Kuhn’s ‘5th Law of Thermodynamics’: Measurement, Data, and Anomalies

In K. Brad Wray (ed.), Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at 60. Cambridge University Press (2024)
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Abstract

We reconstruct Kuhn’s philosophy of measurement and data paying special attention to what he calls the “fifth law of thermodynamics”. According to this "law," there will always be discrepancies between experimental results and scientists’ prior expectations. The history of experiments to determine the values of the fundamental constants offers a striking illustration of Kuhn’s fifth law of thermodynamics, with no experiment giving quite the expected result. We highlight the synergy between Kuhn’s view and the systematic project of iteratively determining the value of physical constants, initiated by spectroscopist Raymond Birge, that was ongoing when Kuhn joined Berkeley in 1956. Our analysis sheds light on various underappreciated aspects of Kuhn’s thought, especially his notion of progress as improvement in measurement accuracy.

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Alisa Bokulich
Boston University
Federica Bocchi
University of Copenhagen

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