be perverse and suggest Blas Cabrera's "First Results from a Superconductive Detector for Moving Magnetic Monopoles" (Phys. Rev. Lett. 48, 1378 (1982).) Cabrera isn't a household name, of course, but this does have some advantages as a teaching paper: First, the experiment is dead simple to explain to students who know about EMFs and induction. (If they know about Ampere's Law, so much the better; you could make some good arguments by analogy to electric currents creating circulating magnetic fields.) Second, it could lead to a nice debate about the scientific method, and specifically whether results that have never been reproduced should be thought of as "wrong". And third, it has a tantalizing aura about it. As a young scientist, I was always curious about the fringes of science and what there was out there to still discover, and learning about an event like this would really have fascinated me.


From the details I assume it needs to concern a specific experiment, rather than just some musings.

In recent news, in Nature Chemestry, "Coulomb explosion during the early stages of the reaction of alkali metals with water" (online version) has the Mythbusters appeal. When combined with the you-tube lead-up to the formal experiments, it is quite approachable, and the equipment etc. is explained in the informal videos.


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