Fundamental Physics and the Nature of Reality

This is a ten-lecture course offered periodically by DACE (last in 2004-5, and also on the internet in session 2000-1). This page is a placeholder for that course, as well as being a resource for folk who have done the course in the past.

RoundaboutI have two, partly conflicting, aims in this course. The first is to give you a hint of what physics has to say about how Nature works, at its most fundamental level, which I hope to do by describing a number of areas of modern physics, concentrating on the picture they give us of the universe's workings. Although I will mention such exotica as black holes and superstrings, I will spend little time discussing them. Instead, I will concentrate on relativity and quantum mechanics, because these topics are, I believe, genuinely intelligible in outline without mathematics, and because they form a crucial part of the world-view of 20th-century physicists. This will shade into the second aim of the course, which is a more philosophical consideration of what it means to have a `picture' of reality, to what extent we can say that there is an independent reality out there, and on what grounds science can claim a privileged insight into this reality.

The notes for the course were distributed on paper at the course meetings, but are also available here for registered students on the course (in versions for printing double-sided, single-sided and reading on screen). You will need the password I announced in the meetings. I have no plans to make these notes generally available.

double single screen
Part 1: Introduction pdf pdf pdf
Part 2: Special and General Relativity [*] pdf pdf pdf
Part 3: Quantum Mechanics pdf pdf pdf
Part 4: Philosophy and Sociology of Science pdf pdf pdf
Conclusion pdf pdf pdf

I mentioned that I also have notes available for second-year Special Relativity (at and General Relativity (at You are welcome to these notes (the first has moderate maths, the second is rather advanced).

Images: I've scanned two of the (few) overheads I've used.

model of classical polarisation First, the model of classical polarisation (PNG, 373kB) shows the undulatory model which represents the classical picture of electromagnetic radiation (that is, light, radio waves and so on). This is the model which Maxwell's equations describe so successfully. This picture shows a pure monochromatic wave -- light in general would be composed of a jumble of waves of different wavelengths and orientations. In this model, the electric and magnetic fields oscillate in planes perpendicular to each other, and if we say that a wave is polarised, we mean that all the electric fields are aligned in one plane. When we pass such a wave through a polariser (such as a sheet of polaroid film), the polariser transmits the component of the incoming wave which is parallel to the polariser's preferred axis, and absorbs the other.

quarks diagram The other image (PNG, 479kB) is of the baryon octet and decaplet. In a broadly similar way to what Medeleev did with the periodic table, Murray Gell-Mann discovered that a suitable choice of parameters caused certain groups of particles to fall into rather symmetric patterns (this is almost certainly a caricature of the actual history of this development). The quantities Y and Q are the `hypercharge' (related to the `strangeness' of the particle) and the electric charge; the other quantum numbers I3 (`isospin') and U3 shown here are of more mathematical significance. The diagram shows on the right the eight baryons with spin 1/2 and positive `parity' (this group includes the proton and neutron), and on the left the ten with spin 3/2 and positive `parity'. The particles with the same hypercharge (for example the neutron and proton in the 1/2+ octet) in the have approximately the same mass, and the mass difference between rows is approximately the same in each diagram. The Omega-minus was unknown at the time Gell-Mann first produced this diagram, and from it he was able to predict the spin, parity, charge, strangeness and approximate mass of the new particle.

Derived talks

I gave a compressed version of parts of this course as part of Astronomy in the Third Millennium.

Another variant was a talk at a DACE day-course on Dark Energy organised by Martin Hendry in November 2003. There wasn't a handout for that, but my overheads are available as a PDF file

I gave a variant of this course -- radically compressed into two hours -- at the Borders Astronomy Club in 2000, and these notes are available here as PDF files, in three versions, for printing out double-sided or single-sided, or for reading on-screen. Let me know if you have any problems with the files.

Changes to this page

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Revision 1.11  2005/08/14 16:13:11  norman
Remove editing junk

Revision 1.10  2005/08/14 16:07:19  norman
Change the tense of the page, to refer to it in the past.

Revision 1.9  2004/12/13 20:18:40  norman
Add links to conclusions document

Revision 1.8  2004/11/25 10:13:04  norman
Added links to part4 downloads

Revision 1.7  2004/11/22 11:16:12  norman
Added scans of polarisation and quarks overheads

Revision 1.6  2004/11/10 17:37:11  norman
Added part3 notes

Revision 1.5  2004/11/07 22:01:35  norman
Include a pointer to the updated part two notes.

Revision 1.4  2004/10/22 08:57:56  norman
Added a note about the rescheduled meeting, on Tuesday 16 November

$Date: 2005/08/14 16:13:11 $