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Disarming the ultimate historical challenge to scientific realism.

Vickers, Peter (2020) 'Disarming the ultimate historical challenge to scientific realism.', British journal for the philosophy of science., 71 (3). pp. 987-1012.


Probably the most dramatic historical challenge to scientific realism concerns Arnold Sommerfeld’s 1916 derivation of the fine structure energy levels of hydrogen. Not only were his predictions good, he derived exactly the same formula that would later drop out of Dirac’s 1928 treatment (something not possible using 1925 Schrödinger–Heisenberg quantum mechanics). And yet the most central elements of Sommerfeld’s theory were not even approximately true: his derivation leans heavily on a classical approach to elliptical orbits, including the necessary adjustments to these orbits demanded by relativity. Even physicists call Sommerfeld’s success a ‘miracle’, which rather makes a joke of the so-called ‘no miracles argument’. However, this can all be turned around. Here I argue that the realist has a story to tell vis-à-vis the discontinuities between the old and the new theory, leading to a realist defence based on sufficient continuity of relevant structure.

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Publisher statement:© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Date accepted:05 February 2018
Date deposited:07 February 2018
Date of first online publication:28 June 2018
Date first made open access:12 August 2020

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