Skip to main content

Representing Electrons

A Biographical Approach to Theoretical Entities

Both a history and a metahistory, Representing Electrons focuses on the development of various theoretical representations of electrons from the late 1890s to 1925 and the methodological problems associated with writing about unobservable scientific entities.

Using the electron—or rather its representation—as a historical actor, Theodore Arabatzis illustrates the emergence and gradual consolidation of its representation in physics, its career throughout old quantum theory, and its appropriation and reinterpretation by chemists. As Arabatzis develops this novel biographical approach, he portrays scientific representations as partly autonomous agents with lives of their own. Furthermore, he argues that the considerable variance in the representation of the electron does not undermine its stable identity or existence.

Raising philosophical issues of contentious debate in the history and philosophy of science—namely, scientific realism and meaning change—Arabatzis addresses the history of the electron across disciplines, integrating historical narrative with philosophical analysis in a book that will be a touchstone for historians and philosophers of science and scientists alike.

296 pages | 6 halftones, 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2006

History of Science

Philosophy of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


“More than forty years ago, Kuhn urged philosophers of science to take the history of science as a guideline in their own work. This book is a splendid example of what can result when they do. Critics of scientific realism have pointed to the way in which terms like ‘electron’ can change over the course of time, sometimes in drastic ways. How, then, can one take seriously the claim that the term designates the same entity throughout? Taking that same term as his focus and tracing its career up to 1925 in exhaustive detail, Arabatzis shows how attention to historical twists and turns can help to illuminate the slippery notion of meaning in ways that allow the realist to respond.”

Ernan McMullin, director emeritus of the Program in History and Philosophy of Science, University of Notre Dame

""[The book] patiently and clearly, and sometimes eloquently, takes the reader through tyhe complex story that . . . is much more interesting and informative than the laundered potted history of  ’achievements’ typically served up to students. It remains always alive to the nature and significance of the issues at play. . . . For a practising physicist it should be a pleasure to read, and for the serious physics student it provides a valuable introduction to the subject."

C.A. Hooker | Australian Physics

"A rich blend of philosophy and history of science. . . . Arabzatis’ writing is of exemplary clarity."

Joan Lisa Bromberg | Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences

"The author of this thought-provoking work is to be congratulated both for challenging some of our most cherished assumptions and for reminding us that the world of chemistry is not nearly as cut and dried as most chemists would have us believe."

Dennis Rouvray | Chemistry World

"[Arabatzis] provides a valuable and informative history of the electron and the development of its representation."

Miles MacLeod | Studies in History and Philosohy of Modern Physics

"A rich and innovative book in the history and philosophy of science, in which [the author] provides an excellent technical analysis of the evolving identity of the electron among physicists and chemists. . . . Arabatzis’s history is embedded within a rich philosophical framework in which he asks questions about the nature of scientific discovery, meaning and reference in scientific theory, and the support given to scientific realism or anti-realism by this historical case study."

Mary Jo Nye | Ambix

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Methodological Preliminaries
1. Introduction
2. Karl Popper and the Notion of the “Problem Situation”
3. Scientific Discovery as a Philosophical and Historiographical Category
4. Several Approaches to the Discovery of Unobservable Entities: A Taxonomy and Critique
5. Scientific Realism: The Charybdis of Meaning Change
Chapter 2 - Why Write Biographies of Theoretical Entities?
Chapter 3 - Rethinking “The Discovery of the Electron”
1. What Is Wrong with the Received View?
2. Early-Twentieth-Century Views of the Acceptance of the Electron Hypothesis
Chapter 4 - The Birth and Infancy of the Representation of the Electron
1. Introduction
2. The Birth of the Term “Electron”
3. The Discovery of the Zeeman Effect: The First Experimental Manifestation of the Electron
4. Lorentz’s “Ion”: A Somewhat Startling Hypothesis
5. Larmor’s “Electron”
6. Thomson’s “Corpuscle”: A “By No Means Impossible Hypothesis”
7. Concluding Remarks
Chapter 5 - The Genesis of the Quantum Electron
1. Preliminary Remarks
2. The Electron Migrates to the Quantum World
3. Concluding Remarks
Chapter 6 - Between Relativity and Correspondence
1. Maturing under the Guidance of the Quantum Technologist
2. Being Disciplined by the “Magic Wand”
3. Concluding Remarks
Chapter 7 - “How the Electrons Spend Their Leisure Time”: The Chemists’ Perspective
1. Introduction
2. The Emergence of the Conflict: G. N. Lewis’s “Loafer” Electron
3. A Recapitulation of the Conflict
4. Irving Langmuir’s Elaboration of Lewis’s Ideas
5. Concluding Remarks
Chapter 8 - Forced to Spin by Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit
1. The Setting
2. Becoming Antisocial in the Land of the Formalism-Philistines
3. A Reactionary Putsch
4. Concluding Remarks
Chapter 9 - Identifying the Electron: Meaning Variance and the Historicity of Scientific Realism
1. Introduction
2. Historicizing Meaning: Kuhn’s and Feyerabend’s Antirealist Theses 
3. Putnam’s Theory of Meaning and Reference: A Realist Way Out?
4. Hacking’s Entity Realism
5. A Historicist Approach to Meaning and Reference
6. On the Electron’s Identity: What Would We Need in Order to Claim the Electron Exists?

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press