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Event Series Tackles the “Physics of Everything” (and More)

How do philosophy, physics, unexpected experimental results, and rocks intersect? Find out in this exciting event series.

Published May 16, 2016

Event Series Tackles the “Physics of Everything” (and More)

Physics and philosophy have had an enduring relationship since philosophers in ancient Greece like Thales and Democritus first asked seemingly simple questions that have complex implications, such as, what is the world made of? Questions like helped shape the early sciences and are still being asked across fields, as are questions about where subjects like physics begin and philosophy end. Over the course of six events, the Academy is bringing together computer scientists, physicists, philosophers, and writers to unpack these questions and more in our Physics of Everything lecture series.

Although the history of philosophy and physics have at times been contentious, Jim Holt, author of Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, sees the value of bringing philosophy into the realm of physics. He explained at the event Where Do Physics and Philosophy Intersect? that "Physicists, whether they realize it or not, are doing a lot of philosophy. ... [And] philosophers are well-trained in reasoning very precisely and rigorously, detecting hidden assumptions. [I believe that] they actually can be useful to physicists." Philosopher David Z. Albert, PhD, expanded on this relationship at the same event: "Lots of physicists would say, you know, there is something about physics like there is about great philosophical ideas... you learn these things and the world looks fresh and different than it did before you learned them."

Even a simple object like a rock on a table can spark interesting dialogue on physics and philosophy, as it did for Michael Strevens, PhD, at the third event in the series, Complexity: A Science of the Future? "The rock is, on one level, behaving very simply by sitting there and not moving—we can see that. But if you zoomed out a few million times, you'll see that the rock is made of lots and lots of molecules, the molecules are made of atoms, the atoms are all moving around crazily and vibrating every which way," he explained. "If you could see that rock the way you see the traffic in Manhattan when you look out the window, you'd see that that rock is a whole lot more complicated in some ways than what's going on outside of the window."

Many topics discussed at the Physics of Everything events have touched on the broader implications of some of the challenges that scientists face, such as research results that do not support hypotheses. Eva Silverstein, PhD, explained the latter issue at What does the Future Hold for Physics: Is There a Limit to Human Knowledge? "I want to promote null results as scientifically interesting... As long as the theory motivating the experiment is well-defined, you learn something crucial from that." Vijay Balasubramanian, PhD, agreed: "The primary engine of scientific progression is stuff being shown [to be] wrong!"

While the panelists bring lively points and thought-provoking discussions to the events, the audience is also key to the success of these events. George Musser, PhD, Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a moderator of several Physics of Everything events, has high praise for the attendees: "From a speaker's point of view, what distinguishes these Academy events from other public events of the sort is really the quality of the questions in the Q&A, and then the discussion we have over at the crudités. It's fun getting that kind of feedback from people and that's what really makes it enjoyable for us."

Registration is open for the remaining Physics of Everything events; if you cannot attend in-person, you can also view via free Livestream.