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Philosophy and History of Physics Reading Group

The reading group meets on Tuesdays, 4.00pm to 6.00pm in the Board Room. Please contact Richard Staley (raws1) or Jeremy Butterfield (jb56) if you would like access to a copy of the readings.

Michaelmas Term 2017

The theme for the term is Symmetry and Explanation in Physics. We suggest the following readings for the first three sessions, and list some other possible readings. But at the first one or two sessions, we will plan later sessions in the light of participants' interests, and we finish the term with a visit from Alisa Bokulich.

10 October

  • Ernst Mach, 'On Symmetry', in Popular Scientific Lectures (Chicago/London: Open Court/Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner & Co. 1898 [1871]), pp. 89–106; and
  • Ernst Mach, The Science of Mechanics: A Critical and Historical Account of its Development, transl. by Thomas J. McCormack, 4th ed. (Chicago/London: Open Court, 1919 [1883]), pp. 8–14.

17 October

  • Shaul Katzir, 'The Emergence of the Principle of Symmetry in Physics', Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 35 (2004): 35–65.

24 October

  • Gordon Belot, 'Notes on Symmetries', in K. Brading and E. Castellani, Symmetries in Physics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

For later weeks, we are considering reading (not necessarily in this order):

28 November

Alisa Bokulich (University of Boston)
'Losing sight of the forest for the Ψ: a call for a successor to the realism question'

Traditionally the realist project in quantum theory has taken one of two forms: First, defending one of many different possible interpretations of quantum theory as the one true depiction of reality. Second, defending what has been termed wavefunction realism, according to which ordinary space is an illusion and we in fact live in a 3N-dimensional configuration space, where N is the number of particles in the universe. Neither of these projects has managed to produce a broad consensus, in striking contrast to the near universal agreement that quantum theory is one of the most successful theories ever devised. In recent years there has been a shift in the physics community away from a focus on the search for a 'theory of everything' towards an emphasis on the importance of effective theories. In this talk I explore how this effective-theory mindsight might help us transform our philosophical debates about realism. As a way of regaining sight of the proverbial 'forest', from what I argue has been an excessive focus on the Ψ, I will examine hydrodynamic representations in physics across many scales. In particular, I will focus on the different representations of the quantum state that one finds in both Eulerian and Lagrangian quantum hydrodynamics. I conclude that the largely stagnant project of depiction realism in quantum theory should be replaced with the pluralist project that I label inferential realism.