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January 13, 2001

Planck's Anniversary

The December 9, 2000 issue of New Scientist has an essay on the anniversary of Max Planck's formulation which laid the foundations for quantum mechanics. The formula is E = hf, where E is energy, f is the frequency of black-body radiation, and h is the new constant, first and last of the Twentieth Century, Planck's Constant.

Before you cackle, yes, I've just finished this issue, and have two in the chute. I'm also reading the January issue of the Atlantic Monthly. And I'm still only a third of the way through the Nixon biography I started ages ago. Get over it.

The thrust of this post is to share a little quote from the essay, written by Graham Farmelo. It is not directly applicable to the gist of the essay, but noted a phenomenon I hadn't noticed before. Here we go:

Quantum theory overturned the universally accepted notion that energy was smooth and continuous, and replaced it with the realisation that it is fundamentally granular and discrete. This led scientists to dub the previous framework of physics as "classical"--an exquisite example of retro labelling", like "snail-mail" and "acoustic guitar".

The emphasis is mine, and picks out his term retro labelling for the phenomenon of usurping an established cultural edifice by labelling it as the exception. I'm going to have to talk with Jean about this 'phase-change', but if anyone reading this has more examples, please share.

Posted by dpwakefield at January 13, 2001 07:02 PM