Public Release: 

Should physicists work to the sound of silence?

IOP Publishing

In this month's issue of Physics World, Felicity Mellor, a senior lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London, questions whether the requirement of the modern physicist to collaborate and communicate is preventing the intellectual progress brought about by silence and solitude.

Drawing on the approaches of Newton, Einstein, Cavendish and Dirac, Mellor highlights the recurring role that silence has played throughout the history of physics and asks if the "enforced interaction" that is now placed on modern-day scientists is allowing them enough time to think.

Sir Isaac Newton, in particular, was a proponent of isolated working, shutting himself away in his rooms, publishing reluctantly and restricting his audience to only those he thought capable of appreciating his work. Indeed, it was only after much persuasion that he eventually agreed to his Principia being published in full.

Physicists do best by striking a balance between silence and communication, with Mellor citing the example of Werner Heisenberg, who retreated to the tiny island of Heligoland to escape hay fever and the constant chatter of his colleague and mentor Niels Bohr. It was here that Heisenberg was able to reflect on discussions with Bohr and lay down the basis of his formulation of quantum mechanics.

While reminding us that individual genius is not the sole source of creativity in physics, Mellor questions the extent to which modern-day scientists have control over their own level of communication. "Communication, yes, but on the physicist's own terms, in that manner that suits each individual best," she writes.

Peter Higgs, for example, recently claimed that he would not have been able to complete his Nobel-prize-winning work in the current research environment, stating that the peace and quiet he was granted in the 1960s is no longer possible.

In her article, Mellor also points to the rationale behind the current institutes of advanced studies, which aim to bring researchers together from a number of disciplines to promote collaborative research projects.

"These are laudable aims, but it is striking that the need for periods of withdrawal and solitude are no longer acknowledged as a means of facilitating intellectual advances," Mellor writes.

"History shows us that the most successful physicists have been able to strike a balance between coming forth and holding back, between public discussion and private contemplation. Yet reticence and silence seem to have no place in the modern research agenda."


The April issue of Physics World is available in print and digital form from Tuesday 1 April, while Mellor's article appears online at from Thursday 3 April.

Also in this issue:

  • Planets galore - taking stock of extrasolar worlds

  • Paying the price - why US sanctions are hurting Iranian physics

  • Fusion fiasco - critical report slams management of ITER facility

  • Industrial concern - do patents hinder basic science?

Please mention Physics World as the source of these items and, if publishing online, please include a hyperlink to:

Notes for editors:

Physics World is the international monthly magazine published by the Institute of Physics. For further information or details of its editorial programme, please contact the editor, Dr Matin Durrani, tel +44 (0)117 930 1002. The magazine's website is updated regularly and contains daily physics news and regular audio and video content. Visit

For copies of the articles reviewed here contact Mike Bishop, IOP press officer, tel +44 (0)11 7930 1032, e-mail

The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society. We are a charitable organization with a worldwide membership of more than 50,000, working together to advance physics education, research and application.

We engage with policy-makers and the general public to develop awareness and understanding of the value of physics and, through IOP Publishing, we are world leaders in professional scientific communications. Visit us at

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.