A parody paper in solid state physics, published in 1931

Context and implications

This paper, ``Remarks on the quantum theory of the absolute zero of temperature,'' by G. Beck, H. Bethe, and W. Riezler, was published in 1931 in a well-known physics journal as a legitimate research article. (Note: Hans Bethe would go on to do much fundamental research and win a Nobel Prize.) To anyone with a rudimentary modern physics background it is nonsensical, and screamingly funny as a parody of certain kinds of ``numerology'' which are popular with pseudo-scientists and crackpots. (A non-physicist may not see why it's funny; I have written an explanation, below.)

To its authors in 1931 it was presumably equally nonsensical on its face; solid state physics was less advanced in 1931, and undergoing some cataclysmic changes brought on by the quantum physics revolution. Nevertheless, there are enormous gaps in the logic which should have been obvious to physicists of that time.

The obvious inference, and relevance to the Alan Sokal--Social Text affair, is of course that the publication of one parody does not prove the bankruptcy of the field -- and that the language and methods of science are spoofable, as are the language and methods of critical theory.

Furthermore, this paper helps to remind us that satire should be committed in and taken with a sense of humor, something notably lacking from nearly everybody involved in the Sokal Affair.

Explanation of the parody

The paper parodies certain types of ``numerology,'' notably that of Sir Arthur Eddington. Eddington was a famous and highly accomplished physicist, who toward the end of his career began to delve into poorly-founded speculations. One of these involved the fine-structure constant alpha, a number which arises in quantum physics. It is a pure number, without dimensions or units, and is equal to about 1/137.04. At Eddington's time, alpha was known less accurately and the experimental value was consistent with 1/137 exactly.

Eddington and others, attempting to figure out why alpha should be the value that it is, engaged in various hand-waving efforts to justify the number 137 as derivable from some kind of fundamental principle. The spoof paper by Beck, Bethe, and Riezler makes a connection between 137 and the number -273; the absolute zero of temperature is at -273 degrees Celsius.

Of course, this must be nonsense, since alpha is independent of systems of units, while the number -273 for absolute zero applies only to Celsius degrees; in another system such as degrees Fahrenheit, absolute zero is at -459 degrees F. This is only the most obvious howler in the spoof paper, but it should have been enough for the journal editors to get it.

The spoof paper

The paper appeared originally in Die Naturwissenschaften, (1931) vol. 2, pp.38-9. A translation appears in the book A Random Walk in Science, (1973) compiled by R.L. Weber, edited by E. Mendoza (Institue of Physics: London). I have taken the liberty of putting the text on the Web. The introductory remarks in brackets are from the book's editors.
[This is a famous spoof paper, accepted by the Editor of Die Naturwissenschaften in good faith, and published in 1931. It pokes fun at the mystical properties claimed by Eddington and others for the number 137.]

Remarks on the quantum theory of the absolute zero of temperature

by G. Beck, H. Bethe, and W. Riezler

Let us consider a hexagonal crystal lattice. The absolute zero temperature is characterized by the condition that all degrees of freedom are frozen. That means that all inner movements of the lattice cease. This of course does not hold for an electron on a Bohr orbital. According to Eddington, each electron has 1/alpha degrees of freedom, where alpha is the Sommerfeld fine structure constant. Beside the electrons, the crystal contains only protons for which the number of degrees of freedom is the same since, according to Dirac, the proton can be viewed as a hole in the electron gas. To obtain absolute zero temperature we therefore have to remove from the substance 2/alpha - 1 degrees of freedom per neutron. (The crystal as a whole is supposed to be electrically neutral; 1 neutron = 1 electron + 1 proton. One degree of freedom remains because of the orbital movement.)

For the absolute zero temperature we therefore obtain

T0 = -(2/alpha - 1) degrees.

If we take T0 = -273 we obtain for 1/alpha the value of 137 which agrees within limits with the number obtained by an entirely different method. It can be shown easily that this result is independent of the choice of crystal structure.

Note: In the original, "alpha" is the Greek letter alpha, "T0" is T subscript zero.

Page created 4/25/97

Ben Weiner

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