A fun challenge for science bloggers

Note: For those looking for it, I’ve put up an official page with links to all entries here.

One of the things that I still find incredibly fun about being a scientist is the ability to “touch” history, in the form of the original publication of now famous scientific results. I’m reminded of my undergraduate days, when a classmate and I were discussing the topic of Čerenkov radiation, which had become relevant in our high-energy physics discussions. We didn’t completely understand the idea, so the next day my classmate came in with a photocopy of Čerenkov’s original (well, translated) 1934 paper. That was the first time it dawned on me that, as scientists, we could go right to the “source”, so to speak, and in essence learn about science from the famous people who performed it.

There’s a lot more to learn in going to the source than one might think. As Tom at Swans on Tea observed recently,

The “materials at hand” is one thing that continually amazes me. I read details of some century-old experiment and am reminded that their apparatus and supplies were hand-crafted, often in the same lab. You read about Rutherford doing alpha-scattering experiments in pure nitrogen. Did he order a tank of compressed nitrogen from the local welding-supplies shop, like I do? Of course not.

The nitrogen was obtained by the well-known method of adding ammonium chloride to sodium nitrite, and stored over water.

(My well-known method involves the internet and a credit card)

My “challenge”, for those sciencebloggers who choose to accept it, is this: read and research an old, classic scientific paper and write a blog post about it. I recommend choosing something pre- World War II, as that was the era of hand-crafted, “in your basement”-style science. There’s a lot to learn not only about the ingenuity of researchers in an era when materials were not readily available, but also about the problems and concerns of scientists of that era, often things we take for granted now!

(I’ve already got my paper picked out, though I miscalculated a bit: I thought it was a straightforward experiment that couldn’t be more than a two-page paper, but it’s about 40 pages – and in German!)

P.S. Hopefully it was clear from the original post, but my “challenge” extends to sciencebloggers of all branches, not just physics bloggers: I’d be really interested to read about some of the landmark papers in biology, chemistry, and math, too!

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67 Responses to A fun challenge for science bloggers

  1. Tom says:

    Sounds like fun. I’m in.

  2. Tom: Cool! We’ll see if anyone else takes up the “challenge”…

  3. plektix says:

    I’ll have to think about this one. There is, of course, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” but that’s a bit too obvious.

  4. “…but that’s a bit too obvious.”

    When I was still a graduate student, my thesis advisor asked me for suggestions for problems for the new graduate student’s qualifying exam. I gave him an idea for a problem, but I thought it was a little too obvious. He replied: “Nothing is obvious for our students!”

    In a similar vein, I say: “Nothing is too obvious for me!”

  5. By the way, if any of my sad, blog-deprived science friends feel like joining in on the fun (you know who you are), I’ll gladly give you a guest account to write a post. If you’re clever enough to realize that this sounds suspiciously like whitewashing the fence, you’re clever enough to write an excellent post!

  6. Blake Stacey says:

    I have a couple book reviews to write, along with some accessory posts which’ve grown out of contemplating the aforesaid books, but this sounds like a fun thing to try when I’m done with those!

  7. ecoli says:

    I’m in… I’ll do some research on this soon. Great challenge, btw.

  8. ecoli: Cool! I’ll look forward to your ‘entry’!

  9. Gerlach says:

    Ahh, this is a good idea. I’ve got several ideas, so I’ll see what I can put together.

  10. Gerlach: Excellent! Be sure to send me an email link to your post once it’s done; I’ve already put together a page to compile everyone’s entries (though so far, only mine is present!)

  11. Pingback: Scientiae Carnival And Platypus Revealed! « PodBlack Blog

  12. Mark says:

    Sounds like fun. I’m in.

  13. I like to touch on older papers every now and then and here I did something similar to what you propose.

  14. Pingback: Science blogger challenge: classic paper blogging | The OpenHelix Blog

  15. Mark: Excellent! I look forward to seeing your entry!

    Bora: I figured I couldn’t be the only one looking at some older research! I’m finding it so much fun that I’ve ‘Interlibrary Loan’-ed about a dozen papers from the early 1900s over the past week. I’m sure the librarians are wondering what the heck is wrong with me… 🙂

  16. McDawg says:

    There’s a wealth of Manu’s available free of charge c/o the James Lind Library dating back to 6th Century:-


  17. BrianR says:

    Great idea … hope i’m not too late … I just finished a post about a 1917 paper (in geology) and then a commenter told me about your challenge … you can find my post about the paper here

  18. BrianR: Nope, not too late; I’ve made the ‘official’ deadline the end of May. I’ll add your entry to the list ASAP!

  19. BrianR says:

    thanks! … that was fast

  20. Jackie says:

    This is such a great idea. I had half an idea to throw away my science papers, but now this give me a reason to put it off a while longer. i could probably come up with a dozen ‘classic’ papers. Now if only I could find them in my stack of boxes, lol.

  21. Epicanis says:

    I absolutely love this idea – I’ve long thought that the classic papers were under-appreciated. I’ve been trying to hunt down and collect classical papers around my preferred area (microbiology), especially ones that seem to be forgotten…like the original reference to the Schaeffer-Fulton stain.
    I’ll try to dig up a “new” (so to speak) one to do a post on, but in the meantime, I have done a few posts on this one:

    Gram, HC.”Ueber die isolirte Faerbung der Schizomyceten in Schnitt-und Trockenpraeparaten.” Fortschitte der Medicin. 1884 Vol. 2, pp 185-189.

    How’s THAT for classic. Mind you, my most in-depth post on the subject covers a whole mess of subsequent papers as well, discussing why, exactly, Hans Christian Gram’s famous staining technique works the way it does and what the results turn out to really mean in the end, so it’s not only about the original paper.

  22. Epicanis says:

    Oops – can’t tell if the previous post went through, but even if it did, I realized as I clicked “submit” that I’d forgotten the link:


    I assume 1884 is old enough?….

  23. Jackie: Good luck finding the papers!

    Epicanis: Thanks for the submission!

  24. scicurious says:

    Hi! Is it too late to get in? And could I use a medical case report? It doesn’t really include cool materials people used in their basements, but I still think it’s cool. I can always choose something else, of course. Is there a word limit? And should I put it in any particular context?


  25. Mr. Gunn says:

    I think this is a great idea, too. Any chance we could get a “classics” tag group going on Connotea?

  26. scicurious: Nope; not too late! I set a deadline of May 31st here, because people were asking for one. Every entry I get before then I’ll put up on a permanent page here.

    A medical case report sounds fine to me! As for length, I didn’t suggest any length requirements; whatever seems appropriate. As for context, I originally suggested trying to explain the history and methodology of the work, but in the end it’s up to you!

  27. Tuff Cookie says:

    Here’s my offering: A Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah.

    It’s not terribly in-depth, but BrianR said I should submit it anyway!

  28. coconino says:

    This is mine: Hayes, C.W., Handbook for Field Geologists, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York 1914.

    An excerpt from the first chapter is http://ohwm.blogspot.com/2008/05/another-oldie-but-goodie.html

  29. Tuff Cookie: Thanks for the entry! I’ve added it to the list…

    coconino: Are you planning more writing on the Handbook, or should I link to just your first chapter description? I’d like to keep one link per article/book, so if you’re planning to write more, I’ll link to a final aggregate of your posts…

    P.S. I should add that I’ll be happy to add your entry either way!

  30. coconino says:

    I’ll probably post two more selections. The spine is deteriorating and I don’t like to handle it more than necessary. Thanks!

  31. Pingback: “The Beginnings of Immunofluoresence” | The OpenHelix Blog

  32. memopenhelix says:

    Mine is up this morning: http://www.openhelix.com/blog/?p=332

    Thanks so much for the challenge, it was great fun.

  33. “Mine is up this morning”

    Great! I added it to the list. I labeled it as ‘biochemistry’; let me know if there’s a more appropriate category you’d like it labeled under.

  34. memopenhelix says:

    Thanks. I think I would be tempted to label it as cell biology as well–although I agree on the biochemistry because of the protein chemistry involved.

  35. Pingback: Oldies but Goodies « Neurotic Physiology

  36. barn owl says:

    Here’s my blog post on a classic developmental neurobiology paper, by Windle and Austin (1935), in the chick embryo

    *hopes the link works*

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  40. Winawer says:

    Damn, I thought I was being all clever when I decided to dig into the archives! It’s not as old, but here’s my submission: The beginning of biological game theory. It doesn’t get much older than about 35 years in this area….

  41. Pingback: The Big Room (and the little things in it) » Blog Archive » “They laughed at me! But I’ll show them all! AH, HAHAHAHA!”

  42. Dave Munger says:

    Got a post up here:

    The origins of the study of memory.

    We’ll be doing this all week!

  43. Pingback: Before I forget! « Mild Opinons

  44. Catatau says:

    We have now two posts, about La Mettrie e Vesalius, at front page of “Catatau”

    greetings from Brasil!


  45. Dave: I’ll keep an eye out for ’em all week!

  46. Pingback: Advances in the History of Psychology » Blog Archive » Science Blogs' History Challenge

  47. Pingback: The Big Room (and the little things in it) » Blog Archive » “A small modification of Koch’s plating method.”

  48. Epicanis says:

    I see my trackback shows up already, but in case it’s not obvious, I’ve got a post on a classic piece of microbiology apparatus described in an article from 1887…

    I’ll try to do at least ONE more by the end of tomorrow (May 31st).

  49. Pingback: The Big Room (and the little things in it) » Blog Archive » “A simplified method of staining endospores”

  50. Pingback: The Big Room (and the little things in it) » Blog Archive » “Antibiotic Susceptibility Testing by a Standardized Single-Disk Method”

  51. podblack says:

    Did mine get through?

  52. Pingback: The 1856 Paper of Darcy « NONOSCIENCE

  53. Arunn says:


    Here is mine at nonoscience


  54. podblack says:

    Sorry! I just realised I posted my announcement in the wrong comment box – but I did get it in on time!

    I posted my entry here: https://skullsinthestars.com/2008/05/29/a-couple-of-days-left-for-the-challenge/#comments
    and my entry is:

  55. Pingback: World of Science News : Blog Archive : New carnival - The Giant’s Shoulders! [A Blog Around The Clock]

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  59. Pingback: Nonoscience / The 1856 Paper of Darcy

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  62. Pingback: Classic Science Paper: Otto Wiener’s experiment (1890) | Skulls in the Stars

  63. jiang-min zhang says:

    As i remember, Steven Weinberg once said that the best way to learn physics is to study the history of physics.

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