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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Workshop (Day 1)

Joachim Room, College of St Hild and St Bede

Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions presented scientific change as revolutionary: later theoretical developments do not always build upon the achievements of earlier ones. Sometimes they present a new picture of the world that must replace the old. Prominent scientists have taken a different line. Henri Poincaré acknowledged that new theories in mathematical physics can be highly revisionary:

The ephemeral nature of scientific theories takes by surprise the man of the world. Their brief period of prosperity ended, he sees them abandoned one after another; he sees ruins piled upon ruins; he predicts that the theories in fashion to-day will in a short time succumb in their turn, and he concludes that they are absolutely in vain. This is what he calls the bankruptcy of science. (Poincaré 1905, 178)

However, argued Poincaré, important connections between earlier and later theories might nevertheless exist. In his 1936 Presidential Address to the Chemical Society (later to become the Royal Society of Chemistry), Nevil Sidgwick more forthrightly rejected the view that ‘when a new discovery is made, it shows the previous conceptions upon the subject to be untrue’ (1936, 533). Interestingly, Sidgwick took as his main subject the body of structural theory which had been developed in organic chemistry during the nineteenth century, and which some chemists and physicists would later come to regard as having been swept away by quantum mechanics.

The issue remains an important one for science, for the philosophy of science, and for public policy that aims to be grounded in science. As Sidgwick noted, if ‘to-day’s scientific ideas show those of yesterday to be wrong, we need not trouble about them, because they themselves may be shown to be wrong to-morrow.’ (1936, 533)

The trustworthiness of scientific ideas is a particular issue where they bear on public policy, as in the fields of health and climate science. Trustworthiness must also be a consideration when we think about the role of science in the broader project of understanding the world and our place in it.

Organised by Professor Robin Hendry and Professor Peter Vickers from the department of Philosophy this workshop aims to bring together historians, philosophers and scientists to examine some key cases of theory change in the history of science, determining (i) the extent to which they are as revolutionary as is sometimes claimed; and (ii) how far this supports or undermines the trustworthiness of the relevant scientific ideas.

Confirmed external participants include: Professor Mathias Frisch, Institut für Philosophie, Leibniz Universität Hannover; Professor Helge Kragh, Department of Mathematics, Centre for Science Studies, Aarhus University; and Professor Alan J. Rocke, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University.

The workshop will take place on Monday 30 October and Tuesday 31 October 2017 in Joachim Room, College of St Hild and St Bede (Durham University). Attendance at the workshop is open, but places are limited and registration is required. For details please contact Yafeng Shan

This workshop is also supported by the Department of Philosophy and the AHRC research project Scientific Realism and the Challenge from the History of Science (


Poincaré, Henri 1905. Science and Hypothesis. London: Walter Scott

Sidgwick, N.V. 1936. Structural Chemistry. Journal of the Chemical Society 149: 533-538


Monday, 30th October 2017

9.00 am – 10.00 am

“A Second Copernican Revolution? From Static to Expanding Universe and Beyond”

Kragh Helge (Aarhus University) [Chaired by Robin Hendry]

10.00 am – 11.00 am

Realism on the Rocks: Novel Success and James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth

Thomas Rossetter (Durham University) [Chaired by Robin Hendry]

11.00 am – 11.30 am

Tea Break

11.30 am – 12.30 pm

On the Alleged Incommensurability of Newtonian and Relativistic Mechanics

Samuel Fletcher (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)

12.30 pm – 1.30 pm

The Sommerfeld Puzzle from a Semiclassical Perspective

Stefan Keppeler (University of Tubingen)

1.30 pm – 2.30 pm

Lunch Break

2.30 pm – 3.30 pm

Choices in the Mendelian Revolution

Yafeng Shan (Durham University) [Chaired by Matthew Eddy]

3.30 pm – 4.30 pm

Lessons on Retention from the History of Celestial Mechanics: from Content to Structure to Meta-Structure

Timothy Lyons (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) [Chaired by Matthew Eddy]

4.30 pm – 5.00 pm

Tea Break

5.00 pm – 6.00 pm

Disarming the Ultimate Historical Challenge to Scientific Realism

Peter Vickers (Durham University) [Chaired by Yafeng Shan]

Tuesday, 31st October 2017

9.00 am – 10.00 am

Structure and Stability of the History of Chemistry

Robin Hendry (Durham University)

10.00 am – 11.00 am

The Theory of Chemical Structure and the Structure of Chemical Theory: Revolution versus Continuity

Alan Rocke (Case Western Reserve University)

11.00 am – 11.30 pm

Tea Break

11.30 am – 12.30 pm

Confronting Puzzles and Anomalies in Climate Change Science

Wendy Parker (Durham University) [Chaired by Yafeng Shan]

Contact for more information about this event.