Concentration merges laboratory with Lyceum

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Physicists and philosophers rarely share the same equipment, methods or theories to understand the world around them. But beginning this semester, they may share the same concentration.

A new concentration, “physics and philosophy,” which was created by faculty from the Departments of Physics and Philosophy and was approved last December by the College Curriculum Council, is now available to students.

“The concentration represents an intriguing merger of the science and the humanities, which will offer students (among other things) new ways to think about time and space,” Dean of the College and the council’s chair Katherine Bergeron wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

The concentration includes a final project for senior concentrators and 11 classes – five from the physics department, four from the philosophy department, an intermediate calculus class and an elective about either philosophy or the history of science.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Doug Kutach, who helped create the new concentration, said it gives students the option of exploring interesting physics questions without being bogged down by difficult math – an option he didn’t have when he majored in physics as an undergraduate at Texas A&M University.

“I ended up just kind of getting bored doing problem sets, and it seemed like we never got to the cool stuff,” he said. The physics and philosophy concentration “seems like the perfect degree where you just do all of the fun stuff without having to do a lot of the grunt work that you’re required (to do) if you’re taking a physics degree,” he said.

Kutach said he thought the program would be popular because similar programs have been well-received at other schools, such as Yale and Harvard. “I certainly know from other universities that there is definitely a segment of students for whom this degree is a perfect fit,” he said.

At Brown, the physics and philosophy concentration may face competition from similar concentrations, such as the standalone physics concentration and the Department of Philosophy’s logic and philosophy of science

concentration.

Jeremy Goodman ’10, a triple concentrator in philosophy, cognitive neuroscience and physics, said he still would have done separate concentrations instead of a physics and philosophy concentration, even if the new concentration had been approved earlier in his time at Brown. Goodman said he wanted to take the introductory physics classes, so he was already very close to earning an A.B. in physics.

Goodman expressed some doubt about the new concentration. “I don’t really know how popular it’s going to be,” he said. “There already is a philosophy of science concentration in the philosophy department.”

According to Kutach, the physics and philosophy concentration will be geared more towards students interested in physics specifically, whereas the logic and philosophy of science concentration is more for students with a general interest in science philosophy.

The process of creating the new concentration began in the fall of 2007, but according to Kutach, he and others did not meet with the council until December 2008.

He said the council discussed the proposal of the new concentration, which initially required only eight classes.

“We needed to make some additions to make sure that there was a kind of unity to the degree so that students didn’t feel as if they were just taking courses in physics and just in philosophy, but actually had some kind of integration of the material towards the end,”

Kutach said.

The result was the addition of three more classes and a required final project for seniors – a thesis, conference course or seminar.

“There is at least a significant branch of philosophy that’s dedicated towards understanding fundamental reality,” Kutach said. “This specific project is one in trying to understand the fundamental

reality.”

But though people with similar interests may be attracted to physics and philosophy, Goodman recognized one major difference between those who pursue either discipline.

“The things that physicists say are almost certainly right, and the things that philosophers say are almost certainly wrong,” he said.

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