You’ve probably heard that it’s important to read around your subject: that it’ll help with your personal statement, your interviews, and apparently everything under the sun. Of course, this is easier said than done. It can be difficult to know where to start, especially when many of the texts are abstruse and complex, as with both physics and philosophy.
Luckily for you, we have a great guide to getting started with reading around physics. You can also read around philosophy independently of physics. Why not take a look at our list of introductory philosophy books to get your teeth into, such as Descartes’ Meditations, and Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy?
However, it’s also important to think about the links between the two subjects. Physics and philosophy have always been connected, from the days of Ancient Greece and Aristotle’s Physics, to the heady theorising of the twentieth century. To investigate how they feed off each other, here are a few physics and philosophy books recommended by current Oxford Physics and Philosophy undergraduates.
Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
This is a landmark text about the history of science, written by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. It revolutionised the way that both physicists and philosophers view and approach science and introduced the term ‘paradigm shift’, which is now fully integrated into everyday speech. It explores how science has developed over time and explores many of the central discoveries through a philosophical lens.
If you don’t have the time to read the whole text, it’s worth reading a summary, because it contains ideas that are still important in both physics and philosophy today.
Becker: What is Real?
This is a historical and philosophical discussion of a number of influential approaches to understanding quantum mechanics. The book is highly opinionated in the sense that it criticises commonly-held ideas about quantum mechanics, but it attempts to provide reasons for its criticisms and gives an even-handed overview of other positions without favouring one. It’s a great way to get an insight into the types of debate that quantum mechanics has inspired since its creation.
Albert: Time and Chance
An introduction to the problem of the arrow of time. The ‘arrow of time’ refers to the fact that some physical processes can be reversed and others can’t. For instance, a cake can be dropped and picked up again, but it can’t be burned and then unburned—burning is irreversible. The problem is that the interactions between particles that make up the cake and the air around it aren’t irreversible, at least not in the same way, and burning is merely a particular rearrangement of those particles, so how do we explain the fact we can’t unburn the cake? Albert discusses the relationship of this problem to thermodynamics and probability and attempts to describe a solution.
If you particularly enjoyed any of these books, it would be a good idea to mention them on your personal statement. For guidance on how to integrate your wider reading into your personal statement, check out our guide to Physics and Philosophy personal statements, and our guide to Maths and Philosophy personal statements, since it’s a very similar degree.