The Work of Imagining Subatomic Particles in Early Quantum Mechanics


Focusing on a selection of key texts from early quantum mechanics, the essay examines the concept of the quantum of action and the role it has played in the positing of the photon and electron as real objects within a supporting epistemological imaginary—an imaginary that stands metonymically for the objective world. Since physicists imagine themselves as a certain form of subject within the imagined world evoked by these texts, an encounter with subatomic particles as basic objects within that world entails a novel form of imagined work as well. The import of this novel subject and the work that it does with particles as objects qua objects depends, in large part, on the extent to which the physicists, while rhetorically subverting that imagined subject’s presence within the text, nonetheless privilege it as an ideal.