Is physics a part of philosophy

What physics students learn from philosophers

Philosophical considerations are not the focus of a physics degree. However, a new seminar teaches physics students how to argue and reflect philosophically. In this way, they also learn how their subject works and how new theories arise.

Can philosophers additionally motivate physics students? One answer to this is a seminar at the ETH Zurich: Instead of presenting theories, the philosopher and physicist Norman Sieroka, the philosopher Michael Hampe and the particle physicist Rainer Wallny discuss philosophical considerations of physics. They express their various points of view decisively and quite controversially. Sometimes one is more convincing, sometimes the other. Around 50 undergraduate students listen eagerly to how the arguments sway back and forth.

It's about Albert Einstein. The relativity theory of the Nobel Prize winner and former ETH professor is based on just two prerequisites: on the principle of relativity and on the universality of the speed of light. In their consequences, however, both were sufficient to expand the basic principles of classical physics and, in particular, to redefine the meaning of the basic concepts of space, time and gravity, which every physical theory must take into account.

Revolution or Continuity?

Did Einstein trigger a scientific revolution in physics with his theory or does his work prove continuous scientific progress? Finally, the special theory of relativity published in 1905 builds on the classical theory of electricity, and forerunners of its postulates can already be found in classics such as Galileo Galilei or Isaac Newton.

How do new terms and theories arise in physics? Bachelor students usually do not deal with questions like these at the beginning of a physics degree. If you want to pass the exams at the end of the academic year, you must first acquire the necessary tools from mechanics, wave theory, electricity and magnetism, from algebra, analysis, numerics and computer science. In the tight schedule, they don't have much time for reflection.

That was unsatisfactory for Rainer Wallny for a long time, too, but time is scarce even for lecturers when it comes to the basic physics lectures: “I can't go very far in a basic lecture because I have to teach students the most important methods and fundamentals in a very short time », Says Rainer Wallny, who teaches bachelor students in electrodynamics, magnetism and the theory of relativity. "I often said to myself: In order to give the students a realistic picture of research, a philosophical discussion of how physics works would make perfect sense."

Uncertainties are part of it

In his basic lectures, the particle physicist likes to make a reference to his research at the LHC particle accelerator at CERN. For example, physicists use electromagnetic fields to accelerate particles in the LHC. Their speed can become so high that relativity effects such as slowing down times or shortening lengths occur.

It is more challenging to convey why uncertainties arise in basic research: “In the lecture you pass on the established state of knowledge. This can give the impression that physics is a single success story that always finds the right answer to everything. But that's not how research works. Researchers are at the limit of knowledge, where nobody can take for granted what happens next. "

At these limits, researchers have to reflect on their terms and theories and discuss new ones. Norman Sieroka, philosopher, physicist and associate professor, has examined the formation of concepts and theories in physics: “The development of new physical concepts and theories is not straightforward,” he says introduced."

"Researchers are at the limit of knowledge, where nobody can take for granted what happens next." Rainer Wallny, Professor in the Department of Physics

Increasing mathematization

In one characteristic, as Sieroka notes, physics actually developed in a directional manner. In no other natural science are the concepts and theories so largely and so indisputably mathematically shaped. Physics still uses terms such as force, field, wave or particle today. However, the physical terms have increasingly broken away from everyday understandings and are given their meaning solely in the context of a mathematical theory. What a force is can hardly be put into words; physics understands it precisely as a vector with direction and magnitude.

Sieroka published his findings in an «Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics» which, as the journal «Spectrum of Science» wrote, shows very nicely that philosophers have a say in the interpretation of physical theories. For Rainer Wallny, who is just as interested in literature and philosophy as he is in physics, Norman Sieroka was therefore ideally suited for a physics seminar with a philosophical touch.

Together with Michael Hampe, the two of them organized the seminar “Philosophical Considerations on Physics” for the first time this summer semester. Thematically, they took up the approaches from electrodynamics and relativity theory, which the students deal with in the second semester anyway, in order to reflect them against a broader, historical and philosophical background. During the seminar, the students themselves took a position and discussed it in groups.

This orientation of the seminar reflects Michael Hampe's conception of philosophy: This is not a generally valid teaching, he writes in his latest book «The teachings of philosophy. A criticism », but a reflective activity that passes on certain skills: namely, considering requirements and consequences and clarifying thoughts through speech and counter-speech. “In order to have a controversial discussion, you have to detach yourself from your own position and understand opposing positions. This ability will be useful to the students later in research and at work, ”says Hampe. Now the lecturers are working on a second edition of the event.

«Ideas don't fall from the sky»

The seminar, which is part of the “Critical Thinking” initiative, is well received by the rector of ETH Zurich: “When a physics and philosophy lecturer work together, they can get students out of their comfort zone,” said Sarah Springmani in July in the “ NZZ am Sonntag ». The seminar for Lennart Baumgärtner, a physics student in his second year, was a welcome broadening of horizons. He says: "I now understand better how to gain scientific knowledge."

What was exciting for him was how the role of experiments is currently changing, so that they are not only used to confirm or refute theories; but also to develop new ones. Doré de Morsier is studying mathematics in the first year. He says: "Through the discussions in the seminar I became aware of how knowledge about electromagnetism has developed within the physical cognitive processes and how it relates to the historical-cultural development context and to thinking about time around 1900."

Simon Mathis, a physics student in the first year, agrees: “The reflective teaching format is a good addition to the fact-based lectures. I now know that big ideas don't just fall from the sky. " Overall, according to the students, it was interesting for them that physics also knows positions that are neither right nor wrong. It also motivates them a lot when they can discuss and clarify their own thoughts.