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The inconsistency of quantum electrodynamics: a history

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Renormalized quantum field theories form the basis of the Standard Model of Particle Physics, an enormously successful microscopic theory of physical nature. Yet, the 1970s and 1980s saw what has been called by some historians and philosophers of physics a veritable paradigm shift, namely the emergence of the view that such theories should merely be regarded as approximate effective field theories, possibly to be replaced by some underlying theory at very high energies. The talk will deal with the question of how this widespread distrust of our “best” physical theories came about, focusing on the prehistory of the effective field theory paradigm, in particular on the attempts by prominent physicists, such as Wolfgang Pauli and Lev Landau, to prove that renormalized quantum electrodynamics is an inconsistent theory. The expectations of a fundamental physical theory underlying these attempts will be investigated.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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