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Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 209–217 | Cite as

The atomic number revolution in chemistry: a Kuhnian analysis

  • K. Brad Wray
Article

Abstract

This paper argues that the field of chemistry underwent a significant change of theory in the early twentieth century, when atomic number replaced atomic weight as the principle for ordering and identifying the chemical elements. It is a classic case of a Kuhnian revolution. In the process of addressing anomalies, chemists who were trained to see elements as defined by their atomic weight discovered that their theoretical assumptions were impediments to understanding the chemical world. The only way to normalize the anomalies was to introduce new concepts, and a new conceptual understanding of what it is to be an element. In the process of making these changes, a new scientific lexicon emerged, one that took atomic number to be the defining feature of a chemical element.

Keywords

Atomic number Atomic weight Revolutionary theory change Isotope Kuhn Lexical change 

Notes

Acknowledgements

I thank Lori Nash and Eric Scerri for critical feedback on early drafts of this paper. I also benefited from critical feedback from the audiences who heard an earlier version of this paper at the Centre for Science Studies, at Aarhus University, in Denmark, and Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio. Chris Haufe’s comments were especially helpful. Finally, I thank the referee for Foundations of Chemistry for their useful feedback on the paper.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Aarhus UniversitetAarhus CDenmark

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