October 12, 2021

David Wallace

Harvard Book Store, the Harvard University Division of Science, and the Harvard Library welcome DAVID WALLACE—The Mellon Chair in Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh—for a discussion of his latest book, Philosophy of Physics: A Very Short Introduction. He will be joined in conversation by JACOB BARANDES, Co-Director of Graduate Studies for Physics at Harvard University.


Philosophy of physics is concerned with the deepest theories of modern physics—notably quantum theory, our theories of space, time and symmetry, and thermal physics—and their strange, even bizarre conceptual implications. A deeper understanding of these theories helps both physics, through pointing the way to new theories and new applications, and philosophy, through seeing how our worldview has to change in the light of what we learn from physics.

This Very Short Introduction explores the core topics in philosophy of physics through three key themes. The first—the nature of space, time, and motion—begins by considering the philosophical puzzles that led Isaac Newton to propose the existence of absolute space, and then discusses how those puzzles change—but do not disappear—in the context of the revolutions in our understanding of space and time that came first from special, and then from general, relativity. The second—the emergence of irreversible behavior in statistical mechanics—considers how the microscopic laws of physics, which know of no distinction between past and future, can be compatible with the melting of ice, the cooling of coffee, the passing of youth, and all the other ways in which the large-scale world distinguishes past from future. The last section discusses quantum theory—the foundation of most of modern physics, yet mysterious to this day. It explains just why quantum theory is so difficult to make sense of, how we might nonetheless attempt to do it, and why the question has been highly relevant to the development of physics, and continues to be so.

About Author(s)

David Wallace is the Mellon Chair in Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, and has joint affiliations with the department of Philosophy and the department of History and Philosophy of Science at Pittsburgh. He has previously taught at Oxford University and University of Southern California. He has worked on many areas of philosophy of physics, including statistical mechanics, symmetry, quantum field theory, and quantum gravity, but he is best known for his work on the Everett (many-worlds) interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Jacob Barandes is a theoretical physicist and philosopher of science at Harvard University. He did his undergraduate work at Columbia University in physics and mathematics, and then completed his PhD in theoretical physics at Harvard. Dr. Barandes currently serves as Lecturer and Co-Director of Graduate Studies for the physics PhD program at Harvard, where he teaches courses on the fundamentals of theoretical physics, classical electromagnetism, general relativity, and the history and philosophy of quantum mechanics. He is also a Faculty Affiliate of the Harvard Black Hole Initiative. His research publications span the foundations of quantum theory, philosophy of science, and quantum field theory. Dr. Barandes also organizes an international workshop series on physics and philosophy.