CONS ZG552: Foundations of Physics

The prerequisite for this course is either a major in physics, or a major that included college level courses in mathematics and physics. Enrollment needs instructor's permission.

This course focuses on critically studying and learning about foundational or open problems in physics.

Instructors: Prof. C.S. Unnikrishnan, PhD; Prof. R. Gomatam, PhD and Prof. P. K. Joshi, PhD

Course Content: 

1: Introductory remarks

a) Physics as natural science 
b) Reality and the representation of reality: The role of theories 
c) Scientific method as practiced in physics and criteria for valid theories (thesis topic)
d) The role of philosophy of physics and the near-independence of physics from its philosophy; Role of reality, ontology and consistency in physical theories 
e) Methodology in physical sciences 
f) Speculations and reasonable guesses on the role of physics studies in consciousness studies 
g) What constitutes 'Foundations of Physics'?

2 & 3: Foundations of Dynamics:

a) Early observational basis: Motion, Relativity, Astronomy 
b) Emergence of 'Laws of Motion': Before Newton 
c) Emergence of constraining principles and Galilean Relativity 
d) Space and Time: Absolute or relative? (thesis topic)
e) Reference Frames and the Observer: Physical and Philosophical issues.
f) Fundamental physical quantities (position, momentum, energy and force) and Newtonian Dynamics 
g) Role of experiments 
h) Role of thought experiments and their near-irrelevance as 'truth verifiers'. Philosophical critique to thought experiments in the scientific method. )thesis topic)

4: Forces of dynamics

a) Forces and Pseudo-forces, Newton's 'bucket and water' experiment 
b) Space, Time and Matter: Their inter-relations in physics and philosophy. 
c) Mach's critique of Newton and Mach's speculation.
d) Mach vs. Newton from the point of view of realism and materialism. (thesis topic)

5: Forces and nature and Laws of forces

a) Gravity: Observations by Galileo and Newton 
b) Electromagnetism, its observational basis and its fundamental features (Faraday, Ampere, Weber, Maxwell, Lorentz and Hertz).
c) The relation between light and electricity.

6: 'Sources' and 'Fields' in physics

a) Electromagnetic fields and the elimination of action at a distance 
b) Gravity as a field 
c) Comparison of gravity and electromagnetism 
d) On the degrees of relative realities of matter and fields and philosophical issues arising. 
(thesis topic)

7: The physics of Light: Waves in Physics

a) From Fields to Waves 
b) Light as waves: properties of waves, 'Phase' 
c) Fermat's principle and Huygens's principle and applications 
d) Interference 
e) Particle or wave? How is it decided? Is it decidable? 
f) Meaning of matter in modern physics.

8: Particle dynamics and 'Action' principles

a) Focus on 'action', Action and Phase, action as a 'wave' property. 
b) Hamilton-Jacobi description of particle dynamics 
c) Wave-particle duality in pre-20th century physics 
d) Action principle and teleological principles in physics. (thesis topic)
e) Is there purpose in dynamics? (thesis topic)

9: Physics/dynamics of many particles

a) Dynamics, configuration and phase spaces 
b) Foundations of thermodynamics: Temperature and Entropy 
c) Statistical Mechanics and Boltzmann's insight 
d) Second law of thermodynamics and evolution of entropy
e) Atomicism.
f) Philosophical and historical aspects in support of atomicism, and arguments against it. 
(thesis topic)

10: Randomness and particle dynamics

a) Random motion, Random walk and Brownian motion 
b) Atomicity, Markov process etc. 
c) Diffusion 
d) The arrow of time in the multi-particle world.
e) Physical and subjective basis for arrows of time? How many are there? 
f) Life and the arrows of time.
g) Arrows of time: A careful comparison (thesis topic).

11: Mathematical Review:

a) Comparison of wave equations and Diffusion equation, linearity, superposition, vector space, abstract spaces in physics, Fourier expansion, Fourier transform etc.
b) Mathematics as a language.
c) Mathematics as more than a language: the debate.
d) The role of mathematics in physics: essential and inessential aspects.

12: Conservation Laws, Invariances and Dynamics

a) Conservation Laws in Physics; conservation laws as constraints 
b) Conservation laws and relation to symmetries 
c) Global and Local symmetries 
d) Noether's theorem on symmetries and conservation laws: examples 
e) Broken symmetries 
f) Why symmetries? Why are conservation laws operative? Who dictates and what decides? Is there a further deconstruction possible? (thesis topic)

13: Relativity principle in Physics

a) The principle of relativity 
b) Relativity and Newton's law of motion 
c) Study of the propagation of light: velocity of waves 
d) Properties of waves: frequency, wavelength, phase... 
e) The Michelson-Morley experiment and consequences 
f) Need for modification of time and distance due to motion.
g) The issue of simultaneity. 
h) Philosophical consequences of modified concepts of time and space. (thesis topic)

14: Theories of Relativity

a) Ether, light and Lorentz-Poincare relativity 
b) Einstein amazing hypothesis and the special theory of relativity 
c) Theories of relativity and electromagnetism: open issues 
d) Lorentz invariance as a constraint on the laws of physics 
e) Some basic features of modern gravity theory: general relativity 
f) Gravity and space-time: How gravity is reduced to geometry.
g) Philosophical issues arising from the choice of geometry over the concept of force for describing gravity. 
h) How defendable is general relativity's realism and ontology? (thesis topic)
i) Gravity and our life: The interactions gross and subtle (from tides to GPS)

15: Emission and absorption of light

a) Light and thermodynamics 
b) Planck's law and consequences 
c) Quantization of emission and absorption of light: Photons 
d) Properties of photons and clue to modern physics.
e) Hypothesis and evidence in physics. When does one decide on plausible truth?

16: Atoms and Light

a) Synthesis of the theories of atomic matter and quantized light 
b) Atomic models and quantization principle 
c) Wave-particle duality 
d) Light as gas of particles: Bose's insight and Einstein's quantum theory of many particles of matter 
e) The perennial question: Wave or particle? What is 'waving'?

17: The Quantum theory of dynamics

a) Schrodinger equation and Heisenberg's matrices 
b) Features of the wave equation and of the wave of quantum theory 
c) Stationary states and the quantum phase 
d) Born's rule and gauge invariance 
e) Quantum theory and observations: first thoughts 
f) The meaning of the wavefunction.

18: Survey of the essential features of quantum mechanics

a) Superposition and Entanglement 
b) Uncertainty principle and uncertainty in measurements
c) Philosophical issue arising from the interpretation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. 
d) What is possible and what is not in the quantum world 
e) The superfluous complementarity principle

19: Unobservables in Physics

a) A survey of common unobservables in physics: space, time, fields, wavefunction... 
b) Relation between observables and unobservables (thesis topic)
c) Are unobservables essential and unavoidable in physics? What is philosopher's view on unobservables in physics?

20: Matter

a) Theories of matter and material particles
b) Brief history of materialist views of realism in physics and its collapse. 
c) Theories of interactions of material particles 
d) Dirac's theory, Antiparticles and Matter-Energy conversions 
e) Predictive power of physical theories on new types of matter.

21: Vacuum

a) Theories of vacuum 
b) Vacuum as an active entity in quantum physics 
c) Vacuum and light (the electromagnetic quantum vacuum) 
d) Physics and philosophy of vacuum. (thesis topic)

22: Quantum theory of many particles

a) Foundations of quantum field theory 
b) Spinning particles and their representation 
c) Bosons and Fermions and the spin-statistics connection 
d) Why only Bosons and Fermions? Is there a world in between?
e) Ontological aspects of intrinsic spin of fundamental particles. (thesis topic)

23: Quantum theory of finite number of states

a) Quantum theory of two states 
b) Superposition, entanglement and Qbits 
c) Coupled quantum systems, Tunneling, and Josephson effects 
d) The nature and meaning of quantum superposition. (thesis topic)

24: Macroscopic quantum mechanics

a) Schrodinger's insight, his quantum cat and entanglement 
b) Schrodinger's cat: Physics, Myth and Philosophy. (thesis topic)
c) Superfluidity, Superconductivity, SQUID 
d) How big can 'quanta' be?

25: Quantum theory of Measurement

a) Speculations on the physical processes during measurement 
b) Collapse, Many-worlds and other possibilities 
c) Entanglement and measurement issues 
d) Modeling QM using a classical statistical theory: Hidden variable and Bell's inequalities 
e) Experimental tests and consequences 
f) Physics and philosophical issues of nonlocality in physics. (thesis topic)
g) Reality in quantum theory. (thesis topic)

26: Quantum theory and information theory

a) Information, its representation, storage and retrieval 
b) Computation: classical and quantum 
c) Quantum information, quantum entropy and related aspects 
d) Information and living systems 
e) Information loss, second law of thermodynamics etc.
f) Matter and Information? Which is primary? (thesis topic)

27: Gravity and its wider reach in Physics

a) More on Gravity as a modification of space and time, and Gravity as a 'medium'. 
b) Extreme gravity and black holes 
c) Quantum mechanics, gravity, black holes and speculations

28: Matter and fields beyond the solar system: Cosmology

a) The need to consider matter that is far away: gravity and its potential 
b) Cosmology: Newton's and Einstein's 
c) Modern big-bang cosmology and fundamental problems 
d) Gravity and the laws of dynamics 
e) Cosmology as the physics of a single system outside the methodology of physics. (thesis topic)

29: Unification of interactions

a) Failed attempts on unified description of physical interactions 
b) Can there be a quantum theory for space and time as well? What can be quantized? Can we apply laws of physics to unobservable entities ? (thesis topic)

30: Mind and Matter

a) Mind as an active components of physical theory: role of the observer 
b) Observer and quantum theory 
c) Measurement apparatus, Mind and Quantum theory: classical vs. quantum (thesis topic)

31: Review of some open issues in the foundations of physics 
(supplementary lecture)

a) Re-examination of foundational postulates. (thesis topic)
b) The nature of vacuum, space and time (thesis topic).
c) The role of observer in physical phenomena and physical theory (thesis topic).
d) The relation between the matter in the universe and physics (thesis topic).
e) Realism and physical reality in modern physics (thesis topic).
f) Are there inconsistencies in the structure of today's physical theories (thesis topic).
g) Is physics lacking in philosophy at its foundations, or is philosophy irrelevant for new physics (thesis topic).