I have compiled a very solid list of the 12 most famous PhD theses (plural of thesis) in history. Do realize that this list includes ‘PhD Theses’ and not books/volumes (so Principia by Newton doesn’t count).
This list is based entirely upon my general knowledge, so pardon me if I am limited in my insight. Also, do note that the list is by no means exhaustive or in order. Have a look. You can click titles to read the theses. Enjoy, oh and forgive me for the complexity of the content. I couldn’t help it.
1. Recherches sur les substances radioactives (1903)
- Marie Curie
In English, this translates to “Research on Radioactive Substances”. Marie Curie’s thesisis perhaps one of the most famous scientific document of the 20th century. The thesis documents her discovery of radioactivity materials such as radium and polonium, for which she was awarded 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, and subsequently formed the core of her future research. She also won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911.
2. A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits (1937)
- Claude Shannon
Claude Shannon’s thesis is said to be the most significant thesis of the 20th century, because it laid down the foundations of everything that has to do with ‘digital technology’. It is in here where Claude Shannon, at the ripe age of 21, proved how Boolean Algebra could become the building block of computers. The concept of using binary properties of electrical switches is at the core of all digital circuit design. Put it simply, Shannon’s thesis showed how a bunch 0s and 1s could do magic!
3. Non-cooperative games(1950)
- John Nash
John Nash. You must remember him from the movie A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe. Nash’s thesis, titled “Non Cooperative Games” formed the building block for the Nash equilibrium, and his subsequent Nobel Prize in Economics (1994). His 28 page thesis is online and I’ve linked it in. I challenge you to read a few pages of it without getting dizzy. Nash’s handwriting is too messy. Nash still lives.
4. Recherches sur la théorie des quanta (1924)
- De Broglie
De Broglie. The name is cool, plus he’s got swag (just look at that pose). De Broglie was one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century. His 1924 thesis, “On the Theory of Quanta” laid down the revolutionary idea of wave-particle duality, as applied to electrons. This idea is one of the principle ideas of quantum mechanics. De Broglie’s thesis is 70 pages long, which I believe is a short space to describe such an powerful and majestic concept. This thesis was the reason he won the Nobel Prize in Physics a mere five years later.
5. The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics (1942)
- Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman’s 1942 thesis “The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics” laid down the foundation of path integral technique and the famous Feynman diagrams. Feynman diagrams are used by physicists all over the world to pictorially represent the behavior of subatomic particles with mathematical expressions. Although his thesis wasn’t the reason he won a Nobel Prize for Physics, it is very popular in the physics community. After all it’s the work of Master “Feynman”.
6. A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions (1906)
- Albert Einstein
How can a history list be complete without the evergreen Albert Einstein? Einstein’s doctoral thesis “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions” was instrumental in the sense that Einstein ended up with a very accurate value for the Avogadro’s number. The value was in compliance with what he and Planck had found earlier from black-body radiation. Einstein’s thesis laid down the framework for his next breakthrough work on Brownian Motion. Einstein’s doctoral thesis is his most cited work to date.
7. The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature (1841)
- Karl Marx
Karl Marx’s 1841 thesis titled “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature” is a landmark work. In his thesis, Marx argues the differences between two schools of thought that originated from Ancient Greek polymaths namely Democritus and Epicurus. It is in here where Marx debates between “freedom and determinism”. For the philosopher in you, do check the link to his original thesis I’ve added on top.
8. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)
- Max Weber
Max Weber is considered to be one of the founders of sociology. Weber is known for his 1905 thesis titled “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” in which he combines economic sociology and the sociology of religion. Weber’s thesis discusses key issues about market-driven capitalism, cultural influences on religion and key concepts of social stratification (when groups are segmented based on their social conditions).
9. Sketchpad: A man-machine graphical communication system (1963)
- Ivan Sutherland
Ivan Sutherland’s 1963 PhD thesis is a landmark paper in computer science and human computer interaction. As part of his thesis, Sutherland created Sketchpad, the world’s first graphical user interface or GUI program. GUI is at the core of digital computing today and how we interact with computers has become more intuitive, because of Ivan’s genius work. His thesis was not only a pioneering work in HCI (Human Computer Interaction) but it also gave birth to OOP (Object Oriented Programming), a new paradigm to creating better software.
10. Molecular Machinery and Manufacturing with Applications to Computation (1991)
- Kim Eric Drexler
Kim Drexler’s 1991 thesis on Molecular Nanotechnology is a pioneering work for a PhD student. Well, he essentially invented the field of molecular nanotechnology with his thesis, which is a really big deal. Kim Drexler’s thesis is so influential that it gave birth to an entirely new concept of mechano-synthesis. It is in here that the idea of “nano-factories” was first proposed. Kim’s thesis has changed the way we look at nanotechnology and perhaps altered the course of how it should be used. Imagine nano robots being manufactured in your body to defeat cancer cells. Marvelous!
11. Logical-Philosophical Treatise (1921)
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractus Logico-Philosophicus (Logical-Philosophical Treatise) 1921 Cambridge thesis is perhaps his more foremost work. The examiners at Cambridge said, “This is far more superior of a work than that is expected by a PhD candidate”. Bertrand Rusell called him “a true genius that he has never seen before”. Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of 20th century’s greatest philosophers and logicians. His masterpiece 78-page thesis “Tractus”, now published as a book was his only published piece ever. “Tractus” discusses all kinds of things that might seem odd at first, but they are thought provoking – for example, things like the limits of science, the relationship between language and reality. I’ve linked in his thesis and you should read it. It is fun because it is in the order of declarative statements (such as 1, 1.1, 1.1.x and so on) instead of arguments.
12. On the Hypotheses which lie at the basis of Geometry (1868)
- Bernhard Riemann
Bernhard Riemann’s 1868 thesis gave birth to Riemannian geometry. His work was well received and turned into a landmark work in geometry just two years after he died. Riemann was a student of Gauss, the great Swiss mathematician. Riemannian geometry is of critical importance, as it was used by Albert Einstein to explain the concept of relativity. This is because Riemannian geometry introcued geometrical objects called tensors which describe how much bent or curved is a point in space. A century and half later, Riemannian geometry was used by Grigori Perelman to solve one of the hardest problems in mathematics, the Poncaire Conjecture.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. Share and comment.
About Ali Gajani
Hi. I am Ali Gajani. I started Mr. Geek in early 2012 as a result of my growing enthusiasm and passion for technology. I love sharing my knowledge and helping out the community by creating useful, engaging and compelling content. If you want to write for Mr. Geek, just PM me on my Facebook profile.
One day in 1924, a young French noble managed to turned quantum physics on its head, just as it was finding its feet. Even the most conservative physicists were beginning to accept the duality revolution: light is not only a wave, but also behaves like a beam of particles (photons), as Einstein had established with his explanation of the photoelectric effect, which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1921.
Then Louis de Broglie (15 August 1892 – 19 March 1987)—a novice scientist whose first degree was in history—thought otherwise: what if particles also behaved like waves? A century ago there were still questions as attractive as this, to which one might dedicate a doctoral thesis. And that is exactly what de Broglie did. After studying in depth for several years the bases of quantum physics established by Max Planck and Albert Einstein, he presented his thesis in 1924 with an important theoretical discovery: electrons behave as waves and, not only that, all particles and objects are associated with matter waves.
From Einstein’s support to experimental demonstration
This is the well-known de Broglie Hypothesis. Putting together Planck’s equations (quantization of energy: E = hν) and Einstein’s (special relativity: E = mc2), de Broglie calculated what the length of these matter waves associated with each particle would be, depending on its velocity and mass. Thus, according to de Broglie, our whole world is quantum, not just light—a conclusion so bold that it was immediately rejected by many physicists, and ignored by others.
Although in 1924 his scientific career was still short, when he presented his doctoral thesis the French physicist had already done other research, which had led him to clash with some of the most influential physicists of the moment. Not so with Einstein, who enthusiastically supported de Broglie’s conclusions, but even Einstein’s support was not enough to prove him right: his hypothesis had to be experimentally demonstrated.
Artistic rendition of the wave-particle duality. Credit: Timothy Yeo / CQT, National University of Singapore
If the electron were a particle that behaved like a wave, then it would have to show typical properties of waves, such as diffraction and interference. And then some very strange things would happen: for example, one electron would be able to traverse two different holes at the same time. This was demonstrated by the electron diffraction experiment of Davisson and Germer (1927), thus confirming the hypothesis of de Broglie, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1929, just five years after he had presented that bold doctoral thesis.
First step to the electron microscope
Few doctoral theses in the history of science have been so dazzling that they have reached the Nobel with the same work that gave the author the title of doctor. Another great example is that of Marie Curie. Incredibly, Louis de Broglie, with his first great scientific research, succeeded in laying one of the pillars of quantum physics: the wave–particle duality, which states that waves can behave like particles and vice versa. From his idea of matter waves was born wave mechanics, the new formulation of quantum physics that Schrödinger developed to apply to atoms and molecules. And admitting the wave properties of electrons was the basis for inventing the electron microscope (released in 1932), which allows us to see things much smaller than typical optical microscopes permit, because the wavelength of the electron is much shorter than that of photons of visible light.
For all these reasons we remember Louis de Broglie as the ‘prince of quantum’, although in the macroscopic world this scientist aristocrat only became a duke when his brother inherited the duchy de Broglie in 1960. By then, he had already received a multitude of recognitions for his scientific achievements, in addition to the Nobel Prize: he occupied seat 1 of the French Academy (1944), received two prestigious medals—Henri Poincaré (1929) and Max Planck (1938)—and was also the first recipient of the Kalinga Prize (1942), awarded by UNESCO to highlight outstanding contributions to the dissemination of science.
Pollen grains image taken on an electron microscope, an application of the de Broglie hypothesis. Credit: Dartmouth College
In addition, he was the first world-renowned scientist who called for countries to join forces to meet the great challenges of science in multinational laboratories. CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) was born of this request, and his long life (he passed away at age 94) allowed him to see the exceptional achievements of this particle physics laboratory inspired by his scientific vision.
Francisco Doménech for Ventana al Conocimiento