The Quantum Moment:
Quantum Mechanics in Philosophy, Culture, and Life

PHI 382 / PHY 382 - Spring 2008

Prof. Robert P. Crease
Prof. Alfred Scharff Goldhaber

Physics P127 (note change in location)
W 5:20-8:10

Course Description

This course explores the implications and influence, real and alleged, of quantum mechanics on fields other than physics. Our title was inspired by an exhibition and book, entitled "The Newtonian Moment," that charted a 250-year period during which ripples from Newton's discoveries, especially in mechanics and gravity, radiated out first to a small school of specialists, and then in successively larger circles, eventually penetrating all niches of human life from art to commerce. It is now over 80 years since the inception of quantum mechanics, and 100 years since a crucial contribution by Einstein to its foundations, and it seems worthwhile to look at what kinds of ripples have come from a development in some ways much more startling and hard to swallow than Newton's work. What have been the reactions to quantum mechanics in worlds outside the physical sciences? How, if at all, have such reactions reflected back on what hard-core practitioners in this field do... and think about what they do?

Such questions will be at the focus of this course. How has quantum mechanics permeated culture to offer what seem to be significant new perspectives on the human condition? What does it mean, if anything, for philosophy, ethics, biology, and social behavior? We shall explore how quantum mechanics fits, or does not fit, with traditional models of science, and with more recent accounts such as social constructivism. We shall discuss some of the important debates at the founding of quantum mechanics, such as the Einstein-Bohr debate on the possibility of hidden variables, the Bohr-Heisenberg debate on the interpretation of complementarity, and the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics. We shall look into the "double- slit" experiment with single electrons, the "most beautiful experiment in science." We may also discuss such issues as nonlocality, hidden variables, new dimensions of the debate of free will versus determinism, scientific perception and measurement theory. Required and suggested readings include texts that claim to find a connection between quantum mechanics and Faulkner's novels, surrealist paintings, Christian thought, Eastern mysticism, and the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Richard Foreman. The course will not involve technical mathematics. The introduction to quantum mechanics provided by the instructors will be aimed at non-science students. Besides readings, the course will also involve plays including Copenhagen, films, and guest speakers.

One purpose of this course is to seek out appearances of quantum mechanics that are recent or unknown to us. Each student will be expected, every other week, to hunt down and bring in a reference to quantum mechanics in some context outside physics, and to say a few words about the source and context. Students will be expected to work on a final project, to be presented in class.


  • Jan. 30: Introduction

    The nature of physics and of philosophy, and of the challenges posed by quantum mechanics to each.

  • Feb. 6: The Pre-Quantum Picture

    The physics and philosophy of motion and mechanics in the Aristotelian world, and in the Newtonian world. Special emphasis on the Newtonian understanding of light and its behavior.

    Required reading:

  • I. B. Cohen, Birth of a New Physics, 1-184
  • Holton and Brush, Introduction to Concepts and Theories, pp. 31-37, 79-91
  • Feb. 13: The Quantum Idea: Philosophical Implications

    What have philosophers made of complementarity and quantum mechanics? Why has complementarity attracted mystics?

    Required reading:

  • Brush, "The Chimerical Cat: Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics in Historical Perspective." Social Studies of Science 10: 393-447
  • G. Holton, "The Roots of Complementarity"
  • P. Grim, ed., "Quantum Mysticism" section from Philosophy of Science and the Occult, 2nd ed.:
  • P. Grim, "Conflicting Notes from Einstein and Bohr;"
  • F. Capra, "The Unity of All Things;"
  • G. Zukav, "Einstein Doesn't Like It;"
  • Crease & Mann, "The Yogi and the Quantum;"
  • N. D. Mermin, "Quantum Mysteries for Anyone;"
  • M. Spector, "Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics"
  • M. Beller, "The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing?" Phys. Today, S 1998.
  • P. Anderson, "Thinking Big," Nature 29 Sept. 2005, p. 625
  • Suggested reading:

  • L. Wessels, "The 'EPR' Argument: A Post-Mortem," Phil. Studies 40 (1981): 3-30
  • Capek, The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics
  • Feb. 20: Laser Teaching Center Excursion

  • Feb. 27: The Crisis and the Quantum Idea

    The emergence of a crisis in understanding black-body radiation. How understanding light became an apparently insoluble problem in Newtonian terms. How Planck proposed the quantum idea, how it lay fallow for 5 years, how Einstein nurtured it. Its puzzles lie latent.

    Required reading:

  • Holton and Brush, Introduction to Concepts and Theories, pp. 427-44, 470-90
  • "A Hundred Years of Spectroscopy," BJHS 1:199-216
  • E. Segrè, From X-Rays to Quarks (on reserve), ch. 4, "Planck, Unwilling Revolutionary: The Idea of Quantization"
  • T. Kuhn, "Revisiting Planck," HSPS 14, 1984, 231-52
  • E. Garber, "Some Reactions to Planck's Law, 1900-1914," HPS 7:89-126

    Suggested reading:

  • T. Kuhn, Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912
  • Klein, Shimony, and Pinch, "Paradigm Lost?" ISIS 70, 429-40
  • Galison, "Kuhn and the Quantum Controversy" BJPS 13: 367-81
  • I. Miller, "On Einstein, Light Quanta, Radiation and Relativity in 1905," AJP 44 (1976): 912
  • V. Guillemin, The Story of Quantum Mechanics (on reserve)
  • Hendry, "The Development of Attitudes to the Wave-Particle Duality of Light and Quantum Theory," Annals of Science 37:59-79.
  • M. Klein, "No Firm Foundation: Einstein and the Early Quantum Theory" in Some Strangeness in the Proportion.
  • J. L. Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck and the Fortunes of German Science (on reserve)
  • Requirement: Title and 1-paragraph description of a tentative final project idea.

  • March 5: Quantum Mechanics

    The development of quantum mechanics: Heisenberg and Matrices, Schrödinger and waves, the Einstein-Bohr debate, the uncertainty principle. The puzzles become explicit.

    Required reading:

  • To Be Assigned
  • Holton & Brush, Introduction to Concepts and Theories, pp. 491-501
  • I. Miller, Imagery in Scientific Thought (on reserve), ch. 4, "Redefining Visualizability"
  • E. Segrè, From X-Rays to Quarks, ch. 8, "A True Quantum Mechanics At Last"
  • Suggested reading:

  • Atomic Theory 1870-1930: A Case Study of Paradigm Change (on reserve), USB PhD, 1982
  • J. Heilbron, "Bohr's First Theories of the Atom," Phys. Today 38 10, 1985, 28-36.
  • J. Heilbron, "Rutherford-Bohr Atom," AJP 49, 223-31.
  • Heilbron & Kuhn, "The Genesis of the Bohr Atom," HSPS 1:211-90
  • Einstein & Infeld, Evolution of Physics, 270-94
  • L. Wessels, "Erwin Schrödinger and the Descriptive Tradition," in Springs of Scientific Creativity.
  • Studies in the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, various essays;
  • L. Wessels, HSPS 10:311-40.
  • March 12: The Double-Slit Experiment

    The "most beautiful experiment in science" and the mystery it creates. Various ways that try to eradicate the mystery, and why they all fail.

    Required reading:

  • R. Crease, Prism and Pendulum, Chs. 6, 10
  • Feynman, Lectures on Physics, excerpts.
  • Suggested Reading:

  • N. Kipnis, History of the Principle of Interference of Light (on reserve)
  • Requirement: 1-page description of final project.

  • March 19: NO CLASS!!! SPRING VACATION!!!

  • March 26: The Copenhagen Interpretation

    The different ways to interpret the meaning of it all. Do we even need to? Why or why not?

    Required reading:

  • N. Bohr "Discussion with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics"
  • D. Lindley, Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science
  • Suggested reading:

  • H. Folse, The Philosophy of Niels Bohr
  • J. Faye, "The Influence of Harald Høffding's Philosophy on Niels Bohr's Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics," Danish Yearbook of Philosophy.
  • Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen, "Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Reality Be Considered Complete?" and reply by Bohr, in Toulmin, Physical Reality
  • April 2: Copenhagen: The Play

    Discussion of Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen.

    Required reading:

  • M. Frayn, Copenhagen
  • Requirement: First draft, or equivalent form for other type of presentation, of final project.

  • April 9: Quantum Mechanics in the Arts I

    Quantum mechanics in art, music, literature, religion, etc.

    Required readings:

  • R. McCormmach, Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist
  • Suggested readings:

  • J. Haas, "Complementarity and Christian Thought: An Assessment," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (1983): 145-51, 203-9.
  • R. Nadeau, Readings from the New Book on Nature: Physics and Metaphysics in the Modern Novel.
  • Virginia Williams, "Surrealism, Quantum Philosophy, and World War I," PhD diss, Duke, 1981.
  • S. Ryan, "Faulkner and Quantum Mechanics," Western Humanities Review 33 (1979), 329-39.
  • Honner, "Niels Bohr and the Mysticism of Nature," Zygon 17, 243-53.
  • Honner, "The Transcendental Philosophy of Niels Bohr, SHPS 13:1-29.
  • D. Harrison "What You See is What You Get!" AJP 47 (1979): 576-82;
  • "Teaching the Tao of Physics" AJP 47 (1979), 779-83.
  • R. Schlegel, "Quantum Physics and the Divine Postulate," Zygon 14 (1979): 163-5.
  • A. Hye, "Bertolt Brecht and Atomic Physics" Science/Technology and the Humanities 1 (1978): 157-70.
  • F. Falk, "Physics and the Theatre: Richard Foreman's Particle Theory," Educational Theatre Journal 29 (1977): 395-404.
  • April 16: Sociological Interpretations

    Social constructivism and its interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    Guest: Paul Forman

  • P. Forman, "Kausalitat, Anschaulichkeit, and Individualitat, or how Cultural Values Prescribed the Character and the Lessons Ascribed to Quantum Mechanics," in Society and Knowledge, ed. N. Stehr and V. Meja.
  • P. Forman, "Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment," HSPS 3:1-115.
  • Kraft and Kroes, "Adaptation of Scientific Knowledge to an Intellectual Environment. Paul Forman's 'Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory,' Analysis and Criticism," Centaurus 27:76-79.
  • T. Pinch, "What Does a Proof Do if It Does Not Prove? A Study of the Social Conditions and Metaphysical Divisions Leading to David Bohm and John von Neumann Failing to Communicate in Quantum Physics," Social Production of Scientific Knowledge, 171-215.
  • Suggested readings:

  • B. Harvey, "The Effects of Social Context on the Process of Scientific Investigation: Experimental Tests of Quantum Mechanics," Social Process of Scientific Investigation (1981) 139-63.
  • J. Hendry, "Weimar Culture and Quantum Causality," HS 18 (1980), 155-80.
  • April 23: Quantum Mechanics in the Arts II

    Continuation of the April 9 theme.

  • April 30: Presentations of Student Projects I

    All students have to work on a project, either individually or in collaboration. This project cannot be on one of the required readings (it may involve a suggested reading), and must explore some implication of quantum mechanics for philosophy, culture, or life. A starting point can be found in Brush's The History of Modern Science, essentially an extensive bibliography, though we hope students will find other sources. A project may consist of a summary and evaluation of a reading on the subject that we have not discussed. Or it may consist of discovering other kinds of influences of quantum mechanics: on literature or art, for instance. Or it may consist of producing an illustration of quantum mechanical principles in some arena other than physics -- say, a musical analogue of the double- slit experiment in which discernable rhythms eventually emerge out of randomly produced notes. Or it may consist of works -- music, fiction -- inspired by your perceptions of the quantum concept.

    We encourage you to start working on the project as early as possible. Its form will be determined by agreement between student and instructors. You must provide the instructors with a title and 1- paragraph description by February 27, a 1-page description by March 12, a first draft (or appropriate form for non-written work) by April 2, leaving room for further development before in-class presentations on April 30 and May 7. You are encouraged to discuss your thoughts with the instructors at all stages

  • May 7: Presentations of Student Projects II

    Continuation of April 30.

  • Books

    The required articles will be handed out, or left in either the Philosophy or Physics offices for students to copy. The following books are to be purchased:

  • I. B. Cohen, The Birth of a New Physics
  • M. Frayn, Copenhagen
  • D. Lindley, Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science
  • R. McCormmach, Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist
  • Course Structure

    For most classes, the instructors -- or a guest speaker -- will speak for the first half, followed by a break for dinner, and on our return students will present and discuss material. The material discussed by the students may be part of the assigned readings for that week, a suggested reading for that week, or another reading suggested by the student that has been approved by the instructors.


    You are required to attend all classes, and to participate in the discussions. Frequent discussions, attention to notices on the course website, and postings through Blackboard may be required. You must complete the readings on time, by the date listed on the syllabus. You are responsible for making up any work missed for any reason. Grading is based on class participation, class presentation, and the course project.

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    Access class information on-line at: If you used Blackboard in the Fall, your login information is unchanged. If you've never used Blackboard, your initial password is your SOLAR ID# and your username is your SBU (sparky) username, generally your first initial and the first 7 letters of your last name. For help or more information see: For problems logging in, go to the helpdesk in the Main Library SINC Site or the Union SINC Site, or call 631-632-9602 or e-mail


    Students will be graded 50% on their project (including descriptions, presentation, and final submitted form), and 50% on class participation, including seminar presentations and discovered references to quantum mechanics "in the wild."