Physics in Perspective

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 3–57 | Cite as

Physics Textbooks Don’t Always Tell the Truth

  • Allan FranklinEmail author


Anyone who studies the history of physics quickly realizes that the history presented in physics textbooks is often inaccurate. I will discuss three episodes from the history of modern physics: (1) Robert Millikan’s experiments on the photoelectric effect, (2) the Michelson-Morley experiment, and (3) the Ellis-Wooster experiment on the energy spectrum in β decay. Everyone knows that Millikan’s work established the photon theory of light and that the Michelson-Morley experiment was crucial in the genesis of Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. The problem is that what everyone knows is wrong. Neither experiment played the role assigned to it by physics textbooks. The Ellis-Wooster experiment, on the other hand, is rarely discussed in physics texts, but it should be. It led to Wolfgang Pauli’s suggestion of the neutrino. I will present a more accurate history of these three experiments than those given in physics texts.


Special Relativity Polonium Photoelectric Effect Physic Textbook Unique Energy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I would like to thank Gerald Holton and Michel Janssen, both of whom read the section on the Michelson–Morley experiment and provided helpful suggestions and whose work informed that section. I would also like to thank Robert Crease, Joseph Martin, and Peter Pesic for their very careful editing of this essay.


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    Ellis and Wooster were faced with a Catch-22. If they measured the total energy emitted they could not count the number of electrons. If they counted the number of electrons, they could not be sure that they were measuring the total energy emitted. The term “Catch-22” derives from Joseph Heller’s novel of that name: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.” Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1961), 46.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 121. Ellis and Wooster proposed a possible explanation for their result. They quoted Ernest Rutherford’s suggestion that there was “a concentrated inner nucleus carrying a positive charge surrounded at a distance by a number of electrons and then at a distance by a number of neutral satellites [alpha particles] circulating around the system.” Ellis and Wooster, “Average Energy” (ref. 3), 122. This was a variant of the proton-electron model of the nucleus then popular, despite some difficulties. The outer region, composed of alpha particles was quantized, which would result in α decay with a unique energy. They regarded the electron region as unquantized, which allowed for the continuous energy spectrum in β decay. That would, however, require that γ rays of definite energy, observed in nuclear decay, could not be emitted by the electron region, but would have to be emitted by the positively charged regions of the nucleus. Ellis and Wooster worried that electrons in unquantized states within an atomic nucleus was contrary to “modern views.” They remarked that, “At first sight it would certainly appear to be so, but this is not necessarily the case.” Ellis and Wooster, “Average Energy” (ref. 3), 122–23. They proposed a possible scenario for this. This model of the nucleus and for radioactive decay did not attract much attention in the physics literature.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physics UCB 390BoulderUSA

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