What can bouncing oil droplets tell us about quantum mechanics?

Pete W Evans*, Karim P Y Thebault

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
55 Downloads (Pure)


A recent series of experiments have demonstrated that a classical fluid mechanical
system, constituted by an oil droplet bouncing on a vibrating fluid surface, can be induced to display a number of behaviours previously considered to be distinctly quantum. To explain this correspondence it has been suggested that the fluid mechanical system provides a single-particle classical model of de Broglie’s idiosyncratic ‘double solution’ pilot wave theory of quantum mechanics. In this paper we assess the epistemic function of the bouncing oil droplet experiments in relation to quantum mechanics. We find that the bouncing oil droplets are best conceived as an analogue illustration of quantum phenomena, rather than an analogue simulation, and, furthermore, that their epistemic value should be understood in terms of how-possibly explanation, rather than confirmation. Analogue illustration, unlike analogue simulation, is not a form of ‘material surrogacy’, in which source empirical phenomena in a system of one kind can be understood as ‘standing in for’ target phenomena in a system of another kind. Rather, analogue illustration leverages a correspondence between certain empirical phenomena displayed by a source system and aspects of the ontology of a target system. On the one hand, this limits the potential inferential power of analogue illustrations, but, on the other, it widens their potential inferential scope. In particular, through analogue illustration we can learn, in the sense of gaining how-possibly understanding, about the putative ontology of a target system via an experiment. As such, the potential scientific value of these extraordinary experiments is undoubtedly a significant one.
Original languageEnglish
Article number39 (2020)
Number of pages32
JournalEuropean Journal for Philosophy of Science
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 10 Jun 2020

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Science and Philosophy


  • Quantum mechanics
  • Pilot wave theory
  • Walker experiments
  • Analogue experimentation
  • Analogue illustration
  • How-possibly explanation

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