HPS 2626
Phil 2626
Topics in Recent Philosophy of Physics Fall 2013

Back to course documents.

The Discovery Exercise

Your exercise is to locate a philosophically un- or under-explored discovery in physics or episode in history of physics. In the meeting of October 17, you will make a short presentation on what you have found. You should give enough detail to make seminar discussion possible. A short reading for the seminar should be specified in advance. The length of the presentation will depend on how many there are to fit into the one class meeting.

Where does good new work in philosophy of physics come from?

There is a standard process.

You go to the existing literature, find the topic that is generating excitement and read up on it. You then look for something that someone has overlooked. That becomes your project.

+ It is a safe and honorable way to do philosophy of physics. You will learn from the exemplars of good work just what that looks like. There is almost always something left to be said. If you can find it and say it, you are likely to have an audience among those already writing on the topic.

- The price you pay for this safety is that the work done is reactive. It often contributes little, since you are trying to say something new on a topic that smart philosophers of physics have already addressed. It may have been that once the streets of London were paved with gold. However by the time the news reaches you, it's already all been picked up.

There is an adventurous approach.

How can you make the advances that materially change the literature? There is no recipe for this. In the end, it all comes down to opportunity, instinct and masses of hard work, where the last is irreplaceable. Here are some things you can do to increase your chances:

• Read in recent physics, looking for reports of work that may be philosophically interesting, but have not been developed by the philosophical community.

• Read in history of physics for episodes which may be philosophically interesting, but have not been developed by the philosophical community.

Both of these aproaches have been quite successful.

For example, much of the notable work of John Earman derives from bringing new issues in physics to the attention of the philosophical community. His Primer on Determinism reported on a wealth of results in physics pertaining to determinism and its failure that had been overlooked. His Bangs, Crunches, Whimpers, and Shrieks alerted us to a large literature on the vexed topics of singularities in spacetime. Bob Batterman has also had commendable success in drawing the philosophical community's attention to the importance of renormalization group methods in statistical physics and quantum field theory.

My own lesser successes have sometimes come from developing episodes in history of science. Einstein's 1913-1915 struggles with the hole argument were largely a matter of history, until John^3 (=John Earman, John Norton and John Stachel) brought them into a modern context. In the seminar I will describe a no go result for the philosophy of computation. It merely makes general an observation that Marian Smoluchowski made in 1912: if one tries to realize certain types of machines, like Maxwell demons, at molecular scales, thermal fluctuations will likely mess up all your designs.

- The negative of this approach is that you cannot really know ahead of time if your topic will take off philosophically. There may just be nothing there. Or perhaps you cannot find the right way to develop it.

+ The positive, however, is that if it does turn into interesting philoosphy, you will have done the thing I value most highly: you will have created a new topic in philosophy of physics.

Where should you look for suitable material?

For new discoveries in physics, the problem is not so much where to look. The literature is exploding. The problem is to decide what to ignore. Physics has become so grant driven that even the most trivial of discoveries must be hyped as a major breakthrough. You'll need to see past that hype.

For episodes in history of physics, take a discovery that interests you and ask, how did it come about? Once you start tracking down the original work, you will be looking at the appropriate source material.