Nascent Pairs and Virtual Possibilities | More than Nothing: A History of the Vacuum in Theoretical Physics, 1925-1980 (2024)

More than Nothing: A History of the Vacuum in Theoretical Physics, 1925-1980

Aaron Sidney Wright

Published:

2024

Online ISBN:

9780190062835

Print ISBN:

9780190062804

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Aaron Sidney Wright

Aaron Sidney Wright

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Pages

79–123

  • Published:

    March 2024

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Wright, Aaron Sidney, 'Nascent Pairs and Virtual Possibilities', More than Nothing: A History of the Vacuum in Theoretical Physics, 1925-1980 (New York, 2024; online edn, Oxford Academic, 20 June 2024), https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190062804.003.0003, accessed 7 July 2024.

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Abstract

In the chaos of the 1930s, physicists reacted to Paul Dirac’s “hole” theory with multiple and ambiguous interpretations and uses of the vacuum. This chapter focuses on the work of three younger physicists and the interplay of vacuum research and pedagogy: Wendell Furry, Hans Euler, and Victor Weisskopf. Was Dirac’s vacuum real? Did it have observable effects? Archival evidence documents Furry’s struggles with Dirac’s theories and his collaboration with J. Robert Oppenheimer; they deployed a strategic ambiguity that resulted in some of Furry’s results being withheld from publication. Correspondence between Weisskopf and Euler sheds light on their research with Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenberg, respectively. Weisskopf showed how a theorist could “leapfrog” over inconsistent, and inconvenient, experimental evidence. Overall, this chapter argues that in the 1930s the interpretation of the vacuum was less important than its usefulness; the vacuum resource for theorists to develop their theories and apply their techniques.

Keywords: Wendell Furry, Victor Weisskopf, Hans Euler, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, fluctuations, perturbation theory, hole theory, radiation theory, quantum electrodynamics, pedagogy, positron theory, paper tools, scientific practice, note taking

Subject

History of Science and Technology

Collection: Oxford Scholarship Online

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