Reconstruction of the history of the photoelectric effect and its implications for general physics textbooks



The photoelectric effect is an important part of general physics textbooks. To study the presentation of this phenomenon, we have reconstructed six essential, history and philosophy of science (HPS)-related aspects of the events that culminated in Einstein proposing his hypothesis of lightquanta and the ensuing controversy within the scientific community. These aspects are (1) Lenard's trigger hypothesis to explain the photoelectric effect, (2) Einstein's quantum hypothesis to explain the photoelectric effect, (3) lack of acceptance of Einstein's quantum hypothesis in the scientific community, (4) Millikan's experimental determination of the Einstein photoelectric equation and Planck's constant, h, (5) Millikan's presuppositions about the nature of light, and (6) the historical presentation and its interpretation within a history and philosophy of science perspective. Using these aspects as criteria, we analyzed 103 university general physics textbooks. Results obtained reveal that these historical elements are largely ignored or distorted in the textbooks, with only three of the texts obtaining a score of satisfactory and none a score of excellent. It is concluded that inclusion of HPS-related aspects in general physics textbooks can facilitate a better understanding of the dynamics associated with the initial controversy and final acceptance of Einstein's explanation of the photoelectric effect by the scientific community. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed94:903–931, 2010