What is the course about?
Time is central to physics but does not itself appear to be an object that can be independently observed by empirical methods: all of our observations occur in time. Since antiquity it has been clear that this poses philosophical problems that must be resolved – or at least grappled with – if we are to understand the physical world at all.
This course tells the story of the interplay of philosophy, geometry and science from 1600 to the early twentieth century. Beginning with inheritances from the ancient world, we look at the triumph of analytic geometry and the path it opened for the calculus of Newton and Leibniz, a set of mathematical procedures that seems capable of grasping the essence of temporal change. In the process we see how time, despite occupying a central role in physics, was a contested subject whose reality and objectivity have always been in question.
We will then see how Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity gave rise to new and startling questions, raising doubts about the very existence of a temporal “present”. This has led some later physicists, such as Carlo Rovelli, to declare that time does not exist at all.
What will we cover?
• Ancient Mediterranean theories about time and change
• The synthetic and analytic approaches to geometry
• The emergence of calculus and some simple methods of calculating with rates of change.
• The different roles played by time in Galilean, Newtonian and Einsteinian physics.
• Skepticism about the reality of time.
What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...
• Explain Zeno’s paradoxes and Aristotle’s solution to them
• Describe some aspects of synthetic and analytic geometry, including early attempts to find the areas of curved shapes.
• Describe the role of infinitesimals in early forms of calculus and the philosophical controversies they aroused.
• Perform calculus (differentiation and integration) using seventeenth-century methods.
• Explain the conflict between Galilean relativity and Newton’s notion of absolute time.
• Describe the role of spacetime in Einstein’s Special Relativity, and in particular the problem it poses for realism about the present.
• Outline sceptical arguments against the reality of time and take a position in that debate.
What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?
This is an intermediate course. It assumes no specific prior knowledge but is not suitable for a first encounter with philosophy. You do not need any background in physics or maths to follow this course.
How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?
These classes use a mixture of lecture, structured discussion-based activities and problem-solving in small groups.
Optional online resources will be suggested if you want to consolidate or extend the material outside class.
Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?
No equipment will be required besides pen and paper or other means for taking notes. Access to the internet is advantageous but not required.
When I've finished, what course can I do next?
This course is an ideal complement to HP 101 Phenomenology of Time, which is offered in Summer term in the same time-slot.
General information and advice on courses at City Lit is available from the Student Centre and Library on Monday to Friday from 12:00 – 19:00.
See the course guide for term dates and further details