Article ID: CBB000740029

Thermodynamic Deduction Versus Quantum Revolution: The Failure of Richardson's Theory of the Photoelectric Effect (2006)


Between 1911 and 1914, Owen Richardson formulated a theory of photoelectricity based on thermodynamics and statistical reasoning. Although this theory succeeded in accounting for most of the relevant phenomena and despite the lack of competing causal or descriptive accounts of the phenomena, it failed to attract other physicists. This paper seeks the reasons for the neglect of this theory in contemporary cultures of photoelectric research. Four main causes of neglect are identified: the relatively high number and the nature of the theory's assumptions, the contradiction of one of these assumptions with contemporary views, the failure to suggest new predictions or to account for hitherto unexplained regularities, and the view shared by many scientists that the problem of electromagnetic radiation required a radical solution that a descriptive theory could not provide. The expectation for a radical solution defines the revolutionary character of a research field. In the case of photoelectricity, it originated in a web of evidence to which other fields contributed. The very possibility of Richardson's theory shows that, taken separately, this phenomenon could receive an account which, unlike Einstein's light quantum, did not require deep changes in the conception of nature.

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Authors & Contributors
Badino, Massimiliano
Valente, Mário Bacelar
Yeang, Chen-Pang
Wiederkehr, Karl Heinrich
Singh, Rajinder
Rentetzi, Maria
Physis: Rivista Internazionale di Storia della Scienza
Nuncius: Annali di Storia della Scienza
Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences
Sudhoffs Archiv: Zeitschrift fuer Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
Physics in Perspective
Electromagnetic waves; radiation
Quantum mechanics
Theoretical physics
Atomic, nuclear, and particle physics
Planck, Max
Einstein, Albert
Van Vleck, John Hasbrouck
Watson, George Neville
Stark, Johannes
Schrödinger, Erwin
Time Periods
20th century, early
19th century
Turin (Italy)
Cambridge (England)
Great Britain

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