For students enrolled in PHYS or PHIL 419 only. 419 obtains ACP credit and requires a term paper; 420 students are not required to submit any element of the term paper. For 419, the term paper is worth 35% of your grade.

You are to write a critical essay of about 2500–4000 words (~8–12 pages, but go by word count) on some aspect of the interpretation of scientific theories.

It is an unfortunate historical fact that students tend to put off their term paper work until too late in the term to do a good job. To encourage you to meet the deadlines, late outlines and drafts will be penalized 5% per day (each). The final paper will not be accepted after the due date (unless you have a written medical excuse).

Step zero!
Before doing anything else, make absolutely sure you understand the campus policies on citations and plagiarism. Every stage of the paper must be submitted via SafeAssign on Compass to facilitate routine plagiarism checks. All significant special information, wording, illustrative examples, etc. must have specific in-text references, not just general bibliographic notes. We are not picky about the exact format, but the style must allow a reader to find the source for any material easily and must specifically identify quotes and paraphrases.

Your topic
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. Graduate students in this course will be expected to choose a weightier topic and write a longer paper (5000-6000 words -- 15-18 pages).

You will need to have your final paper topic approved by Professor Phillips by 14 March. Your thesis statement should be a completion of the phrase: 'I will argue that...'.

Finding a topic that interests you, that is reasonably accessible, and is of an appropriate scope is the most important step in writing the term paper. See 'Topic inspirations' (below) for suggestions. One good approach is to write an in-depth critical response to one or several recent works on the interpretation of physics. It is a good idea to make a trip to the library or a bookstore early on to find some work that you are interested in. You can then read it and plan out your paper in parallel with the rest of the course. It is not very practical to wait until the course has dealt with some topic to find out whether you want to write about it, especially since some of the most fascinating material is reached only in the last month. Of course, we hope that what is said in the course will be of use to you in deciding what to write after you have decided on your topic.

Students are required to submit both a rough and final draft of their term paper (on Compass) – the rough draft by 11.59p on 18 April (we will endevor to return comments, on Compass, within a week) and the final draft by 11:59p on 2 May. A late final draft will receive a 1-point reduction every hour it is late (e.g., if your paper is 70 minutes late, your final paper grade will receive a 1-point reduction). All students who submit a rough draft will receive comments on their rough drafts and will be expected to make revisions in light of those comments; the revised version of your paper will constitute the final draft.


The term paper project has four milestones. Meeting each of these milestones is necessary to receive a good grade.

  1. You must choose a topic by 2 April [please note date changes for some of these milestones!] – preferably sooner – and turn in an abstract/ tentative topic paragraph with a list of your main references on Compass by this date. Unlike other assignments, this one must be revised until it is acceptable. It is better to spend an extra round of work finding a good topic and approach at this early stage than to waste time writing a dead-end paper. At least one in-person consultation with Prof. Phillips must be held while the paper is being written, and he will need to approve your topic before you submit your abstract on Compass. Electronic consultations are also encouraged.
  2. An outline with topic paragraphs is due 11 April. We need to see that you know what the structure of your paper will be. You should write an introductory paragraph for each of the (usually 3-4) major sections of the paper. You should list the working bibliography (the books that you are actually using). We will endeavor to return comments quickly, at least within a week; however, given the short turnaround, it is recommended that you continue fleshing out your paper, even before comments are returned.
  3. A complete rough draft is due 23 April. It does not need to be well-polished; the point is to help you create a document with structure, that presents your fleshed-out argument, and that will resemble your final draft. We will endeavor to return comments within a week.
  4. The final revised paper is due 8 May. Please bring a paper copy to the final exam and have submitted an electronic copy on Compass.

The final paper grade will be based roughly 10% on the topic, 15% on the outline, 25% on the first draft, and 50% on the final paper.

If you need help with your paper, Prof. Phillips is available to meet with you during office hours, or you can email him. You can also email Charles at any time, or arrange a meeting with Suraj. Please also consider utilizing the Writers Workshop, an invaluable resource for writing help.

Notes on the paper-writing process

From Professors Michael Weissman & Jon Thaler, in turn adapted from G. T. Hole in the APA Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy, v. 4 n. 4, 1984.

I cannot emphasize too strongly that these papers should not be mere 'reports', in which you put together information or views from some sources and transmit them to the reader. Likewise the papers should not be mere opinion and speculation. The papers for this course should involve some independent critical thinking.

The topics, therefore, should be picked so as to be not too far over your head. Although a paper that uncritically but carefully explains the standard view of some difficult issue would be acceptable (but not optimal), a paper that simply collates phrases on some such issue would not.

Some of the most attractive topics would involve applying what you have learned in this course to current questions from general culture. For example, you could try applying the procedures by which we have evaluated hypotheses to questions about cold fusion, paranormal effects, or creationism. To what extent does the history of physics support or refute ideas about the cultural relativity of hypotheses? Etc.

In most papers, the sections presenting the physics per se should be brief. Usually there is not much new to say on that. Aspects of the interpretation, history, and metaphorical uses of the physics are more likely to raise problems worth discussing in these papers.

Your paper should begin by identifying the issue that you will address. The reader does not always need to know immediately what you will conclude, but he does need to know the topic. The topic cannot be simply some noun (e.g., 'spacetime'), but must be some question or assertion (e.g., 'Is spacetime geometry purely a matter of convention?'')

Most topics will require a section explaining the meaning of the question. Perhaps, if you are writing a critical essay on someone else's work, this section would provide a simple description of that work. If you are writing about some problem in interpretation of an unfamiliar phenomenon, this section would simply describe the phenomenon.

You then may need to explain why the topic is interesting – e.g., why the views described are controversial, or why the phenomenon seems paradoxical. A set of possible alternate views might be presented, relying somewhat on published literature.

At this point, you will be prepared to start actually reasoning about your topic. Are there obvious logical contradictions in any of the views that you have introduced? Are the differences between the views real or merely semantic? Are there empirical data that rule out some of the views? Are there other considerations (historical analogies, partially relevant data, Occam's razor...) that can be found to strengthen or weaken the cases for these views?

Finally, you can wrap up the paper with some conclusions. What ideas are definitely wrong? Are any definitely right? What sorts of developments can resolve the remaining questions? Are further experiments or calculations called for?

Most important: After the paper is written and typed, go over it with a hostile attitude, as if someone else had written it. Would you believe any of it if someone else had written it? Would you bother to finish reading it? What parts are impossible to follow? What parts do not make sense? Which of the words on page 9 contradict words on page 3? Do the conclusions have any connection whatever with the pages of detailed physical description at the start of the paper? If not, why are those pages there? What obvious gaps loom? How would the conclusions cease to make sense if applied to slightly different situations?

If possible, it then helps to trade papers with someone else, so you can each find flaws which you overlooked in your own. Then go through the revision process again. You may then add connecting material, auxiliary arguments, clarifications of terms, concessions of limitations, etc. You may take out digressions and falsehoods.

Topic inspirations

Possible approaches to the paper (narrowing required) include:

  • First, see this document with ideas from a series in the online journal Edge, which may be helpful for some possible term paper topics.
  • Write a critical essay on some recent or well known work concerning the meaning of physics.
  • One can often come up with intelligent criticisms and supporting arguments for new works. There are often no standard texts providing such arguments. Thus, these critical essays offer a good opportunity to do original but not groundbreaking work.
  • Stephen Wolfram's (big) book on A New Type of Science focuses on the role of cellular automata. Examine the claims of this book regarding both fundamental physics and ways of understanding complex phenomena, including biology.
  • Numerous attempts have been made to popularize some of the philosophical implications of quantum physics, including The Tao of Physics, The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, and, to some extent, Herbert's Quantum Reality. Examine whether the actual problems of the theory are well represented in these books and whether the broader implications proposed are valid.
  • Many books of the past couple decades have proposed major revisions of the standard view of the relation of physics and other sciences to reality (some of the better-known authors include Rorty, Derrida, Haraway, & LaTour). Examine whether these provide a reasonable interpretation of the history and practice of physics.
  • There has also been in the past couple decades a wave of books relating physics to theological and philosophical questions (e.g., Davies, Polkinghorn). Evaluate the solidity of their arguments.
  • There has been a long string of pathological episodes in science. These include Piltdown Man, N-rays, cold fusion (some of you may wish to dispute that characterization), etc. Examine one or more of them. What light do they shed on claims about how normal science attempts to discern truth?
  • Explain the inner logic of some difficult scientific transition.
  • The rejection of classical space and time rested on a series of experiments that ruled out various alternatives to Einstein's approach. Explain what the alternate views were and how they were eliminated.
  • Examine the history of some major scientific transition.
  • Kuhn proposed a general outline for major scientific 'paradigm changes' in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Examine how well the theory describes several of the major upheavals covered in this course.
  • How did the laws of thermodynamics develop? What were the roles of engineering, physics, economics, etc?
  • How did ideas about electricity develop in the early 19th century? What role did the prior Newtonian framework play?
  • Examine the interplay between philosophy and physics at some important juncture.
  • In the early years of the century, there were intense debates about the relation of scientific theory to the external world, if any. Among the prominent people engaged in those debates were Mach, Planck, Einstein, and even Lenin. Clarify what the arguments were about and who, in retrospect, seems to have won.
  • Compare and contrast the views of Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz on the nature of space. How did their views tie in with other aspects of their philosophy and physics?
  • What roles did 'pragmatism', 'logical positivism', 'existentialism', etc., play in setting the stage for the Copenhagen interpretation of QM?
  • Explicate some thorny question of interpretation.
  • The existence of observations which violate Bell's inequality requires some deep revision of either local causality, induction, realism, or logic. Trace how (or if) locality is violated in any of the accounts of the experimental results.
  • Einstein and Infeld claim that it is a matter of pure convention whether one adopts the Copernican or Tychonean system. Examine the extent to which that claim is true. (Best restricted to the mathematically inclined).
  • One of the most universal laws of physics is that entropy always increases. Yet the definition of 'entropy' is disturbingly dependent on the knowledge of the system, not just the intrinsic properties of the system. Examine Bayesian or other approaches to making a consistent account of entropy.
  • What is the evidence for the proposition that space is non-Euclidean? What are the alternative hypotheses?

Some previous paper topic areas:

  • Higher-dimensional theories (need to focus on philosophical issues)
  • Many-worlds interpretation of QM
  • Black holes (need to focus on philosophical issues)
  • Mach, positivism, & Einstein
  • The nature of space (Descartes, Newton, Leibniz)
  • Relationism, absolutism, & spacetime
  • William Gilbert
  • The discovery of the electron and the origins of QM (do not focus too much on history)
  • Conceptual conflict in the progress of physics (needs to be narrowed)
  • Time (must be made more specific)
  • Tachyons (needs emphasis on questions, e.g., how to test the hypothesis)
  • The origins of QM (should find some issue to probe)
  • Inflation (needs emphasis on questions, e.g., how to test the hypothesis)
  • Ontology & QM