|The Case Against the Nuclear Atom||Source|
Since the general structure of modern physical theory is to a large extent based on the theory of the atom, the nuclear atom theory must accept a big share of the responsibility for the unsatisfactory state of physical theory in general. It is also apparent that there are major sectors of the field which an adequate atomic theory should cover that are as yet almost completely untouched. For example, a complete theory of the atom must necessarily explain the physical states of matter, yet after nearly fifty years of the nuclear theory Prof. G. Careri found it necessary to open a recent international conference on liquids with the flat statement, “We are still far from having a 'theory' of the liquid state.…”
But the real testing ground for atomic theory today is what is popularly known as “elementary particle physics.” “… the future of physics,” says George Gamow, “lies in further studies and understanding of elementary particles.” Here is a field in which atomic theory should be directly applicable; here is a rapidly expanding field in which the experimental facts are puzzling and confusing, and the help of an adequate theory is urgently needed; and here is a place where the currently accepted nuclear theory, faced with a major test of its capabilities, falls flat on its face.
The term “elementary particle” is in itself a claim to the possession of some knowledge of the structure of the atom, as it is based on the assumption, an integral part of current theory, that the atom is constructed of “parts” and that these parts cannot be further subdivided; thus they are elementary. If the nuclear atomic theory correctly portrays the structure of the atom, then it should be capable of producing the answers to the questions we find it necessary to ask with respect to the elementary particles. This point is commonly recognized, and “elementary particle physics” is classed as a subdivision of “nuclear science.”
How well, then, has modern atomic theory measured up to this, the most significant task now facing it? Let us ask Gamow, whose statement as to the importance of the task has just been quoted. “… for the last few decades,” Gamow replies, “not a single successful step has been made in obtaining these answers.” This very recent evaluation of the situation was already foreshadowed years ago by keen observers who realized that the discovery of so many new “elementary” particles neither anticipated nor explained by the accepted theories raised grave doubts as to the validity of these theories. “Questions like these,” said James B. Conant, “raise doubts as to whether the conceptual scheme of nuclear physics is a 'real' account of the structure of the universe,” and Jones, Rotblat and Whitrow asked the very pertinent question, “… is this multiplicity of particles an expression of our total ignorance of the true nature of the ultimate structure of matter?”
In the light of all of the additional information that has been accumulated since these words were written, there remains little doubt but that this question must be answered in the affirmative, and that present-day atomic theory must be judged wholly inadequate for the tasks that confront it. “The physics of this century has set itself the task of interpreting all observed phenomena in terms of the behavior of atoms and molecules, and the electrical particles-electrons, protons, etc.-of which they are composed,”
43. Careri, G., Nuovo Cimento, Supplement to Vol. IX, 1958, page 8.
44. Gamow, George, Biography of Physics, Harper & Bros., New York, 1961, page 323.
45. Conant, James B., Modern Science and Modern Man, Columbia University Press, New York. 1952, page 46.
46. Jones, Rotblat and Whitrow, Atoms and the Universe, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1956, page 25.
47. Condon, E. U., What is Science?, edited by James R. Newman, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1955, page 104.
One of the first things that a student in science or engineering acquires at the beginning of his college career is a sublime confidence in the objectivity of the scientific method and the unimpeachable status of the results thereof, along with a rather critical and condescending attitude toward other fields of learning which operate on a less exact basis. I still have a very vivid recollection of the amusement with which my classmates and I looked upon a statement in our economics textbook wherein the author commented on the theory of wages which he had just expounded at great length. This statement admitted that the theory did not produce the right results, but the author went on to say that he could not think of any better explanation, and consequently this one must be right anyway. Certainly, we students told ourselves, it was a pleasure to be identified with a branch of knowledge in which conclusions are reached by logical and mathematical processes rather than by any such ridiculous reasoning as this.
But those of us who have subsequently had occasion to leave the beaten path in the course of research work of one kind or another have been thoroughly disillusioned on this score. In spite of the high ideals to which the scientific world subscribes in theory, today’s best guess is just as firmly enthroned in the field of science as it is in economics or any other of the less “exact” branches of knowledge, and the extent to which general acceptance is taken as the equivalent of proof in present-day scientific practice is nothing short of astounding. It is true that the areas in which the facts have been positively and unequivocally established are much larger in science than in these other fields, but outside of these fully explored areas the scientist is just as reluctant to admit ignorance as his counterparts in other disciplines, and just as prone to present his opinion or that of the “authorities” in his field as positive knowledge. There is, in fact, a very general tendency to elevate currently popular scientific theories and assumptions to the status of incontestable articles of faith whose validity must not be questioned, and the path of the innovator who dares to take issue with these cherished doctrines is thorny indeed.
The most serious aspect of this policy is that it tends to perpetuate basic errors when they are once made. Inevitably the theorists will take a wrong turn sooner or later, and present practice sets up an almost impassible roadblock in the way of getting back on the right track. This situation is greatly aggravated by what some observers have called the “epicyclical” character of much of present-day physical theory. When a theory encounters difficulties of a serious nature, it is no longer fashionable to abandon it, as would have been done in an earlier era. The present practice is to “save” the theory by adding the equivalent of one of the epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy. Then when further trouble develops another epicycle is added, and so on. Each addition not only buries the errors of the original theory that much deeper and makes them that much harder to deal with, but also puts the originator of a new and better theory in a position where he cannot isolate the primary issue and meet it squarely; he must contend with all of the epicycles at the same time, however irrelevant they may actually be.
One of the most “epicyclical” of all physical theories is the nuclear theory of the atom. I am continually coming into conflict with this theory in my work, and while it has not been difficult to demonstrate the shortcomings of this theory in the particular applications with which I have been concerned, the theory and its coterie of epicycles are so firmly embedded in so much of present-day scientific thought that even the most glaring deficiencies make little impression on the general standing of the theory as long as they are exposed one by one in their separate areas. The usual reaction to a demonstration of the failure of the theory in any specific application is quite reminiscent of the attitude of the author of the economics textbook. “Perhaps I will have to admit that the theory gives the wrong answers in the particular case under consideration,” the physicist says, “but it must be correct as a general proposition anyway, because everyone who knows anything about science accepts it.” In view of this prevailing attitude which makes it impossible to deal with the situation on an item by item basis, it has seemed necessary to undertake a critical appraisal of the structure as a whole, to show how utterly untenable the cntire theory becomes when it is examined in the light of the immense amount of experimental knowledge now at our command. As the facts brought out in this work demonstrate, there never was any adequate experimental basis for the theory in the first place—the originators simply jumped to conclusions without considering the possible alternative explanations of the results of their experiments—and the advance of knowledge in the intervening half-century has completely destroyed the support which the theory originally derived from the scientific ideas and beliefs prevailing at the time it was originated. The conclusions of this work will no doubt be extremely distasteful to those who have been so confident of the validity of their atomic theory for so many years, but the facts are clear and unmistakable once anyone takes a good look at them. This situation must be faced eventually, and the longer the reckoning is postponed the greater the cost. However painful the necessary readjustment of thinking may be, the sooner it is accomplished the sooner it will be possible to get some tangible benefits out of the tremendous amount of time, money and effort that are now being wasted in futile attempts to find answers to meaningless problems and to establish the nature and properties of non-existent particles and forces.
D. B. Larson, August 1962