Books about interpretation and philosophy of physics

In summary: A related question is whether the theory of quantum Mechanics, considered as a whole, is consistent, which means that the various predictions of the theory are all true at the same time. This was originally answered in the affirmative, but more recent work suggests that the answer may be no. There are various theories vying to explain this inconsistency, but the philosophical debate centers on whether it should be considered as a flaw or as a feature of the theory.In summary, the branch of philosophy called "physics" is concerned with the interpretation of physical theories, and the related philosophical questions of whether these theories are consistent and what they mean for our understanding of the universe.
  • #1
rnielsen25
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I'm studying physics with math as a minor and I'm currently at 4th semester. Don't get me wrong, I love studying physics. But I'm starting to feel that something is missing. Most of my courses are really focused on learning the formalism and technical methods, so we are able to solve different type of exercises. That is fun and I like doing it.

But I'm also very curious, and love to focus on truly understanding the theories, where they come from, and what they mean. So I would like to spend more time on "the bigger picture".
What I mean is: I would like to read a bit more about the interpretation of the theories, and what they mean for our understanding of the universe. I guess this tends towards some branch of philosophy.

So what books would you recommend about the philosophical side of physics?
I would like to delve more into the interpretation and history of quantum mechanics. But also into this branch of philosophy in general. And last question. What would you call this branch of philosophy? Philosophy of science?
 
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  • #2
I would rather read about the history than about philosophy of physics, because the former topic is very interesting and important to understand how the polished picture we learn in nowadays physics lectures came about, while the latter is rather confusing. Concerning the history of quantum mechanics the most comprehensive work is the 6-volume opus

J. Mehra, H. Rechenberg, The Historical Development of Quantum Theory, Springer
 
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  • #3
Nicklas said:
So what books would you recommend about the philosophical side of physics?
Some of these books by Max Jammer might be of interest. But the two books on quantum mechanics are somewhat dated and don't cover recent developments in the interpretation of QM.

Edit: This and this by Tim Maudlin are much more recent and look interesting. But I haven't read them.
Maudlin also has a number of videos on philosophy of physics.
 
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  • #4
Nicklas said:
What I mean is: I would like to read a bit more about the interpretation of the theories, and what they mean for our understanding of the universe. I guess this tends towards some branch of philosophy.

Yes, it's a very important branch of philosophy called "physics".

Nicklas said:
I would like to delve more into the interpretation and history of quantum mechanics.

The most important problem in the interpretation of quantum mechanics is the measurement problem. Landau and Lifshitz state "Quantum mechanics occupies a very unusual place among physical theories: It contains classical mechanics as a limiting case, yet at the same time it requires this limiting case for its own formulation."
Bell, Against 'Measurement'
Laloe, Do we really understand quantum mechanics?
Rohrlich & Aharonov, Quantum Paradoxes: Quantum Theory for the Perplexed
Wallace, The Measurement Problem: State of Play

In the occasional comment here and there in the "non-interpretational" literature, you can also see how the measurement problem interacts with our understanding of how quantum mechanics explains the universe. For example, Mukhanov's Physical Foundations of Cosmology explains how quantum fluctuations could seed the large-scale structure of the universe, and then comments (p348):
"How do quantum fluctuations become classical? When we look at the sky we see the galaxies in certain positions. If these galaxies originated from initial quantum fluctuations, a natural question arises: how does a galaxy, e.g. Andromeda, find itself at a particular place if the initial vacuum state was translational-invariant with no preferred position in space? Quantum mechanical unitary evolution does not destroy translational invariance and hence the answer to this question must lie in the transition from quantum fluctuations to classical inhomogeneities. Decoherence is a necessary condition for the emergence of classical inhomogeneities and can easily be justified for amplified cosmological perturbations. However, decoherence is not sufficient to explain the breaking of translational invariance. It can be shown that as a result of unitary evolution we obtain a state which is a superposition of many macroscopically different states, each corresponding to a particular realization of galaxy distribution. Most of these realizations have the same statistical properties. Such a state is a close cosmic analog of the “Schroedinger cat.” Therefore, to pick an observed macroscopic state from the superposition we have to appeal either to Bohr’s reduction postulate or to Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. The first possibility does not look convincing in the cosmological context. The reader who would like to pursue this issue can consult the corresponding references in “Bibliography” (Everett, 1957; De Witt and Graham, 1973)."
 
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  • #5
You see, what I mean by "utmost confusing" concerning the "philosophy of physics".

What a measurement is, is not defined by philosophers (not even by theoretical or mathematical physicists) but by the physicists in their labs. Theories describe as good as possible according to contemporary knowledge what's observed with such measurements, tracing it back to fundamental general laws (which of course are also deduced from real-world observations rather than philosophical speculations).
 
  • #6
As @vanhees71 said studying Historical Texts is very much useful, if you see the original Principia (Newton's work) you will find that proofs are very much geometrical and rigorous. The reason for that is people at that time believed less on Mathematics and more on everyday experiments (if you see the propositions of Archimedes you will find that they are stated very much weird in today's context)

You should have a look here.
 
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  • #7
It's also amazing, how little we can understand Newton's Principia today though having studied classical mechanics from day 1 of learning physics. Trying to study Newton's Principia made me very thankful in view of the great work of Euler and even more Heaviside and Gibbs having introduced tensor calculus to the language of physics, making everything so much simpler than in the original Principia. Nevertheless it's also very interesting to study the original, because it provides a lot of geometrical insights which are not so explicit in the modern language of vector and tensor calculus.
 
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  • #8
vanhees71 said:
What a measurement is, is not defined by philosophers (not even by theoretical or mathematical physicists) but by the physicists in their labs.
But wouldn't you like to have a better understanding of "what measurement is" from the point of view of theoretical physics? Or do you think that theoretical physics should not deal with such questions at all?

Anyway, whatever your answer is, for @Nicklas and others those who think that such questions are relevant, there is a lot of literature. I particularly like Laloe mentioned by @atyy . I would add my own contribution to this literature
http://de.arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0609163
and my presentations in
https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/reading-materials-on-quantum-foundations.963543/#post-6270768
 
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  • #9
My point is that what measurement is, is defined by the apparati constructed by the experimentalists in their lab. Of course, their functioning is described by the physical theories we have at hand now. Otherwise they couldn't be constructed in the first place. Physics is always and interplay between experiment and theory.
 
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Related to Books about interpretation and philosophy of physics

1. What is the importance of interpretation and philosophy of physics?

The interpretation and philosophy of physics provide a deeper understanding of the fundamental principles and concepts in physics. It helps us to critically analyze and evaluate the implications of scientific theories and their applications in the real world.

2. What are some popular books about interpretation and philosophy of physics?

Some popular books in this field are "The Fabric of Reality" by David Deutsch, "The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene, and "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn.

3. How do interpretation and philosophy of physics differ from traditional physics?

While traditional physics focuses on the mathematical and experimental aspects of the discipline, interpretation and philosophy of physics delve into the underlying assumptions, implications, and limitations of scientific theories.

4. Can anyone understand books about interpretation and philosophy of physics?

Yes, anyone with a basic understanding of physics and a curiosity for the philosophical aspects of the subject can understand these books. However, some concepts may require a deeper understanding of physics and philosophy.

5. How can studying interpretation and philosophy of physics benefit a scientist?

Studying interpretation and philosophy of physics can help a scientist to think critically and creatively, question established theories, and explore new ideas. It can also provide a broader perspective on the implications and applications of scientific theories.

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