PHYS/ PHIL 419 & 420  |  Spring 2014


Term paper
Reserve list


What is this course about?

From the textbooks:

A more contemporary view is that philosophy's role is to serve, not as some ground for the sciences or as some extension of them, but as their critical observer. The idea here is that the particular scientific disciplines use concepts and methods. The relationships of the concepts to one another, although implicit in their use in science, may fail to be explicitly clear to us. It would then be the job of philosophy of science to clarify these conceptual relationships. (Sklar, Philosophy of Physics, p. 2)

My present endeavor is rather to present in non-technical language the conceptual revolutions that the scientific community had to undergo in order to be able to accept 'modern physics'. (Rohrlich, From Paradox to Reality, p. viii)

More specifically,
what topics will be covered?

  • The transition from the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic picture of the universe to Copernicanism.
  • The birth of modern mechanics and the philosophical issues raised by it.
  • The theory of electromagnetism and its awkward coexistence with classical mechanics.
  • The special theory of relativity and its "paradoxes".
  • General relativity: its philosophical implications.
  • Quantum mechanics: how might we make sense of it?
  • Irreversibility and the "arrow of time".
  • Current problems in cosmology and elementary physics.

See the schedule with reading assignments.

Are there any unifying themes?

Roughly: "What can science do for a theory of knowledge, and what can a theory of knowledge do for science?" For a somewhat longer discussion of the themes, go here.

Who is teaching it?


David Ceperley (2107 ESB; 244-0646; email)
Office hour: by appointment.

Teaching assistants:

Charles Byrne (; contact by email only)
Apoorv Tiwari (
atiwari3@illinois.eduoffice hours 
2:30p-3:30p Tuesdays & 2p-3p Thursdays, or by appointment [390J Loomis])


Note on assistants:

Many of you may not have had a great deal of experience writing argumentative papers, so it will take some work to get used to what is expected.  Please utilize the assistants for help!  Be sure to read their grading comments carefully, and consider consulting them while working on assignments. Charles is a great person to turn to for writing assistance, so feel free to email him at any time (he is unable to meet in person, but usually can respond reasonably quickly over email).  (Note: Never simply send a draft in your first email; we have found that this leads to a very passive interaction, where the student is hoping to have the paper 'fixed'. First, send questions or paper bits [e.g., your thesis, an intro paragraph], and then after a bit of conversation, it's ok to send a draft for reaction.)  Apoorv is happy to meet in person, and is especially prepared to answer more technical physics questions.  Of course, you should always feel free to consult Prof. Ceperley, too! But use your assistants as resources.


What is the structure of the course?


Tuesday and Thursday 12:30-1:50 PM in 165 Everitt.

I will not lecture for 80 minutes straight. There will be discussions, either initiated by your questions and comments, or by mine, or both.

Note: SafeAssign in Compass will be used to check the originality of submitted papers.

Six assignments, every week or couple weeks. They will be short, 500-750 word, essays. They will be graded both for content and grammar/ usage (419 is an advanced composition course; though more emphasis is placed on 'content' -- see Compass for rubric) and usually returned within a week or so. Each homework will be graded out of a total of 20 points. You should consult your favorite text on writing style. Some good ones include Strunk and White, Elements of Style and Willis, Elements of English Grammar; there is also an entire Handbook that you can (and should!) consult on Compass. Please see Compass for more info on writing (rubric, exemplar paper, resources) and refer to the general comments about written assignments.

Your lowest homework score of the 6 will be dropped.


There will be two short, in-class quizzes in the latter half of the term.


There will be a final exam. See the schedule to confirm time and place.  It will consist of approximately four essays about the conceptual issues raised during the semester. In addition there will be an in-class midterm quiz.  The exam will be open book & open notes.

Term paper

SafeAssign and other methods will be used to check the originality of submitted papers. (For 419 students. Students who are interested in the topics but need only 2 hours credit without advanced comp credit should take 420)

You are to write a critical essay of about 2500 - 4000 words (10-15 typed pages) on some aspect of the interpretation of physical theories. The topic should reflect your interests and make use of your background. You should develop your topic into a coherent presentation of ideas for which you argue clearly and convincingly. We do not expect you to do groundbreaking work on the foundations of science, but you must not merely summarize or restate some other author's views.

The term paper has a series of required deadlines. See the information page for more details. Also please see Compass for more info and resources on writing and refer to the general comments about written assignments.


Note about the reading:  No single text covers the entire course.  You are given freedom to pursue the books that are of most relevance/ interest to you, but you should definitely be reading at least one of the four principal books below.  Peruse them first, but if you’re at a loss about where to start, contact Charles ( with your major, interest, & background, and he will be happy to provide some general guidance.


L. Sklar, Philosophy of Physics (Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1992). This covers a large fraction of the material and is nearest to a course text, but it is densely argued and you must be prepared if necessary to read any particular passage several times.

J.T. Cushing, Philosophical Concepts in Physics (Cambridge University Press, 1998). Somewhat similar in coverage to Sklar, but longer, more historically-oriented, and something closer to a working physicist's point of view. Cushing has a definite thesis to advocate (see in particular the part on quantum mechanics) but this does not detract from the usefulness of the text.

F. Rohrlich, From Paradox to Reality: Our Basic Concepts of the Physical World (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA 1987). This book is more accessible than Sklar, but downplays the interesting problems of quantum interpretations and may be a bit historically and philosophically naive.

R. P. Feynman, The Character of Physical Law: a set of brief, entertaining lectures that give a feel for how the basic principles look to a thoughtful working physicist.


  • The Copernican Revolution, by T. S. Kuhn (gives a feel for how one major change in physical outlook occurred)
  • The Mystery of the Quantum World, by Euan Squires (a fair-minded account of some of the interpretation issues)
  • Relativity, The Special and General Theory, by A. Einstein. (a very accessible introduction to relativity)
  • A Brief History of Time, by S. W. Hawking (hits many of the high points of modern physics in a lively fashion)

All of these books, as well as others relevant to the course and useful for the term papers, are on reserve in the Engineering Library or the Undergraduate Library, or both.

How will 419 be graded?

Homework will contribute 40% of your grade, the term paper will contribute 35%, quizzes will contribute 5%, & the final exam will contribute 20%.  Class participation will be used as a form of extra credit to determine borderline final grades.

How will 420 be graded?

Homework will contribute 62% of your grade,  quizes will contribute 8%, & the final exam will contribute 30%.  Class participation will be used as a form of extra credit to determine borderline final grades.