Archive for History of Exact Sciences

, Volume 59, Issue 3, pp 267–318

History of the Lenz-Ising Model 1920–1950: From Ferromagnetic to Cooperative Phenomena


DOI: 10.1007/s00407-004-0088-3

Cite this article as:
Niss, M. Arch. Hist. Exact Sci. (2005) 59: 267. doi:10.1007/s00407-004-0088-3


I chart the considerable changes in the status and conception of the Lenz-Ising model from 1920 to 1950 in terms of three phases: In the early 1920s, Lenz and Ising introduced the model in the field of ferromagnetism. Based on an exact derivation, Ising concluded that it is incapable of displaying ferromagnetic behavior, a result he erroneously extended to three dimensions. In the next phase, Lenz and Ising’s contemporaries rejected the model as a representation of ferromagnetic materials because of its conflict with the new quantum mechanics. In the third phase, from the early 1930s to the early 1940s, the model was revived as a model of cooperative phenomena. I provide more detail on this history than the earlier accounts of Brush (1967) and Hoddeson, Schubert, Heims, and Baym (1992) and question some of their conclusions. Moreover, my account differs from these in its focus on the development of the model in its capacity as a model. It examines three aspects of this development: (1) the attitudes on the degree of physical realism of the Lenz-Ising model in its representation of physical phenomena; (2) the various reasons for studying and using it; and (3) the effect of the change in its theoretical basis during the transition from the old to the new quantum mechanics. A major theme of my study is that even though the Lenz-Ising model is not fully realistic, it is more useful than more realistic models because of its mathematical tractability. I argue that this point of view, important for the modern conception of the model, is novel and that its emergence, while perhaps not a consequence of its study, is coincident with the third phase of its development.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Mathematics and PhysicsRoskilde UniversityRoskildeDenmark