( Completed: 2012)
History and Foundations of Quantum Physics
Other involved scholars: Bretislav Friedrich (FHI); Don Howard (University of Notre Dame); Michel Janssen (University of Minnesota); John Norton (Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh); Robert Rynasiewicz (Johns Hopkins Center for History and Philosophy of Science); Matthias Scheffler (FHI).
See also the individual sub-projects.
Cooperation Partners: Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society
Central to this process of re-evaluation was not only a large amount of uncontroversial empirical knowledge accumulated over a long period of time but also the persistence of certain theoretical structures and methods. Theoretical physicists were therefore confronted with critical decisions about which concepts and theoretical structures could be maintained in the emerging theory and could thus serve as a guide for the development of the theory. As in the case of relativity, it turned out that it was often high-level and abstract structures that survived, although frequently with a new physical interpretation.
Differently from the case of relativity, a consensus about the physical reinterpretation of the abstract structures was not easily attained. Famous dissenters, such as Einstein and Schrödinger, while accepting the new theoretical structure, disagreed about its meaning and its connection to the traditional mechanical worldview. Later on, the establishment of quantum field theory, including the unification with the theory of relativity, has turned out to be at odds with the traditional demands on an interpreted physical theory. These disagreements have persisted up to this day, even though quantum mechanics by all counts is a highly successful predictive theory.
The research project on the history and foundations of quantum physics began work in October of 2006 (Christoph Lehner, Jürgen Renn). It is a joint initiative with the Theory Department of the Fritz Haber Institute and has been funded for five years by the Strategic Innovation Fund of the President of the MPG. The project attempts to arrive at a deeper understanding of the genesis and the development of quantum physics, using the tools of historical epistemology that have been developed in Department I over the last years. The project thus focuses on the long-term history of the process of theory change, stressing the continuity of methods and structures. The experience in writing the history of relativity has demonstrated the strength of this method: It leads to results that have been outside the view of approaches limiting themselves to an account of historical developments narrower in a temporal and contextual sense.
Unlike the relativity revolution, the development of quantum physics was a communal effort whose nature cannot be captured by a biographical approach that focuses upon a few central figures: careful attention must be paid to the broader community of researchers and to the network that allowed them to achieve what no single researcher could do alone. Work in this direction draws upon extensive archival records of correspondence, manuscripts, and notebooks that are investigated and made accessible in an electronic form to other researchers worldwide.
Another important element of the project is the focus on mathematical arguments in the primary source material, a topic not much dealt with in the existing literature. For this aim, the project is conceived as a close collaboration of a large and varied group of historians and philosophers of science as well as working physicists exchanging ideas and viewpoints through frequent meetings (dedicated conferences, workshops and reading groups).
Finally, the history of quantum physics cannot be understood without an appreciation of the radical conceptual changes that it brought. Debates about interpretation played a central role in the development of quantum physics. Therefore, the project investigates the history of the interpretation of quantum mechanics not as a separate “philosophical” subject but as part of a wider debate in physics.
The project aims at fostering the study of the history of quantum physics by facilitating the exchanges between physicists and historians, but also by drawing new scholars into the field through graduate and postdoc fellowships. In addition, one of the main tasks of the project is the maintaining of an electronic infrastructure within the ECHO environment for the publication of primary sources, archival material as well as results of ongoing research by members of the network.