1. Double-slit electron diffraction
The French physicist Louis de Broglie proposed in 1924 that electrons and other discrete bits of matter, which until then had been conceived only as material particles, also have wave properties such as wavelength and frequency. Later (1927) the wave nature of electrons was experimentally established by C.J. Davisson and L.H. Germer in New York and by G.P. Thomson in Aberdeen, Scot. To explain the idea, to others and themselves, physicists often used a thought experiment, in which Young's double-slit demonstration is repeated with a beam of electrons instead of light. Obeying the laws of quantum mechanics, the stream of particles would split in two, and the smaller streams would interfere with each other, leaving the same kind of light- and dark-striped pattern as was cast by light. Particles would act like waves. According to an accompanying article in Physics World, by the magazine's editor, Peter Rodgers, it wasn't until 1961 that someone (Claus Jönsson of Tübingen) carried out the experiment in the real world.
In the late 1500's, everyone knew that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones. After all, Aristotle had said so. That an ancient Greek scholar still held such sway was a sign of how far science had declined during the dark ages.
Galileo Galilei, who held a chair in mathematics at the University of Pisa, was impudent enough to question the common knowledge. The story has become part of the folklore of science: he is reputed to have dropped two different weights from the town's Leaning Tower showing that they landed at the same time. His challenges to Aristotle may have cost Galileo his job, but he had demonstrated the importance of taking nature, not human authority, as the final arbiter in matters of science.
3. Millikan's oil-drop experiment
Oil-drop experiment was the first direct and compelling measurement of the electric charge of a single electron. It was performed originally in 1909 by the American physicist Robert A. Millikan. Using a perfume atomizer, he sprayed tiny drops of oil into a transparent chamber. At the top and bottom were metal plates hooked to a battery, making one positive (red in animation) and the other negative (blue in animation). Since each droplet picked up a slight charge of static electricity as it traveled through the air, the speed of its motion could be controlled by altering the voltage on the plates. When the space between the metal plates is ionized by radiation (e.g., X rays), electrons from the air attach themselves to oil droplets, causing them to acquire a negative charge. Millikan observed one drop after another, varying the voltage and noting the effect. After many repetitions he concluded that charge could only assume certain fixed values. The smallest of these portions was none other than the charge of a single electron.
4. Newton's decomposition of sunlight with a prism
Isaac Newton was born the year Galileo died. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1665, then holed up at home for a couple of years waiting out the plague. He had no trouble keeping himself occupied.
The common wisdom held that white light is the purest form (Aristotle again) and that colored light must therefore have been altered somehow. To test this hypothesis, Newton shined a beam of sunlight through a glass prism and showed that it decomposed into a spectrum cast on the wall. People already knew about rainbows, of course, but they were considered to be little more than pretty aberrations. Actually, Newton concluded, it was these colors — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet and the gradations in between — that were fundamental. What seemed simple on the surface, a beam of white light, was, if one looked deeper, beautifully complex.
5. Young's light-interference experimentNewton wasn't always right. Through various arguments, he had moved the scientific mainstream toward the conviction that light consists exclusively of particles rather than waves. In 1803, Thomas Young, an English physician and physicist, put the idea to a test. He cut a hole in a window shutter, covered it with a thick piece of paper punctured with a tiny pinhole and used a mirror to divert the thin beam that came shining through. Then he took "a slip of a card, about one-thirtieth of an inch in breadth" and held it edgewise in the path of the beam, dividing it in two. The result was a shadow of alternating light and dark bands — a phenomenon that could be explained if the two beams were interacting like waves. Bright bands appeared where two crests overlapped, reinforcing each other; dark bands marked where a crest lined up with a trough, neutralizing each other.
The demonstration was often repeated over the years using a card with two holes to divide the beam. These so-called double-slit experiments became the standard for determining wavelike motion — a fact that was to become especially important a century later when quantum theory began.