Videnskabshistorisk Selskab

Christian Joas,
Quantum History Project, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin:

The Genesis of Wave Mechanics: The Role of Hamilton's Optical-Mechanical Analogy in Schrödinger's Research Program

The quantum revolution emerged from a series of crises of the classical-mechanical worldview from the late 19th century to the mid-1920s. In part, these crises were caused by conflicts between theoretical expectations and novel experimental results, for instance in research on black body radiation and on atomic spectroscopy. At a deeper level, however, the crisis of classical mechanics arose from attempts to integrate newly-established physical theories such as electrodynamics and thermodynamics into a coherent mechanical worldview. Conflicts between these theories necessitated a reorganization and reevaluation of their most fundamental concepts.

In the course of the quantum revolution, seemingly unquestionable fundamental categories such as space, time, and matter had to be reevaluated. Central to this process of reevaluation was not only a large amount of undisputed empirical knowledge but also the persistence of certain theoretical structures and methods. Which concepts and theoretical structures could be maintained in the emerging new theory and could thus serve as a guide for its development? As in the case of relativity theory, high-level, abstract structures survived, although with a new physical interpretation.

After a general introduction into the history of quantum physics, I will discuss the long-term influence of Hamilton's optical-mechanical analogy that served Schrödinger as a guide to the formulation of wave mechanics. Hamilton's analogy was gradually transformed from an abstract attempt at unifying optics and dynamics into, as we have shown recently, a powerful heuristic principle within Schrödinger's research program that culminated in the development of wave mechanics. Just as Einstein did when elaborating the consequences of the equivalence principle, Schrödinger realized an unused potential of classical physics when completing Hamilton's analogy.

Our insights were made possible by the Quantum History Project’s ongoing effort of reconstructing Schrödinger’s research program through his publications, correspondence and research notebooks. Drawing on numerous unpublished documents from Schrödinger’s research, I will illustrate how the optical-mechanical analogy, when transferred from classical to modern physics, persisted as a theoretical structure but underwent a deep transformation in its role and its interpretation.

Tirsdag, den 21. oktober 2008, kl. 17.00

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