Did Robert Millikan win the Nobel Prize because of the oil drop experiment?

1 Answer
May 24, 2014

Robert Millikan won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physics partly for the oil drop experiment.

The official citation stated that he received the prize "for his work on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect."

In 1905, Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect in terms of wave-particle duality. For this, he received the 1921 Nobel Prize.

Millikan believed that Einstein's explanation was wrong. He thought that light could be only a wave.

Millikan worked for ten years to test Einstein's theory. His results confirmed Einstein's predictions in every detail. But he still did not believe Einstein's explanation.

Ironically, Millikan received the Nobel prize in part for confirming wave-particle duality.

Millikan also received the Nobel Prize for his oil drop experiments in which he determined the charge on an electron.

Millikan's reputation later suffered somewhat. He was accused of "cooking the books" by selectively choosing his data.

His paper reported the results of 58 drops. “It is to be remarked, too", he wrote, "that this is not a selected group of drops, but represents all the drops experimented upon during 60 consecutive days.”

His lab notebooks show that he measured 75 drops in 63 days and 175 drops in 5 months.

The "cooking" of data did not affect the calculated value of the electronic charge, but it made the data look much better than they actually were. If he had included all the data, the error would have been 2 % rather than his reported 0.5 %.

Moral: Record all your data in your lab notebook. Don't choose only the data that give you the "best" result.