Rudolf Ladenburg and the first quantum interpretation of optical dispersion
Institute of Mathematics, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz,
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Accepted: 27 July 2020
Published online: 28 September 2020
In 1921, the experimental physicist Rudolf Ladenburg put forward the first quantum interpretation of optical dispersion. Theoretical physicists had tried to explain dispersion from the point of view of quantum theory ever since 1913, when Niels Bohr proposed his quantum model of atom. Yet, their theories proved unsuccessful. It was Ladenburg who gave a breakthrough step toward our quantum understanding of dispersion. In order to understand Ladenburg’s step, I analyze Ladenburg’s experimental work on dispersion prior to 1913, the reasons why the first theories of dispersion after 1913 were not satisfactory, and Ladenburg’s 1921 proposal. I argue that Ladenburg’s early experimental work on dispersion is indispensable to understand his 1921 paper. The specific kind of experiments he performed before 1913, the related interpretative problems, and the way he tried to solve them, led him reapproach the dispersion problem in 1921 in a way that was completely different from the way theoretical physicists had done it before.
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