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I am thinking about the change from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics and relativity. I note that we have accepted the words "ultraviolet catastrophe" in connection with the situation that lead to steps towards quantum physics.

We have a number of similar paradoxes, or perhaps I should say strange things since catastrophes and paradoxes perhaps differ somewhat, for relativity. However, the paradoxes are often attributed to the new theory of special relativity rather than the problems experienced with old state of affairs. I am thinking of the “twin paradox” and “Ehrenfest’s paradox” for calculating the perimeter of a spinning cylinder. The “Ehrenfest’s paradox” seems to lie between the special and the general theory of relativity.

Can we say the Lorentz contraction based on Maxwell’s equations, or the absence of the ether in the Michelson-Morley experiment felt like a paradox to contemporary physicist, or possibly a catastrophe, on equal footing with the ultraviolet catastrophy or was the transition to Einstein’s physics more a gradual change with less dramatic impressions?

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    $\begingroup$ "Ultraviolet catastrophe" is a historical fiction, see Where did Rayleigh derive the ultraviolet catastrophe? (he didn't). The outcome of the Michelson-Morley experiment also has been absorbed into classical physics by 1900 (by Lorentz). 'Paradigm shifts' do not occur by way of 'crucial experiments' or grand paradoxes whipped up in textbooks. For details on adoption of SR see Zahar, Why Did Einstein's Programme Supersede Lorentz's?, parts I and II. It had better heuristics. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Oct 20, 2022 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold Before we move to other sources let me note that you seem to agree that the movement from Newtonian mechanics to relativity was not accompanied by a great sense of wonder in the physicist community. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2022 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ Judging by Lorentz's reaction, among others, SR was seen as quite a break with existing physics, if that's what you mean by "sense of wonder". It just did not come about to resolve paradoxes and catastrophes, but offered a way forward seen as superior. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Oct 20, 2022 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold Upon reflection I note: Based on Kuhn’s sociological observations, your scenarios are in fact inevitable. This leads me - in a “revisionist historical” view - to accept retrospective formulations of problem/paradoxes/catastrophes as long as they could have been formulated by the then-existing data (from before 1900). The ultraviolet catastrophe is therefore OK. My point is that I don’t see corresponding dramatic problems for the situation leading up to relativity (absence of ether or the Lorentz contraction by itself as seen without Einstein's later work). $\endgroup$ Oct 22, 2022 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ Dramatic problems in subjunctive mood do not move events, what could have been is no longer history. So why bother with retrospective formulations and then puzzle over them, even aside from that being off-topic here? $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Oct 22, 2022 at 22:12

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The short answer is no, there was no sense of crisis in Newtonian mechanics. Lorentz' electron theory and the contractions contained within were perfectly capable of explaining the behaviour of the electromagnetic ether in moving systems. It should be stressed here that the Michelson-Morley experiments did not disprove the ether. Instead it was set up as a critical test for how the ether contracted in different circumstances.

In fact, when Einstein published his article "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies", it was considered by his contemporaries as a conceptual reinterpretation of Lorentz' theory — to the point that it was known as the Lorentz-Einstein theory. Moveover, the two theories are completely empirically equivalent. Even today, there is no empirical test that can prove or disprove the existence of the ether. The reason why Einstein's theory of special relativity has won out is because 1) it is a much simpler theory, even if it may be conceptually harder to grasp, and 2) Special Relativity was much easier to incorporate into Quantum Electrodynamics than Lorentz' Electron Theory.

For more how the move from Lorentz to Einstein can be seen as a Scientific Revolution happening after the fact and without the need for an anomaly, see this article from your almost-namesake Michel Janssen, "Reconsidering a Scientific Revolution: The case of Einstein versus Lorentz", Physics in Perspective 4 (2002): 421-446.

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