From Discrepancy to Discovery: How Argon Became an Element

  • Theodore ArabatzisEmail author
  • Kostas Gavroglu
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 319)


In this paper, we revisit the discovery of argon by Lord Rayleigh and William Ramsay. We argue that to understand historically how argon was detected, conceptualized, and accommodated into chemical knowledge we need to take into account the philosophical insight that scientific discovery is often an extended process. One of argon’s most intriguing properties was that it did not react with other elements. Reactivity, however, had been a constitutive property of elements. Thus, the discovery of argon could not have been accepted by chemists without a reconceptualization of ‘element’. Furthermore, there were difficulties with the accommodation of argon in the Periodic table, because argon appeared to undermine the conception of matter that underlay the Periodic table. The discovery of argon was complete only after those conceptual difficulties had been removed. This is why it has to be understood as an extended process, rather than as an event. Furthermore, we will suggest that some of the factors that complicated the discovery of argon were related to the legitimization of physical techniques of investigation in chemistry and the emergence of physical chemistry.


Periodic Table Scientific Discovery Atomic Weight Royal Institution Atmospheric Nitrogen 
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We would like to thank John Heilbron for asking us to spell out the “added value” of our philosophical approach to the history of science. John suggested in conversation the first part of the title of this paper (“From Discrepancy to Discovery”). Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2014 Meeting of the History of Science Society in Chicago, and at “Knowledge, Technologies, and Mediation: A Workshop in Honor of Norton Wise” (UCLA, October 2015). We are indebted to the audiences for helpful discussion. Moreover, we are grateful to the editors for their constructive comments. Finally, Theodore Arabatzis’s work for this paper was supported by European Union (European Social Fund—ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Program “Education and Lifelong Learning” of the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF)—Research Funding Program: THALIS—UOA—Aspects and Prospects of Realism in the Philosophy of Science and Mathematics.


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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of AthensAthensGreece

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