Nobelist Robert Millikan's Famous Oil Drop Experiment Was A Lie

By William Broad and Nicholas Wade



(Simon and Schuster, 1982) pp. 33-35


Consider the case of Robert A. Millikan, a U.S. physicist who won the Nobel prize in 1923 for determining the electric charge on the electron. He became the most famous American scientist of his day, winning sixteen prizes and twenty honorary degrees before his death in 1953. In addition he was an adviser to Presidents Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A careful study of Millikan's notebooks has brought to light some bizarre procedures in the methods by which Millikan climbed to scientific fame and glory. As an unknown professor at the University of Chicago, Millikan published his first measurements of e, the electronic charge, in 1910. The measurements, which depended on introducing droplets of liquid into an electric field and noting the strength of field necessary to keep them suspended, were difficult to make and subject to considerable variation. In strict accordance with the ethos that demands full disclosure of data, Millikan used stars to grade the quality of his thirty-eight measurements from "best" to "fair," and noted that he had discarded seven entirely. The candor did not continue for long. Millikan's rival in measuring electric charge, Felix Ehrenhaft of the University of Vienna, Austria, immediately showed how the variability in Millikan's published measurements in fact supported Ehrenhaft's belief in the existence of subelectrons carrying fractional electronic charges. Battle was joined between Millikan and Ehrenhaft, and the question of subelectrons was discussed around the scientific world by leading physicists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Max Born, and Erwin Schrodinger. To rebut Ehrenhaft, Millikan published an article in 1913 full of new and more accurate results favoring a single charge for the electron. He emphasized, in italics, that "this is not a selected group of drops but represents all of the drops experimented upon during 60 consecutive days." On the face of it, Millikan had achieved a brilliant rejoinder to Ehrenhaft and had proved beyond a doubt the correctness of his measure of the electron charge-all through the sheer power of scientific precision. However, a look through Medawar's keyhole shows a quite different situation. Harvard historian Gerald Holton went back to the original notebooks on which Millikan based his 1913 paper and found major gaps in the reporting of data. Despite his specific assurance to the contrary, Millikan had selected only his best data for publication. The raw observations in his notebooks are individually annotated with private comments such as "beauty. publish this surely, beautifull" and "very low, something wrong." The 58 observations presented in his 1913 article were in fact selected from a total of 140. Even if observations are counted only after February 13, 1912, the date that the first published observation was taken, there are still 49 drops that have been excluded . Millikan had no need to worry that his deceit would be exposed, for, as Holton notes, the "notebooks belonged to the realm of private science. . . . Therefore he evaluated his data . . . guided both by a theory about the nature of electric charge and by a sense of the quality or weight of the particular run. It is exactly what he had done in his first major paper, before he had learned not to assign stars to data in public." Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Ehrenhaft and his colleagues assiduously published readings, good, bad, and indifferent. The picture that emerged from their work did not support the notion of a single, indivisible electronic charge. This view was contrary to prevailing theory at the time and, as Holton notes, "from Ehrenhaft's point of view it was, for just this reason, to be regarded as an exciting opportunity and challenge. In Millikan's terms, on the contrary, such an interpretation of the raw readings would force one to turn one's back on a basic fact of nature-the integral character of e-which clearly beckoned." For Millikan, the battle ended in a Nobel prize (which also cited his work on the photoelectric effect) ; for Ehrenhaft, in disillusionment and eventually a broken spirit. But Ehrenhaft, who had the more accurate equipment and made better measurements than Millikan, may yet be vindicated. Physicists at Stanford University using a similar methodology have recently found evidence of a kind of subelectronic charge.



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