Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Millikan’s Fraud

Every undergraduate physics textbook I've ever seen fails to note the well documented fact that although Millikan's conclusions were correct, he was guilty of scientific fraud. His technique was difficult and painstaking to perform, and his original notebooks, which have been preserved, show that the data were far less perfect than he claimed in his published scientific papers. In his publications, he stated categorically that every single oil drop observed had had a charge that was a multiple of e, with no exceptions or omissions. But his notebooks are replete with notations such as "beautiful data, keep," and "bad run, throw out." Millikan, then, appears to have earned his Nobel Prize by advocating a correct position with dishonest descriptions of his data.

Why do textbook authors fail to mention Millikan's fraud? It's an interesting sociological question. I don'tthink it's because of a lack of space: most of these texts take a slavishly historical approach in introducing modern physics, devoting entire sections to discussions of topics like black body radiation, which are historically important but not particularly helpful to students. It may be that they think students are too unsophisticated to correctly evaluate the implications of the fact that scientific fraud has sometimes existed and even been rewarded by the scientific establishment. Maybe they are afraid students will reason that fudging data is OK, since Millikan got the Nobel Prize for it. But falsifying history in the name of encouraging truthfulness is more than a little ironic. English teachers don't edit Shakespeare's tragedies so that the bad characters are always punished and the good ones never suffer!

Another possible explanation is simply a lack of originality; it's possible that some venerated textbook was uncritical of Millikan's fraud, and later authors simply followed suit. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould has written an essay tracing an example of how authors of biology textbooks tend to follow a certain traditional treatment of a topic, using the giraffe's neck to discuss the nonheritability of acquired traits. Yet another interpretation is that scientists derive status from their popular images as impartial searchers after the truth, and they don't want the public to realize how human and imperfect they can be. (Millikan himself was an educational reformer, and wrote a series of textbooks that were of much higher quality than others of his era.)

Note added September 2002:

Several years after I wrote this historical digression, I came across an interesting defense of Millikan by David Goodstein (American Scientist, Jan-Feb 2001, pp. 54-60). Goodstein argues that although Millikan wrote a sentence in his paper that was a lie, Millikan is nevertheless not guilty of fraud when we take that sentence in context: Millikan stated that he never threw out any data, and he did throw out data, but he had good, objective reasons for throwing out the data. The Millikan affair will probably remain controversial among historians, but I would take away two lessons.

  • The episode may reduce our confidence in Millikan, but it should deepen our faith in science. The correct result was eventually recognized; it might not have been in a pseudoscienctific field like medicine.

  • In science, sloppiness can be almost as bad as cheating. If Science knows something of absolute truth, then she will not take excuses for falsehoods.

In other words, he had provided direct evidence for the charged-particle model of electricity and against models in which electricity was described as some sort of fluid. The basic charge is notated e, and the modern value is e=1.60x10-19 C

The word "quantized" is used in physics to describe a quantity that can only have certain numerical values, and cannot have any of the values between those. In this language, we would say that Millikan discovered that charge is quantized. The charge e is referred to as the quantum of charge.

Self-Check Is money quantized? What is the quantum of money?
Answer Yes. In U.S. currency, the quantum of money is the penny.

Last Update: 2009-06-21