Physics | Analogy in Discovery in Physics
P700 | 3525 | Hofstadter

P700, Sect. No. 3525
Analogy in Discovery in Physics
10:10-11:25 TR, Swain West 103
Prof. Douglas Hofstadter
Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition

Physicists are aware that many a crucial idea in their discipline was
born out of some genius's intuitive hunch that some familiar idea in
physics could be transported into a novel arena, "tweaked" in various ways,
and thereby turned into a brand-new idea. For instance, the powerful and
abstract notion of isospin was spun off of the prior concept of spin;
likewise, the concept of phonons was sparked by the prior concept of
photons. The purpose of this seminar is to explore in depth the role of
this kind of non-rational, intuitive leap by analogy in the progress of

The seminar will be based on several "grand historical sweeps", each
one of which shows how some particular concept was repeatedly modified and
extended by subtle analogical leaps over the course of decades or even of
centuries, thus metamorphosing from something initially rather concrete and
visible to something highly abstract and invisible, something very real but
deeply hidden in the fabric of nature. For example, there is a coherent
sweep of analogies that leads from the humble gravitational potential to
the notion of bosons that mediate the electroweak interaction, while
another powerful sweep of analogical leaps carries one all the way from the
rather concrete notion of force to the extremely hidden notion of
relativistic quantum field.

The central point of the course is to bring into the open the highly
non-rational, intuitive nature of the mechanisms that clearly pervade
physicists' way of thinking, and yet that are seldom discussed explicitly
except in the most informal and casual manner.

To get the ball rolling, I will of course present a large number of my
favorite intraphysics analogies, and will analyze them to the extent that I
am capable, but after a certain point, students too will investigate
analogies of their choice and will make presentations to the group. A
short paper (ten pages or so) on some favorite analogy, or possibly on a
cluster of related analogies, or even on some "grand historical sweep" of
analogies, will be required of all participants. It is expected that all
participants will be highly versed in physics (i.e., having at least a B.S.
in the subject, with possible exceptions of people who have studied a great
deal of physics without getting a formal degree in it).

Sin-Itiro Tomonaga: "The Story of Spin" (University of Chicago Press)
Abraham Pais: "Inward Bound" (Oxford University Press)
Emilio Segrč: "From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves" (Freeman)
Emilio Segrč: "From X-Rays to Quarks" (Freeman)
E. van der Waerden: "Sources of Quantum Mechanics" (Dover)