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Understanding a theory’s underlying problems

Or take as an example Bohr’s theory (1913) of the hydrogen atom. This theory was describing a model, and was there­fore intuitive and visualizable. Yet it was also very perplexing. Not because of any intuitive difficulty, but because it assumed, contrary to Maxwell’s and Lorentz’s theory and to well-known experimental effects, that a periodically moving electron, a moving electric charge, need not always create a disturbance of the eletromagnetic field, and so need not always send out electromagnetic waves. This difficulty is a logical one – a clash with other theories. And no one can be said to understand Bohr’s theory who does not understand this difficulty and the reasons why Bohr boldly accepted it, thus departing in a revolutionary way from earlier and well-established theories.

But the only way to understand Bohr’s reasons is to understand his problem – the problem of combining Rutherford’s atom model with a theory of emission and absorption of light, and thus with Einstein’s photon theory, and with the dis­creteness of atomic spectra. The understanding of Bohr’s theory does not lie in visualizing it intuitively but in gaining familiarity with the problems it tries to solve, and in the appreciation of both the explanatory power of the solution and the fact, that the new difficulty that it creates constitutes an entirely new problem of great fertility.

The question whether or not a theory or a conjecture is more or less satisfactory or, if you like prima facie acceptable as a solution of the problem which it sets out to solve is largely a question of purely deductive logic. It is a matter of getting acquainted with the logical conclusions which may be drawn from the theory, and of judging whether or not these con­clusions (a) yield the desired solution and (b) yield undesirable by-products – for example some insoluble paradox, some absurdity. [102]

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