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date: 15 May 2021

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses the reasons for rethinking ‘classical physics’, building upon Richard Staley’s historical enquiry into the origins of the distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘modern physics’. In particular, it challenges Staley’s thesis that ‘classical’ and ‘modern physics’ were invented simultaneously by Max Planck at the Solvay conference in 1911, arguing instead that the emergence of these notions took place separately over a period that reached as late as the 1930s. The article first considers how the identification of the ether as a key feature of classical physics has drawn historians’ attention towards its changing metaphysical fortunes during the nineteenth century. It then describes the connections between physics and industry that are obscured by the theoretical bias of any dichotomy between ‘classical’ and ‘modern physics’. Finally, it highlights continuity in the field of French experimental physics by focusing on three comparative case studies dealing with electrocapillarity, electromagnetic waves, and X-rays.

Keywords: classical physics, Richard Staley, modern physics, Max Planck, ether, industry, experimental physics, electrocapillarity, electromagnetic waves, X-rays

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