Academic Writing


Paradigm Shift

A paradigm (para-dime) is a widely accepted model, example, or belief. A paradigm shift occurs when we see something in a whole new way.

Here is an example from science:

Bohr Model of the Atom

In 1913, a Danish physicist called Niels Bohr proposed a new idea: He said that atoms are comparable to miniature solar systems, with the nucleus at the center, and electrons whizzing around the nucleus, as if they were planets orbiting the sun.

This way of looking at the atom was a paradigm, and it proved to be very successful. By visualizing atoms as tiny planets, scientists were able to make great leaps forward in the field of nuclear physics.

But the paradigm also proved limiting; as much as it helped, it was also a mental trap. You see, it turns out that atoms are nothing at all like solar systems, and as long as scientists pictured them that way, they couldn't make sense of the results of some of their experiments.

Then, in 1926, an Austrian physicist called Erwin Schrodinger proposed a new paradigm. He theorized that atoms were more like clouds. The nucleus was still at the center, but—according to Schrodinger—electrons don't orbit the nucleus like planets; instead they exist only as "probabilities." In other words, one can never say exactly where an electron is located; the best one can do is to say that there is a certain probability that an electron can be found in a particular region of the cloud.

The Cloud Model of the Atom (on Right)

This was a paradigm shift—a whole new way of thinking about the atom. At first, many scientists resisted it. They were so accustomed to thinking of electrons as planets; they couldn't grasp that electrons might not behave like planets at all. Eventually, however, they recognized the advantages of the cloud model, and when they did, the field of physics made another leap forward.

It was thanks to this paradigm shift that, in the latter half of the 20th century, all sorts of new technologies became possible—from cell phones, to GPS, to the internet. None of these things would have been possible, had scientists remained stuck in the old paradigm.