The launch of a new Nature journal comes at an exciting time for physics.
People have stopped talking about ‘physics envy’. Time was when other sciences were jealous of the prestige and funds attracted by physics, and also of its success in capturing the imagination, as it uncovered revolutionary ways of thinking about, and predicting, the constituents and governing principles of the Universe.
Nowadays, thanks to the allure of biology's progress and benefits, physics is just another discipline. But its decline in prominence should not mislead. The next generation of particle accelerators promises insights as deep as any of their predecessors, in particular in understanding the origins of mass and the symmetries underlying the laws of nature. The enduring conjugal relationship between physics and mathematics continues to stimulate both. Understanding the behaviour of electrons and light within condensed matter continues to yield not only surprises in understanding but also new technologies. And physicists' habit of thinking about the underlying questions leads them still to speculate beyond the current limits of experiment. Where does quantum mechanics fail? Is information a more fundamental quantity than hitherto realized?
It is with the enduring enticement of these challenges in mind that we welcome the launch this month of our sister publication Nature Physics (http://www.nature.com/naturephysics). It is also an indicator of success. After the Second World War, Nature ceased to be a vehicle for the physics community. It was only after the advent of high-temperature superconductivity that physicists began to rediscover the journal's value. Over the succeeding two decades or so, Nature has re-established itself as a prime physics outlet.
“Experience has shown that launching sibling research journals strengthens Nature. More importantly, it stimulates the discipline.”
At the same time, the publishing habits of physicists have also evolved. Preprint servers are now commonplace for some branches of the subject, without damaging journals. The number of papers published has grown by 3% per year, but there have been significant shifts in regional output. Between 1981 and 2001, US research output in physics fell by 1.5% (to 19,500 papers per year), Western Europe saw research output grow by 56% (to 29,100 papers), and output in Asia grew by 120% (to 22,500 papers). Within Asia, China saw its output grow from 500 articles to 5,500, Japan's grew by 67% to 11,000 and India saw a 40% increase to 2,100 papers.
Perhaps the most significant shifts are in the distribution of the physics community over that period, with the number of PhDs in physics declining markedly in the United States and Europe but increasing dramatically in Asia. Nature and its related journals have always had internationalism as a key ingredient, and have reflected regional growths in strength.
Experience has shown that launching sibling research journals strengthens, rather than weakens, Nature. More importantly, it stimulates the discipline by providing greater exposure thanks to our media and web strengths, and, above all, by providing healthy competition to established journals, to the benefit of authors and readers everywhere. Nature Physics is set to follow this tradition.