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Disarming the Ultimate Historical Challenge to Scientific Realism

Vickers, Peter

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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.


Vickers, P. (2020). Disarming the Ultimate Historical Challenge to Scientific Realism. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 71(3), 987-1012.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 5, 2018
Online Publication Date Jun 28, 2018
Publication Date 2020-09
Deposit Date Feb 6, 2018
Publicly Available Date Feb 7, 2018
Journal The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
Print ISSN 0007-0882
Electronic ISSN 1464-3537
Publisher The University of Chicago Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 71
Issue 3
Pages 987-1012
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Copyright 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.

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