The Atomic Number Revolution in Chemistry: A Kuhnian Analysis

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This paper argues that the field of chemistry underwent a significant change of theory in the early twentieth century, when atomic number replaced atomic weight as the principle for ordering and identifying the chemical elements. It is a classic case of a Kuhnian revolution. In the process of addressing anomalies, chemists who were trained to see elements as defined by their atomic weight discovered that their theoretical assumptions were impediments to understanding the chemical world. The only way to normalize the anomalies was to introduce new concepts, and a new conceptual understanding of what it is to be an element. In the process of making these changes, a new scientific lexicon emerged, one that took atomic number to be the defining feature of a chemical element.
Original languageEnglish
JournalFoundations of Chemistry: Philosophical, Historical, Educational and Interdisciplinary Studies of Chemistry
Pages (from-to)209-217
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018


  • atomic number
  • atomic weight
  • history of chemistry
  • scientfic revolution
  • theory change
  • Thomas Kuhn


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