FAQ: Physics and Philosophy

Why Physics and Philosophy?

The two subjects are historically very closely linked: the name for the subject we now call physics was, until the nineteenth-century, natural philosophy and most theoretical physicists prior to the mid-twentieth-century were also philosophers. More recently, modern physics has been the source of several problems which are as much philosophical as they are scientific, the most important of which are the paradoxes of quantum mechanics and the nature of space and time. This course gives you a unique chance to study these topics from both a physical and a philosophical point of view.

What aspects of philosophy are covered by the course?

In the first year, the course is roughly half formal logic (an important tool for much of philosophy), one quarter general topics in philosophy (such as knowledge, scepticism, and the mind-body problem) and one quarter philosophy of physics (mostly questions about the nature of space and time).

In the second and third year your time is divided roughly equally between core topics in philosophy (especially epistemology and metaphysics), philosophical questions in science generally (what kind of endeavour is science? Does it tell us objective truths about the world? How do we understand changes in theories?) and philosophical issues thrown up by physics, in particular by special relativity and quantum theory. There is also the possibility of doing an elective option in the 3rd year, which can be chosen from a very wide range of topics.

In the 4th year, almost any philosophical topic can be studied; in this year there is also the option of writing a thesis, and of studying more advanced topics in the philosophy of physics.

I'm unsure whether to apply for P&P or Physics

If you apply for Physics and Philosophy, and if you are invited to interview, you will be asked if you would consider a place for Physics if you are not made an offer for Physics and Philosophy.

Is the course a 50/50 split between Physics and Philosophy?

In common with many joint courses it's probably better to think of each subject taking two-thirds of your time than half! But the intention is that over the first three years the workload from the two halves is fairly equal (more physics over the first two years, more philosophy in third year). The final year has a wide range of different divisions of your time from all physics to all philosophy.

What physics does the course leave out?

The course includes all the important physical theories, such as classical mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics, but excludes more applied subjects such as electronics and optics, and almost all the practical work.

So do we learn no practical physics at all?

There are three days of compulsory laboratory work in the second year to give you some experience of making measurements and analysing data. You can opt to do a physics project in your fourth year.

Is it easier or harder to get a place than in Physics?

The admissions statistics suggest that it is harder (around 6 applicants per place in P&P compared to 4 per place for physics in 2008). But this is probably misleading: it seems that some applicants for P&P are much less well prepared in physics and maths, and these stand very little chance of admission to either course. If your physics and maths are good enough then your chances of getting in are pretty similar.

Can I apply if I have never studied Philosophy?

Yes: few applicants have had the opportunity to take Philosophy at A-level; indeed when the course first started there were no A-levels in philosophy. The only essential subjects are Physics and Mathematics. We expect to teach you philosophy from scratch; the skills you need to be a good philosopher are mostly clear, logical thinking and the ability to follow an argument. This is something that you can learn and demonstrate through any choice of additional A-levels.

Is the admissions process the same as for Physics?

Very similar. You will have to take the same aptitude test, and if short-listed will be interviewed on the same days as the physics applicants. You will be assigned interviews in your first choice College (or another College if you have been re-allocated to make numbers more equal), and in a second College, just as for the physicists. As well as physics interviews, you will also be interviewed by a philosophy tutor in one or more Colleges. As of January 2010, candidates for Physics and Philosophy are no longer required to submit written work. For full details please see our admissions procedures.

Which College should I apply to?

Some general advice on choosing a College is given in our Admissions FAQ, but there are additional considerations in the case of Physics and Philosophy.

Applications for Physics and Philosophy are accepted by most Colleges (see the official list for details), but some Colleges allocate places for P&P every year: these either have philosophy tutors with particular expertise in the philosophy of physics (Balliol, Brasenose, Oriel, Somerville, and University
College) or have a long-term connection with the subject (Exeter, New College, St Edmund Hall and St Hilda’s).