The Golden Age of Physics
Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.
—William Wordsworth, The Prelude, ca. 1800
At the beginning of the twentieth century, many eminent scientists still doubted the existence of atoms, preferring to see them as useful concepts rather than reality. As late as 1882, Max Planck believed that “atomism,” as the concept was then called, might not be conducive to progress in science. Atoms, he thought, do not favor any direction in space or time and, hence, would be irreconcilable with the principle of entropy increase. He commented (Heilbron 1986, p. 14):
Despite the great success that the atomic theory has so far enjoyed ultimately it will have to be abandoned in favor of the assumption of continuous matter.
He was shortly to change his mind, of course. Much later, Edward Andrade, a one-time student of Rutherford's and a professor of physics at University College London, my own home institution, said in 1957 when speaking about the situation during approximately the first decade of the century (Andrade 1958):
It is, perhaps, not unfair to say that for the average physicist of the time, speculations about atomic structure were something like speculations about life on Mars—very interesting for those who liked this kind of thing, but without much hope of support from convincing scientific evidence and without much bearing on scientific thought and development.
However, scientists' general indifference to problems could ...