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Scientific American has featured countless contributions from notable scientist-authors in its 167-year history. Among them, nearly 150 Nobel Prize winners have written for the magazine, contributing more than 200 articles altogether. In the July issue, we featured 12 excerpts of those articles written by past winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics to coincide with the 62nd annual Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany, which this year focuses on physics.
To give a more complete picture of the tales of discovery contained in the magazine's archives, we have selected three additional articles penned by physics Nobelists. All three, excerpted below, relate in some way to the research that earned their respective authors a Nobel.
The 1930 account of William H. Bragg, for instance, describes how x-rays can provide a window into crystalline structure. He had shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics with his son for advancing that field of inquiry. Likewise, laureate Donald A. Glaser won in 1960 for the invention detailed in his 1955 article, "The Bubble Chamber." And the most recent physics Nobel, in 2011, went to a trio of researchers who played a leading role in the discovery that the universe's expansion is accelerating, thanks to "dark energy." One of those researchers, Adam G. Riess, co-authored a 2004 article in Scientific American, excerpted below, about the effort to determine just when the universe began to speed up.
X-Ray Fingers Feel Out the Atomic Structure of Matter
By William H. Bragg (Nobel Prize in 1915)
Published December 1930
Man, having the power to forecast the result of overcoming difficulties and the wish to try to overcome them, has devised various ingenious methods to help him in his task. Taking first of all the difficulties that depend on the inadequacy of his vision he has invented the microscope which gives him the power of seeing details thousands of times too fine to be perceived by the naked eye.
But there is a point which the microscope can not pass. With its aid we perceive what is very small, but not the "very very" small. There are details of the structure of the living cell, essential features in the composition of metals, cotton, silk, rubber, paint, bone, nerve, and a thousand other things which are hidden even from the microscope, and must always remain so hidden because the failure does not lie with the skill of the optician but with the incapacity of light itself.
The nature of radiation is in many respects a mystery, but we know enough about it to understand that we may talk of it in many of its important aspects as waves in some medium which we call the ether. If the radiation falls on any object, it is turned aside and modified in various ways. When our eyes are directed towards the object, they take in the modified rays, and we have learned by long practice to know, from these modifications, the nature of the object that has made them. That is "seeing."
The central point of the process is the act of scattering and modification. Now waves have a certain wavelength, and common experience of such waves as may be seen, for example, on the surface of the sea tells us that an object which is very much smaller than the length of the wave has no appreciable effect upon it. In just the same way there may be objects which are so small that they can not affect a ray of light, and such objects are forever invisible in the ordinary sense. The length of the light wave which our eyes can perceive lies within a short range on either side of a fifty-thousandth of an inch.
The X rays break down the barrier for us, and admit us to this immense field in which we want to be. They do so by virtue of their character as light waves, 10,000 times or so smaller than visible waves, but of exactly the same nature.