Fall 2020

Thought Experiments in Physics

Listed in: First Year Seminar, as FYSE-116


Kannan Jagannathan (Section 01)


As a boy, Einstein famously imagined chasing a light beam on its way to a mirror and wondered if he would see his reflection in such an event.  Later in life, he was struck by the conflict such a hypothetical experiment would create with other parts of experience and physical theory.  This reflection (or its absence!) eventually led him to the formulation of the special theory of relativity.  The kind of reasoning Einstein undertook as a boy goes by the name gedankenexperiment or thought-experiment.  In fact before and after Einstein, different kinds of thought-experiments had been used by Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Schrodinger, and Feynman in their path-breaking contributions to physics. In this seminar we will read the arguments, in the form of thought experiments, that these authors and others employed to acquire insights into or advocate viewpoints about space, time, motion, gravity, and the nature of the microscopic world.  The discussion will be supplemented by more contemporary texts.  We will inquire into the peculiar status thought experiments have in producing knowledge or understanding.

This course does not require a background in science, but we will be reading sources that make use of some geometry and mathematical reasoning. In addition to the frequent writing exercises on the strengths and limitations of the particular arguments advanced by our sources, discussion and assignments will cover the necessary physics background. 

The course will be designed for in-person meetings and discussion, but because of the complications of the pandemic in fall 2020, there will be backup plans in place for partially or wholly remote discussions.

Fall semester.  Professor Jagannathan. 


Attention to Writing, Quantitative Reasoning, Science & Math for Non-majors


2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020