Subsequent and subsidiary? Rethinking the role of applications in establishing quantum mechanics

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As part of an attempt to establish a new understanding of the earliest applications of quantum mechanics and their importance to the overall development of quantum theory, this paper reexamines the role of research on molecular structure in the transition from the so-called old quantum theory to quantum mechanics and in the two years immediately following this shift (1926-1928). We argue on two bases against the common tendency to marginalize the contribution of these researches. First, because these applications addressed issues of longstanding interest to physicists, which they hoped, if not expected, a complete quantum theory to address, and for which they had already developed methods under the old quantum theory that would remain valid under the new mechanics. Second, because generating these applications was one of, if not the, principal means by which physicists clarified the unity, generality, and physical meaning of quantum mechanics, thereby reworking the theory into its now commonly recognized form, as well as developing an understanding of the kinds of predictions it generated and the ways in which these differed from those of the earlier classical mechanics. More broadly, we hope with this article to provide a new viewpoint on the importance of problem solving to scientific research and theory construction, one that might complement recent work on its role in science pedagogy.

Original languageEnglish
JournalHistorical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Issue number5
Pages (from-to)641-702
Number of pages62
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2015

    Research areas

  • Friedrich Hund, Fritz London, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Max Born, Molecular physics, Molecular structure, Problem solving, Quantum chemistry, Quantum mechanics, Quantum statistics, Quantum theory, Theory making, Walter Heitler, Werner Heisenberg

ID: 226826752