by Kathleen Riley February 17, 2017 Pop Science
In Brief
  • Some argue that John Nash's influential – albeit short — paper on game theory is the greatest scientific paper ever written. But is it?
  • There are several pieces of scientific literature that rose to prominence not because of the points they made, but the brevity with which they made them.

Size Isn’t Everything

With innumerable scientific papers covering a wide variety of disciplines being published in scholarly journals all over the world, finding the the greatest scientific paper ever written would be an extremely difficult task. Not to mention its pretty subjective: what one person thinks makes a paper great could be considered its weak point by someone else.

Still, people are on the hunt to discover what the best scientific paper is out there. Tony Padilla, an associate professor of physics from the University of Nottingham, created an episode of Numberphile where he suggests that it’s the short papers that are the most highly influential.

A few papers have, in fact, become famous because of their brevity: some appear to be only a half a paragraph in length. In fact, one famously short scientific paper is under consideration by many as being, truly, the greatest ever written.

The paper, entitled “Equilibrium Points in N-Person Games”, was written by then-grad student John Nash and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January of 1950. In total, it’s only about a page in length and contains 333 words.


Nash’s paper deals with ‘game theory,’ in which he created a related principle dubbed the ‘Nash Equilibrium.’ The Nash Equilibrium states that in any competition, all players must make their best choices whilst taking into account the other player’s strategies.

This creates equilibrium.

Since the Nash Equilibrium deals with any competitive situation involving a finite number of players and strategies, scientists are trying to create an artificial intelligence (AI) that uses this principle to beat the world’s best poker players.

Nash’s Prominence

Nash’s principle has become so prominent that it is considered the centerpiece of game theory. Science writer Erica Klarreich shines light upon the significance of the Nash Equilibrium in our modern society. She stated:

The Nash Equilibrium concept has become a benchmark by which economists and other scientists measure both rational behavior and the extent to which humans depart from pure rationality. Over the years, this concept has illuminated questions in economics, psychology, and even biology. In 1994, it earned Nash the Nobel prize in economics.

Although Nash’s paper is without a doubt considered to be an extremely well-written piece, is it truly the greatest scientific paper of all time?

Even if some disagree, the paper has definitely been highly influential. The search for the greatest scientific paper ever written may never be over because it’s so subjective — not as clear cut as the shortest paper ever written, which is a little more difficult to argue.