Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy for Science Course III: Bodies in Motion - Classical Physics from Democritus to Einstein

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

Learn about philosophy the smart way with Philosophy courses at the University of Sydney.

Science is a ‘methodology’: a particular way of observing and explaining the world, of answering the one BIG question: “What must the world be like, that it produce the phenomena we observe?” This course is part three of a four part Philosophy for Science series which retraces the unfolding of the Scientific Revolution: the evolution of classical physics, chemistry and electromagnetism from Democritus and Aristotle to Maxwell and Einstein. It’s a monumental tale of achievement; and by the end of the nineteenth century, we had everything all figured out! Or so we thought…

This course is part of a series and should ideally be completed in sequence.

Course content

This philosophy of science course covers the following topics:

Introduction: The Philosophical Foundations of Science

  • The language and logic of Science
  • Observing patterns/regularities: from experience to understanding via description and relation
  • Modelling the world: observables, beables and behavables
  • The pursuit of the knowledge of 'causes'
  • The ‘minimum’ explanation: dynamism, heterogeneity, finitude, emergence, feedback and complexity

Ancient Notions of Matter and Energy, Space and Time

  • Early astronomy and cosmology
  • Anaximander: indifference and equipoise
  • Democritus: atom and void
  • Aristotle: categories, causation, laws of substance and motion
  • Ancient geometry plus modern dynamics: the "Clockwork Universe"

The Kinetic Theory of Matter

  • The Universe as bits of moving ‘stuff’: solid, liquid and gas
  • Brownian motion, heat, expansion/contraction, Boyle’s & Charles’s Laws, temperature and pressure, absolute zero
  • Diffusion, convection, conduction and radiation
  • The size of atoms
  • The physical and chemical separation of mixtures and compound substances
  • Atomic weight and number: the Periodic Table of elements
  • The molecular theory of chemistry.

The Kinetic Theory of Motion and Energy

  • The Principles of Conservation, Least Action, and: the presumptions of spatial uniformity and temporal constancy
  • Local reality vs Einstein’s ‘spooky’ action at a distance
  • Rates of change: velocity and acceleration
  • Aristotelian, Lagrangian and Newtonian mechanics
  • Inertia, mass and force; kinetic and potential energy
  • Attractive and repulsive forces, “fields”, friction and entropy

Thermodynamics and the Kinetic Theory of Gases

  • Maxwell’s statistical speed distribution of particles
  • Equipartition of energy; Boltzmann’s statistical mechanics
  • Where thermodynamics fails!

Circular and Harmonic Motion

  • The geometry and trigonometry of the circle
  • Circular and/or periodic motion/oscillation
  • The pendulum, weights on springs, Hooke’s Law
  • Waves in string and elastic media; standing waves


  • Electric attraction/repulsion, induction/resistance, and the notion of 'charge'
  • Electromagnetic waves: radiant ‘energy’ and light
  • Reflection, refraction, diffraction, and interference
  • Luminiferous “aether” and the Michelson-Morley experiment
  • The speed of light
  • Radiation and absorption spectra
  • The Doppler effect: blue-shifts and red-shifts


  • Frames of reference
  • Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity
  • The relativity of inertial mass
  • Length contraction and time dilation effects
  • Gravity and Einstein’s Equivalence Principle
  • The General Theory of Relativity
  • Supernova events and gravitational waves

Course outcomes

By the end of this philosophy of science course, participants should be familiar with:

  • The discrete, atomic and molecular structure of the physical world
  • The internal structure of atoms, and the organisation of the Periodic Table of Elements
  • The thermodynamics of solids, liquids and gases: of matter & energy, of masses & forces
  • Circular motion, harmonic oscillators, propagating and standing waves
  • The phenomenon of electromagnetism, and the properties of electromagnetic radiation – light
  • The nature of gravity, and Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity

Course suitable for

This course is Part three of a four part series, and much of its content relies on material covered in earlier parts. Before joining this course, therefore, students are urged to read at least some of the following, perhaps in the following order:

  • Ridley, B. K., Time Space and Things, 3rd Ed., Cambridge: Canto, 1995
  • Chalmers, Alan F., What Is This Thing Called Science?, 3rd Ed., Qld University Press, 2000
  • Ayer, A. J., Language, Truth and Logic, Penguin, 1990
  • Quinton, Anthony, The Nature of Things, Routledge, 1980
  • Gleick, James, Chaos, London: Macdonald & Co., 1987
  • Ayer, A. J., The Problem of Knowledge, Penguin, 1990

Course reading

  • Briggs, J. P. and Peat, F. D., Looking Glass Universe – The Emerging Science of Wholeness, London: Fontana, 1985
  • Calder, Nigel, Einstein’s Universe – The Layperson’s Guide, London: Penguin, 1990
  • Einstein, Albert, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, New York: Three Rivers Press, 1961
  • Feynman, Richard P., Six Easy Pieces, Basic Books, 2005
  • Gleick, James, Chaos, London: Macdonald & Co., 1987
  • Maddox, John, What Remains to be Discovered, London: Macmillan, 1998
  • Prigogine, Ilya; and Stengers, Isabelle, Order out of Chaos, London: Flamingo, 1988
  • Quinton, Anthony, The Nature of Things, Routledge, 1980
  • Resnick, Robert; and Halliday, David, Physics: Parts I and II, John Wiley & Sons, 1966


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Small class sizes
  • Free, expert advice
  • Student materials – yours to keep
  • Statement of completion

What others say.

  • ‘Philosophy for Science’ is the hardest I think all week, and I love it! The presenter is an excellent teacher with a genuine passion for discovering with us how science really works and where its next big idea might come from.

  • This course is a gift. We’re all busy making ends meet whilst maintaining relevance with technology and scientific advancements to better understand the world we live in. We spent 2 hours engaged, informed and challenged on all these fronts. The presenter is extraordinary and generous.

  • Excellent learning experience. Highly recommended to anyone who wants to get to know Quantum physics and wonder where to start from. Attend all four terms to get the most out of it!