Armin Hermann

  • The Genesis of Quantum Theory (1899-1913)

    The Genesis of Quantum Theory (1899-1913)

    Armin Hermann

    Reviewing the German edition of this book in Physics Today, the physicist Ira M. Freeman writes as follows:

    "Professor Hermann's book makes it apparent that the history of the early years of quantum theory differs markedly from the sketchy, oversimplified chronicle that many of us accept and recount to our students.... [The book] is an exceedingly well-documented account of the first fifteen years of the quantum idea. It takes the reader from Planck's presentation of his theory of black-body radiation, in a talk before the Berlin Physical Society on December 14, 1900, to Bohr's quantum description of the hydrogen atom in March, 1913.

    "The author, formerly engaged in high-energy physics research in Hamburg, is now Professor of the History of the Natural Sciences and Technology at Stuttgart University. He is the editor of a recently compiled collection of the Einstein-Sommerfeld correspondence. In writing the present book he made use of the wealth of microfilmed material available in the 'Sources for the History of Quantum Physics,' as well as valuable documents and letters in private collections left by Stark, Haas, Sommerfeld, and others.

    "The book is arranged according to the work of the eight greatest contributors to the theory: Planck, H. A. Lorentz, Einstein, Stark, Haas, Sommerfeld, Nernst, and Bohr each get a chapter. This ordering by men rather than by ideas makes for some repetition, but it is not troublesome. The author's intention is to make possible the reading of anyone chapter independent of the rest. A comprehensive list of literature references is appended to each chapter.

    “Hermann maintains that one can attain a true understanding of a theory only by personally following the thought process that led to its establishment—the path taken by the great innovators themselves. His book proves to be an effective guide in this quest."

    Of particular interest in this account is the fact that the radical concepts of a few physicists, who were prepared to accept genuinely revolutionary changes in their science, were initially resisted by most of the established academicians. For example, Arthur Erich Haas, whose main interest at that time (1910) was in the history of science, submitted the first paper applying the quantum idea to the atom, anticipating Bohr's publication by three years. His effort was dismissed as a "carnival joke," or as a naive blunder.

    Shortly after this, however, the quantum revolution was won, the "outsiders" who had supported it became universally respected, and the theory itself became "respectable," There were many reasons for this, including of course the weight of experimental evidence, but the author shows that personal considerations played a part, Among these was the young Einstein's influence on Arnold Sommerfeld (whose "idea of recreation was to talk physics all day with Einstein") and the latter's prestige within the scientific establishment.

    By 1913, on the basis of Rutherford's discovery of the planetary structure of the: atom, Bohr was able to formulate his application of quantum ideas to atomic phenomena, His development of a model for the hydrogen atom provided a mechanism that explained the distribution of spectral lines. The triumph was complete: the first phase in the genesis of quantum theory was decisively closed.

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