Physical Review Letters (PRL) may no longer be the most prestigious physics journal, but is certainly one that still enjoys a position of prominence. Articles submitted to PRL are short, highly condensed, and should illustrate findings of importance and broad interest across the entire discipline. In other words, even though its subject will still fall within specific areas of physics (i.e., condensed matter, high energy, etc.), in principle the content of an article published in PRL should catch the attention of, and be deemed important by all physicists, not just those working in the area of the article (whether that is actually the case or not, is not the subject of this post).
A seemingly reasonable estimate of the fraction of articles submitted to PRL, by physicists working in the various areas of physics, namely condensed matter physics (cmp), atomic, molecular and optical physics (amo), high energy physics (hep) etc., might be obtained by looking at the numbers of articles published annually in the various specialized sections of Physical Review. Articles published therein are so broad in scope, and of sufficiently general interest across the whole discipline, to justify their submission (or, publication) in PRL.
Here are the numbers for 2007:
Physical Review A (amo): 2,259
Physical Review B (cmp): 5,744
Physical Review C (nuc): 934
Physical Review D (hep): 2,268
Physical Review E (stat): 2,255
Based on the above numbers, one might infer the relative “sizes” of the various fields (i.e., the fractions of physicists engaged in each of them), and tentatively posit that the number of papers submitted to PRL from the various areas should reflect reasonably closely those sizes. So, for example, for every paper in nuclear physics submitted to PRL, there will be roughly 2.5 papers in amo, hep and statistical physics, and a little over 6 papers in cmp. That Condensed Matter Physics is the largest area of research in physics nowadays, is hardly a secret.
A paper submitted for publication to PRL undergoes review by a number of anonymous referees, hand picked by the Editor of PRL for the particular area of physics to which the subject of the paper pertains. Based on the opinion expressed by the referees, as well as the rebuttals offered by the authors, the Editor makes a decision of either publication or rejection of the submitted manuscript.
The Editor’s decision is generally definitive, but authors have the option of appealing, in which case the entire file for that submission (which includes the manuscript itself, as well as the reports of all the referees and the replies of the authors) is forwarded to a Divisional Associate Editor (DAE), a reputable senior scientist also affiliated to the specific area of physics to which the paper belongs.
The DAE will review the file and make a final deliberation, which will then be communicated to the authors — the identity of the DAE is disclosed to the authors if his/her decision confirms that of the Editor (namely, the manuscript is rejected) .
Here is a curious fact: PRL has a number of DAEs for the various areas of research — their names are listed here. I am not so concerned with their names though, as much as with their numbers. Specifically,
Atomic Molecular and Optical Physics 5
Condensed Matter Physics 36
Nuclear Physics 7
Particles and Fields 6
Oh-kay… can anyone explain to me why there are six times more DAEs for condensed matter physics than there are for Particles and Fields ? Why more than for all other areas of physics combined  ?
Are the relative numbers of submissions to PRL in the various areas, so different from those estimated above, based on the number of articles ? Maybe but… it seems strange to me that condensed matter physicists would be so much more inclined than others to submit to PRL. Are there really six times more papers submitted to PRL in cmp than in hep, for instance ?
Another possible explanation is that condensed matter physicists are more prone to appealing, or, more generally, that reviews of condensed matter physics articles submitted to PRL tend to be more difficult, controversial, more likely to result in “battles of egos” between authors and referees… if that is the case, why is that ?
Has condensed matter physics become all of a sudden a contentious field ? Or, are there other reasons for having so many more DAEs in cmp ?
 On the other hand, in my experience if the DAE’s decision is that the paper be accepted, the DAE’s identity is not disclosed to the authors.
 It should be noted that there are 14 additional referees in Materials Science, Chemical Physics, Polymer Physics and Biological Physics, all areas commonly regarded close to Condensed Matter Physics.