This module examines the evolution of our present theoretical understanding of some basic aspects of the physical world around us. It explores the role of certain primitive concepts of science and how these key ideas have been used to construct a coherent ‘mental’ picture of the physical world.
The module aims to acquaint students from diverse backgrounds with some modes of scientific reasoning. It hopes to introduce students to the basic epistemology of science, and to some of the key concerns and methodologies of science. The idea is to examine certain, specific, physical laws as archetypal examples of ‘laws of nature’ and to explore the theme(s) set out in this module using the context of these laws.
The particular focus this semester will be on a well-established and ‘deterministic’ law of nature: the Law of Universal Gravity and how this led to Newton’s prediction of the motion of the planets.
The main pedagogical components of the module are:
- to examine the assumptions and primitive concepts that such laws rely on for their articulation and, especially, to consider the special role of mathematics in this process.
- to examine the sense in which such natural laws are held by science to ‘explain’ the physical world
- to understand, as a historical process, the gradual refinement or the evolution of scientific laws.
- to discuss the nature of ‘scientific revolutions’ and how these involve changes, sometimes radical, of paradigms through which scientists view the physical world
- to explore the complex relationship between theory and experiment as a means of establishing laws of nature.
The module will also question, on a higher level, the nature of 'scientific explanations': how these are extended over time and inevitably get modified by having to take into account new 'facts' provided by observation and experiment.
In sum, the aim of the course is to examine and in some sense, take apart, the nature of scientific explanations of the real (as opposed to an idealised) physical world.
The student should begin to appreciate that the actual practice of science dispenses with certainties, that doubt and skepticism are a permanent condition of science and in fact largely what propels it forward.
Apart from some understanding of the nature of science, and of how scientists think and the intricate process by which science progresses, the student should take away from such a module the confidence to be able to independently examine, assess and discriminate between alternatives; and, in general terms at least, be able to critically evaluate the logical and evidential basis of scientifically framed questions.