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Nature and physics

29 October 2019

Despite the prominence of the London-based journal, which celebrates its 150th year of publication next week, it has not always been a favorite among physicists.

In the spring of 1868, astronomer Norman Lockyer arrived at his day job as a bureaucrat at Britain’s War Office to learn that the division he directed had just been eliminated. Lockyer would be reshuffled to a new division and demoted, with a severe salary cut to boot. Incensed, not to mention anxious about his family’s finances, Lockyer turned to his other major source of income: Macmillan and Company, the storied London publishing house. Macmillan had published Lockyer’s successful textbook, Elementary Lessons in Astronomy, and had paid him for his opinions on scientific books they were considering for publication. Lockyer approached his publisher and asked them to finance a new venture, a weekly scientific magazine called Nature, with him as its editor-in-chief.

Early issue of Nature.
An 1870 issue of Nature. Credit: Wenner Collection, Niels Bohr Library and Archives

Nature published its first issue on 4 November 1869. A century and a half later, Nature is a name that most ambitious scientists would love to have on their CVs. It is one of the most selective and prestigious scientific publications in the world, and its widely read news and opinion columns shape how professionals and nonprofessionals alike think about science.

Nature has published some of the most famous papers in the history of science, in fields ranging from evolutionary biology to cosmology. For a time it was arguably most significant as a physics journal. In the early 20th century, Nature’s Letters to the Editor section was filled with groundbreaking papers on radioactivity research and new subatomic particles. Yet as recently as 50 years ago, a Nature acceptance would not have been considered a particularly notable event—perhaps especially among physicists, who had increasingly gravitated toward a new competitor, Physical Review Letters. When John Maddox stepped into the Nature editor’s chair in 1966, he knew he had ground to make up if he wanted his publication to be required reading for his fellow physicists.

Letters to the Editor

Back in 1869, Lockyer had no intention of creating a research journal. He wanted Nature’s articles to be written by qualified scientific researchers, but he hoped and expected that Nature’s audience would be educated people without scientific training. The first several volumes of Nature reflected those hopes. For example, the journal’s very first article, a translation of aphorisms by the German poet Johann von Goethe, was designed to appeal to the literary sensibilities of British political and social elites.

Lockyer, however, found it more difficult than he anticipated to persuade researchers to write the accessible, journalistic articles that his target audience would want to read. Instead, 19th-century researchers adopted Nature’s Letters to the Editor column as a convenient place to hold scientific debates on topics such as natural selection and Earth’s age. Because Nature was published every week, readers could dash off a reply to an article or letter in the magazine and expect to see it in print far more quickly than would be possible with any other periodical devoted to science.

Ernest Rutherford.
Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937). Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, gift of Otto Hahn and Lawrence Badash

Nature’s publication speed would eventually lead the Letters to the Editor in an entirely new direction, one that would make it essential reading for physicists in particular. Like Nature itself, the change in the Letters to the Editor started with a career disappointment. In 1899, New Zealand–born physicist Ernest Rutherford was making his name in the new field of radioactivity and had just put the finishing touches on a paper for Philosophical Magazine. He considered the paper, which described how radioactive thorium could be used to induce radioactivity in other substances, to be one of his most important yet. But then he received some unwelcome news: His rivals, Marie and Pierre Curie, had been working on the same problem, and their paper would be published before his.

Determined to avoid getting scooped in the future, Rutherford began establishing priority for his findings by frequently sending research updates to Nature’s Letters to the Editor. Other physicists noticed and began to copy Rutherford’s strategy. One particularly notable contribution came from Rutherford’s student James Chadwick, who in 1932 used the Letters to the Editor column to announce the “possible existence of a neutron.”

A rival emerges

Nature became a less desirable place to publish new work after World War II for a fairly simple reason: a dramatic drop in its speed of publication. A. J. V. Gale and Lionel “Jack” Brimble, who coedited the journal from 1939 to 1962, viewed it as their job to publish as many credible scientific papers—particularly ones from respectable British laboratories—as possible, so they were reluctant to reject submissions. As one Nature columnist put it, the journal became known as one that “might print anything if it wasn’t actually wrong.” The result was a growing backlog of submissions that had been accepted but not published. By the early 1960s, some contributors were waiting 18 months or more for their accepted manuscripts to make it into print—a far cry from the days when authors could expect publication within a handful of weeks.

Chadwick 1932.
In 1932 James Chadwick wrote a letter to the editor to announce his discovery of the neutron. Credit: Wenner Collection, Niels Bohr Library and Archives

The drop in prestige was arguably largest in physics. Gale and Brimble had both been trained in the life sciences—Gale in agriculture, Brimble in botany—and neither editor put much effort into keeping up with the latest physics research. Meanwhile, a rival had emerged in the US: Physical Review Letters, which began publication in 1958. Frustrated with the ballooning size of the American Physical Society’s flagship journal, Physical Review, editor Samuel Goudsmit founded a spin-off that would enable the quick publication of short pieces. He hoped that physicists from all research fields would be able to read the relatively short issues of Physical Review Letters, unifying the increasingly fragmented subdisciplines. The journal was a hit among physicists, and it quickly became one of the most desirable places to publish exciting new work in physics, assuming the place Nature had held half a century before.

When theoretical physicist and journalist John Maddox became Nature’s editor in 1966, he was determined to make Nature relevant in physics again. But that proved no easy task. “There wasn’t a great flow of physics papers,” Maddox’s assistant Mary Sheehan would later recall. “John tried to remedy [that] because he was a physicist at heart.” To make up the lost ground, Maddox worked to restore Nature’s reputation for quick publication. He also kept his eye out for physics laboratories doing promising work and encouraged their researchers to submit papers to Nature, arguing that he could get their work into print faster than could any other publication. Maddox would even go so far as to urge researchers to withdraw papers they had already submitted to other journals.

Nature today

The dynamic Maddox resurrected Nature from its moribund midcentury state, but he also fell into conflict with Macmillan leadership and was pushed out in 1973. His replacement was geophysicist David Davies. Maddox came back to Nature after Davies stepped down in 1980; he would edit the journal until 1995, when he passed the reins to astrophysicist Philip Campbell.

Under the leadership of Maddox, Davies, and Campbell, Nature slowly but surely began regaining relevance in the physical sciences, partly by restoring its publication speed and partly by actively recruiting papers from top laboratories. Nature has never become a major publication venue for some fields, such as particle physics. But in other areas, the journal has more appeal. In the past half century, Nature has been home to some major papers about astronomy, including Louise Webster and Paul Murdin’s identification of Cygnus X-1 as the first plausible black hole candidate in 1971. The journal has also published groundbreaking work in quantum computing, such as the first implementation of Shor’s algorithm in 2001.

Black hole and Shor's algorithm.
Left: The 10 September 1971 issue of Nature includes a paper that identifies Cygnus X-1 as a potential black hole. Right: In December 2001 Lieven Vandersypen and colleagues reported a major step in quantum computing. Credit: Wenner Collection, Niels Bohr Library and Archives

Maddox passed away in 2009, but it’s likely he was pleased with the strides made by Nature’s physics content since his first days in the editor’s chair. Today, under the leadership of life scientist Magdalena Skipper, the journal’s first female editor-in-chief, Nature remains an essential resource for those tracking the progress of physics research. At monthly editorial meetings, the Physics Today staff routinely talks about papers from Nature and sister publications such as Nature Physics, Nature Materials, and Nature Geoscience when picking the month’s Search and Discovery stories. This year, half of the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for their identification of the first exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star, a finding they first published in Nature in 1995.

Melinda Baldwin, a senior editor at Physics Today, is the author of Making “Nature”: The History of a Scientific Journal.

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