Monday, 1 February 2016

Why Physics Needs Philosophy

by Layla Link

Are some infinities bigger than others? This was just one of the mind boggling questions that was answered for me when I attended a Taster Day for Philosophy and Physics at Oxford on 13th January.

The day started off early as we had to be in Oxford by 10 am and the event mostly took place at the Mathematical Institute in the centre of the city. As soon as we arrived, we were taken to the literature table where we were given stacks of prospectuses and information about getting into university there. This was followed by a series of lectures and talks, all focusing on the course of Philosophy and Physics at Oxford.

When people ask me what I want to do at university, most of them are pretty surprised when I say “Philosophy and Physics”. “What?” they say, “Philosophy and Physics? Together?” But, really, if we think about it, this combination is not surprising at all. Philosophers fill in the gaps in the universe; they think and consider the missing pieces, the questions we cannot answer. Physicists do the exact same, but with science behind them. Physics needs philosophy. Physics isn’t just numbers and calculations; we need to have conceptual clarity about key concepts, and philosophy gives us that.

One example of this is shown in the film, Interstellar, in which a man goes off on a space journey and ages less slowly than his daughter; therefore, he is still relatively young and returns looking like he did when he left. This links to the twin paradox, a problem of both physics and motion, but at the same time thought and the philosophy of space and time.

Are space and time the same thing? Or is time an illusion of the human mind? How can time pass quicker for one person but slower for another? 

There are both philosophical and mathematical ways of answering these questions, which I won’t go into now, but that is what makes this course really interesting.

Overall, I really enjoyed my day in Oxford. It definitely opened my eyes to the fascinating world of physics and philosophy. 

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