Waves Versus Corpuscles : The Revolution That Never Was
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Peter Rowlands is both scientist and historian, and in both domains he challenges inherited assumptions and prejudices. He says the ?wave-particle duality? arises from a vision of science that is rather too rich in political metaphors. Examples: 1) Newton?s British vision of physical reality was entirely based on particles, and thereby ?opposite? to the Cartesian, continuum visions popular on the European continent. 2) Newton?s particulate concept of light was wrong, and after decisive experiments was overthrown by a wave model tracing to Christian Huygens. Maxwell and Hertz completed and solidified a total ?revolution?. 3) The wentieth century gave us the light quantum, or photon, something entirely new and different from Newton?s old ?corpuscle?.
But reality is far more complex. Examples: 1) Newton described mechanics in terms of point particles and action-at-a-distance force laws, but he didn?t preclude an intervening aether medium; indeed he talked about it in his treatise on ?Opticks?. Newton?s light corpuscle was not just a point, since it carried some sort of periodicity and polarization. If ?dualism? is an identifiable philosophy, Newton was its first proponent. 2) Huygens? wave concept was not much like the later electromagnetic wave concept, since he knew nothing of the transverse character of light, or its polarization. Furthermore, his concept was not embraced and exploited in his own time, so it didn?t influence subsequent development. It was just recalled later, ex post facto. 3) The QM photon is not that much different from Newton?s corpuscle. What was wrong with the corpuscular theory was Newton?s inference concerning the velocity of light in a material medium: he said ?bigger?, whereas reality says ?smaller?. But had his statement been phrased in terms of momentum rather than velocity, it would have been quite right.
So, history is revisionist and mythic. So what? What are we missing here? Well, perhaps a great deal. The problem is that in passively accepting a myth about the history of science, we inadvertently encumber the present and future development of science. Our myth-based vision of science today disregards the greater half of what Newton gave us. The myth is largely mathematico-deductive: it has to do with manipulating equations and calculating numbers; it is what enables us to predict things. But the greater part of Newton?s gift is inductive and qualitative. It has to do with inferring the principles and formulating the equations. This is what enables us to discover things. Discovery is not about the conflict between paradigms, it is about the creation of paradigms. The political metaphors are not applicable, and do not help us perform that function.
Having not fully appreciated the ?creative? aspect of Newton?s science, we have little nurtured it and rarely seen it. To his credit, Einstein gave us a rare modern illustration. Like Newton before him, Einstein: eschewed specific physical models and focused on on universal underlying principles, which he expressed in terms of abstract mathematics. Why then do we have here a whole journal largely committed to critiquing Einstein? I think it is because what happened after Newton has not yet happened after Einstein. Newton was soon followed by Hamilton and by Lagrange, each of whom offered equally valid but different articulations of underlying principles to explain mechanics. No similar phenomenon has followed Einstein: no one has put his postulate set into proper perspective as one out of several possible ones. - Cynthia K. Whitney, Galilean Electrodynamics, V10, N3, p. 42 (May/Jun 1999).