His experiments led Albert Einstein to question the nature of light. Most notably, Lenard directed a beam of light at a metal plate and found that an electron was jarred free from the plate the moment the light reached it.
Einstein argued that if light is a wave phenomenon (defined as a pattern of energy transfer), a precise and calculable amount of time would be needed for enough energy to build up to free the electron from the plate.
This assertion created quite a stir within scientific circles because the interference pattern previously observed in Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment had apparently proved that light behaves as a wave phenomenon, and physicists normally understood waves to be the opposite of particles.
In conjunction with his and other earlier experiments on the absorption of the rays in metals, the general realization that electrons were constituent parts of the atom enabled Lenard to claim correctly that for the most part atoms consist of empty space. He proposed that every atom consists of empty space and electrically neutral corpuscules called “dynamids”, each consisting of an electron and an equal positive charge [emphasis added].
Lenard received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1905.
Since then, many New Age thinkers have discussed the importance of his work—specifically how it has contributed to the idea that the concepts of matter and energy are, to some extent, social constructions.
Although many people say science is objective, this is dead wrong. Scientific ideas are informed by the way we observe and interpret phenomena, especially in the subatomic realm, which hosts the tiny building blocks of our everyday world.*
On a darker historical note, Lenard was a Nazi sympathizer who made racist comments about Einstein because of his Jewishness. However, Lenard also admired and praised the physicist Heinrich Hertz, whose ancestry was partially Jewish.
Who can figure? The mind of a racist is sometimes complicated and not monolithically full of hate. And sometimes very clever people can also have extremely twisted ideas.
Lenard had a school named after him but it was renamed in 1945 after the Axis Powers lost the war to the Allies.
* Not a great metaphor because recent experiments suggest the subatomic – more fully called “quantum” – realm is somewhat fluid and strange both spatially and temporally.