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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


For physicists, philosophers and all other intellectuals: in this weekly reading group we look at state-of-the-art articles in the foundations of physics, both on philosophical methodology as well as interpretations of particular theories. Think of topics as what a physical theory should be like; how symmetries can be a guide to ontology; what the role of gauge variables is; or how to formulate the presumed underdetermination between different quantum theories. We occasionally invite authors to join the sessions.

We meet every Tuesday at 11.30am–12.30pm (occasionally extended to 1.00pm). The format is hybrid: some will meet physically in the Board Room, others will join online. You'll find the Lent schedule below.

If you are interested in attending, please send an email to: We welcome everyone interested in these topics, regardless of background: see you there!

Organisers: Aditya Jha (akj31), Ruward Mulder (ram202), Neil Dewar (nad42).

Lent Term 2024

For Lent, we'll focus on the foundations of thermodynamics (weeks 1–4) and the foundations of statistical physics (weeks 5–9). We'll investigate the historical foundations of the Carnot Cycle, explore the relationship of this idealised (impossible?) cycle with irreversibility and the arrow of time in the Second Law, related issues in intertheoretic reduction and examine whether thermodynamics is anthropocentric in a way that is different from other physical theories. We then investigate some foundational questions in statistical physics related to fluctuations from equilibrium, the Landauer's principle, Boltzmannian and Gibbsian averaging, and whether statistical physics can be taken up as a foundational project for thermodynamics.

Week 1 (16 January): Historical discussion – Norton on Lazare Carnot and Sadi Carnot

Sec. 1–8 (pp. 1–29), John D. Norton, (2022). 'How analogy helped create the new science of thermodynamics.' Synthese 200, 269.

Supplementary reading: Preface and Chapter 3 (sections 3.2 and 3.4), 'The Development of Carnot's Mechanics' in Charles Gillispie & Raffaele Pisano (2014). Lazare and Sadi Carnot: A Scientific and Filial Relationship. Springer Netherlands. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Week 2 (23 January): Bluff your way into the Second Law

Sec. 1–6 (pp. 1–38), Jos Uffink, (2001). 'Bluff Your Way into the Second Law.' Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, Vol. 32, Issue 3, 305–394.

Week 3 (30 January): Emergence and reduction

Sec. 5 (pp. 52–72), 'Intertheoretic reduction' in Patricia Palacios (2022), Emergence and Reduction in Physics. Cambridge University Press.

Week 4 (6 February): Subjectivity?

Katie Robertson & Carina Prunkl (2023). 'Is Thermodynamics Subjective?' Philosophy of Science. 1–11.

Supplementary reading: Mark W.  Zemansky, (1957). 'Fashions in Thermodynamics.' American Journal of Physics, 25, 349–351.

Week 5 (13 February): Statistical foundations?

Orly Shenker (2017). 'Foundation of statistical mechanics: Mechanics by itself.' Philosophy Compass.

Week 6 (20 February): Explaining fluctuations and irreversibility?

Giovanni Valente (2021). 'Taking up statistical thermodynamics: Equilibrium fluctuations and irreversibility.' Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Vol 85, 176–184.

Supplementary reading: Lavis, D. (2007). 'Boltzmann, Gibbs and the concept of equilibrium.' Philosophy of Science, 75, 682–696.

Week 7 (27 February): More on irreversibility: Arrow of Time?

Bryan Roberts (forthcoming). 'Does thermodynamics have a reversibility problem?'

Supplementary reading: Bryan Roberts (2022). 'Chapter 6, There is no thermodynamic arrow.' Reversing the Arrow of Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Week 8 (5 March): Afanassjewa & Ehrenfest on Gibbs & Boltzmann averaging

Charlotte Werndl & Roman Frigg (2021). 'Ehrenfest and Ehrenfest-Afanassjewa on Why Boltzmannian and Gibbsian Calculations Agree.' In The Legacy of Tatjana Afanassjewa. Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences 7. Springer, Cham. Edited by Uffink, J., Valente, G., Werndl, C., Zuchowski, L.

Week 9 (12 March): Reduction?

David Wallace (2015). 'The quantitative content of statistical mechanics', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, Volume 52, 285–293.

...and (perhaps) onwards: Non-equilibrium temperature and alternative approaches

Over term break, we can read the following by dividing the papers in smaller, more manageable chunks:

Casas-Vázquez, J. and Jou, D. (2003). 'Temperature in non-equilibrium states: a review of open problems and current proposals.' Rep. Prog. Phys. 66 1937.

Rugh, Hans H. (1998). 'A geometric, dynamical approach to thermodynamics.' J. Phys. A: Math. Gen. 31 7761.

Rugh, Hans H. (1997). 'Dynamical Approach to Temperature.' Phys. Rev. Lett. 78, 772.