European Journal for Philosophy of Science

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 1–19 | Cite as

Historical magic in old quantum theory?

  • Peter VickersEmail author
Original paper in Philosophy of Science


Two successes of old quantum theory are particularly notable: Bohr’s prediction of the spectral lines of ionised helium, and Sommerfeld’s prediction of the fine-structure of the hydrogen spectral lines. Many scientific realists would like to be able to explain these successes in terms of the truth or approximate truth of the assumptions which fuelled the relevant derivations. In this paper I argue that this will be difficult for the ionised helium success, and is almost certainly impossible for the fine-structure success. Thus I submit that the case against the realist’s thesis that success is indicative of truth is marginally strengthened.


Old quantum theory Hydrogen Spectral lines Fine structure Bohr Sommerfeld Realism Spin 



I am grateful to Juha Saatsi and John Norton for discussion and criticism, and also to three anonymous referees for helpful comments. Thanks also to audiences at the University of Leeds (2009), and at the 2nd biennial conference of the European Philosophy of Science Association in Amsterdam in 2009, where early versions of this paper were presented.


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© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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