Spring 2021

Tuesday & Thursday 11a–12:20p
in Loomis Laboratory 276
& via Zoom (see email or Compass for link)

Welcome to the course!

What is this course about?

From the textbooks:
'A 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)

Some topics that will be covered:

  • The transition from the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model 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 and its philosophical implications.
  • How to make sense of quantum mechanics.
  • Irreversibility and the 'arrow of time'.
  • Current problems in cosmology and elementary physics.

Grading in brief

The course is crosslisted, so one may register in either the Physics or Philosophy version. 419 obtains ACP credit and 3 credit hours, and requires a term paper; 420 is worth 2 credit hours.

419: Homework 40%, term paper 35%, final exam 25%.
420: Homework 60%, final exam 40%.


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 are at a loss about where to start, contact Charles with your major, interest, & background, and he will be happy to provide some general guidance. For A Brief Handbook of English, please log-in to Compass.

  • Principal texts:
    • J. T. Cushing, Philosophical Concepts in Physics. 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 particular angle (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. While perhaps historically and philosophically naïve, this book complements Sklar by presenting an attitude toward the fundamentals that is probably typical of that of many thoughtful working physicists.
    • L. Sklar, Philosophy of Physics. This covers a large portion of the material, but it is densely argued and you must be prepared if necessary to read any particular passage several times.
    • 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. Of the four, this one may be least suitable as a course text on its own, simply because it is less comprehensive, but can be a good supplement in tandem with another.
  • Also recommended:
    • T. S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution. Gives a feel for how one major change in physical outlook occurred).
    • Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe. Fascinating & rigorous account of Copernicus to Galileo.
    • E. Squires, The Mystery of the Quantum World. A fair-minded account of some of the interpretation issues.
    • A. Einstein, Relativity, The Special and General Theory. An accessible introduction to relativity.
    • S. W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time. 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, should be on reserve in the Engineering Library.