On Reading Kuhn’s Black-Body Theory and the Quantum
I am one of that small group of people for whom Thomas Kuhn’s Black-Body Theory. It is very likely still the most dog eared and coffee stained book on my shelves, and I have often lent it out—since I have urged it on any serious students of the history of physics as the most fundamental and exciting study in the intellectual history of our field. Yet the book has been approached so differently over time that I can hope that a short and relatively informal note on just some of the ways it has been read will contribute to the broader aim of building a better understanding of the history of the history of science.1
With or Without Structure?
Black-Body Theory article on Weimar culture and Andrew Pickering’s
What such reviews showed very clearly was that many were puzzled why a book that made such a major revisionist argument about the origins of quantum theory had so little to say about whether and how the conceptual apparatus that Kuhn had offered in Structure applied to his consideration of the work of Max Planck
Paradigms Lost and Found
As editor of Isis, Arnold Thackray
As I began my dissertation on the early work of Max Born
So Black-Body Theory research, they not only interpreted and reinterpreted Planck’s work—sometimes radically—they also abstracted it from its original context, thereby bringing it within the range of expertise of greater numbers of physicists (Staley 1992, chap. 6). Thus I saw Kuhn’s account of Planck and responses to his work to have raised a similar question about authorship in quantum theory to those that were so evidently at issue in discussions of the relative contributions of Lorentz, Poincaré, Einstein, Minkowski and Hilbert in relativity (debating authorship was a major issue in the historiography of modern physics of the period). I thought Kuhn’s thesis of the incommensurability of scientific paradigms had led historians to overemphasize the difficulties scientists exhibit in understanding different points of view in theoretical or experimental work. Yet whereas historians of relativity tended to relate acceptance of Einstein’s
Later I saw particular limitations in Kuhn’s approach. He had focused largely on theory and intellectual factors conveyed through technical education (formal or informal). But although he said so little about why black-body research was so important industrially, and we needed the work of David Cahan and Dieter Hoffman (taking Kangro’s study further) to begin recognizing this, Kuhn did point very clearly to the importance of experimental work on the specific heat of solids, and Nernst’s advocacy, for the propagation of Einstein’s work
It did offer a stimulus to studies of quantum theory too, and as the publication of studies around the centenary of Planck’s
Along these lines I want to conclude by highlighting two points underlined by these early reviews. The first is the skepticism Pinch
On Kuhn, Writing Backwards
In its highly autobiographical preface Kuhn tells us that he did not initially intend to undertake the project that led to Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894–1912 theory of the periodic table in 1922 and 1923 respectively, and the most unclear part of his plan was the appropriate date from which to begin. Looking for origins, Kuhn had then decided to reexamine Planck’s
Badino, M. (2009). The Odd Couple: Boltzmann, Planck and the Application of Statistics to Physics (1900–1913). Annalen der Physik 18: 2-3
Cahan, D. (1989). An Institute for an Empire: The Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, 1871–1918. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Darrigol, O. (2001). The Historians’ Disagreements over the Meaning of Planck’s Quantum. Centaurus 43: 219-239
Forman, P. (1971). Weimar Culture, Causality and Quantum Theory, 1918–1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment. Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 3: 1-116
Galison, P. (1981). Kuhn and the Quantum Controversy. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
- (1997). Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Gearhart, C. A. (2002). Planck, the Quantum, and the Historians. Physics in Perspective 4: 170-215
Goldberg, S. (1976). Max Planck’s Philosophy of Nature and His Elaboration of the Special Theory of Relativity. Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 7: 125-160
Heilbron, J. L. (1986). The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck as Spokesman for German Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hendry, J. (1980). Weimar Culture and Quantum Causality. History of Science 18: 155-180
Hoffmann, D. (2001). On the Experimental Context of Planck’s Foundation of Quantum Theory. Centaurus 43: 240-255
Holton, G. (1973). Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.
Kangro, H. (1976). History of Planck’s Radiation Law. London: Taylor & Francis.
Klein, M. J., A. Shimony, A. S. (1979). Paradigm Lost? A Review Symposium. Isis 70(3): 429-440
Kuhn, T. S. (1959). The Copernican Revolution. Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. New York: Random House.
- (1978). Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity 1894–1912. Oxford/New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press.
- (1984). Revisiting Planck. Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 14: 231-252
- (1987). Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity 1894–1912. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.
- (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Needell, A. A. (1980) Irreversibility and the Failure of Classical Dynamics: Max Planck’s Work on the Quantum Theory, 1900-1915. phdthesis. University of Yale
Pickering, A. (1984). Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Staley, R. (1992) Max Born and the German Physics Community: The Education of a Physicist. PhD dissertation. University of Cambridge
- (2008). Einstein’s Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- (2013). Trajectories in the History and Historiography of Physics in the Twentieth Century. History of Science 51(2): 151-177
See Staley (2013) for a study of the history and historiography of physics in the twentieth century.
Galison (1981, 83–84); Klein, Shimony and Pinch (1979, 438–439). Even when setting out the key elements of the historiographic revolution he saw in recent work in 1962, Kuhn had emphasized that analyzing earlier work from the viewpoint which gave it maximum internal coherence (and the closest fit to nature) was integral to the attempt to display the integrity of past science and trace “different, often less than cumulative, developmental lines for the sciences,” Kuhn (1996, 3).