The time when Thomson discovered electrons, around 1897, what did the scientific community think about the atomic hypothesis? Was there a majoritarian consensus that matter is made of indivisible neutral atoms and was that based on evidence?

Here is why I am asking this. As far as I know, Thomson gave his plum-pudding model in 1904 based on (1) the atoms are electrically neutral and (2) they contain negatively charged electrons. This suggests to me that it was clear that matter is not continuous but made of neutral atoms at that time. But as far as I know, Boltzmann was severely criticized for his belief in the atomic hypothesis. Please correct my facts.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ It was actively developed but controversial, see SEP, Atomism in Nineteenth-Century Physics:"Ostwald, Duhem and Planck were inclined to take thermodynamics as the model of how science should proceed, maintaining a secure and productive relationship with experiment whilst avoiding hypotheses of the kind involved in atomism. The factor that is usually considered as turning the tables decisively in favour of the atomists is Jean Perrin's experiments on Brownian motion". Those were done in 1908-09. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 28, 2021 at 14:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ See Why can Perrin's study of Brownian motion demonstrate the existence of atoms. Also, very well written, and historically and philosophically interesting, is the President's Address by Arthur William Rücker (1848−1915) on pp. 3−26 [= .pdf pages 130−153, if you download the entire volume to look at] of Report of the Seventy-First Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Glasgow, 11−18 September 1901; address given on 11 September 1901). $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2021 at 15:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @markvs - I would suggest that the small number made it much easier to be a community - they all knew each other and were much less specialized than now. Perhaps your definition of community differs from mine. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 29, 2021 at 14:57
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @markvs You must have a strange definition of "community". Professional societies and academies of scientists (not yet so named) existed in Europe since the 17th century and scientists formed a community in the usual sense of the word (common interests, communication, cooperation, etc.). Newton and Leibniz belonged to it. Kevles has a book The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America, where the latter is tracked from 1850s. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 29, 2021 at 17:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I think "the atomic hypothesis" and "models of the internal structure of the atom" are two distinct things. Let us not forget that the "the atomic hypothesis" has been around since the dawns of the 19th century in trying to set a foundation for chemical reactions. $\endgroup$
    – DanielC
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 22:48


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.