Cognitive Science | The Mind and the Atom
Q700 | 11079 | D. Hofstadter

Course Announcement Spring 2009

The Mind and the Atom

Professor Douglas Hofstadter

Cognitive Science Q700-11079
History & Philosophy of Science HPSC-X 521-15576

3 credit hours
Tuesday & Thursday 2:30–3:45 p.m.
Jordan Hall A107

Course titles have to be short and pithy ¬— otherwise I
would have called this cognitive-science/history & philosophy of
science seminar something like “The Human Mind in Search of the
Elusive Atom” or perhaps “Mind, Atom, Mystery, Insight”.  In any
case, the idea of this course is to talk about the tumultuous events
of the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first third of
the twentieth century, in which the ancient and vague philosophical
concept of the atom slowly emerged out of an incredibly thick fog
and became increasingly precise and scientific, thanks to the
incredibly flexible and daring minds of a few physicists, among whom
some of the most central figures were James Clerk Maxwell, Ludwig
Boltzmann, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, Niels
Bohr, Louis de Broglie, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Max
Born, P. A. M. Dirac, and Wolfgang Pauli.  (There are of course many
more; this short list is far from exhaustive.)
The purpose of the course is not merely to chart the
intellectual history of the atom, although that's certainly a major
part of it, but to attempt to “get into the head” of each of the
major players and to see how the fog looked from their personal
perspective at their unique moment in history and geography.  The
point is that there are two intertwined but very different and
equally fascinating intellectual stories involved here.  Firstly,
there is the story of the purely physical findings of that era,
which are truly magical and mysterious, but secondly, no less
magical and mysterious are the amazing mental machinations by which
highly limited human beings somehow managed to imagine the
unimaginable, to conceive the inconceivable, to converge slowly on
right ideas by intuitively using cues borrowed from a pile of wildly
wrong or only slightly right ideas, making analogy after analogy,
irrationally blending incompatible ideas left and right, constantly
flailing about in the fog, boldly positing self-contradictory ideas,
and somehow making collective headway nonetheless.
In short, the physical secrets uncovered in those eighty or
so years — most especially from 1900 to 1930 — constitute one of the
most magnificent collective accomplishments of humanity.  The
picture of the atom that emerged back then remains today one of our
most amazing and mysterious triumphs — mysterious because no one
really can understand what went on in the minds of those pioneers —
it's all too shrouded in a different kind of fog, the fog that seems
always to surround acts of true genius. Nonetheless, we shall do our
best to at least speculate how certain ideas came to certain key
figures, and how they had the audacity to boldly overlook all the
internal contradictions that riddled their guesses, and were somehow
able to move forward despite the nonsense they were blatantly
espousing.  This was the period, after all, in which the notion that
any proposed new law of physics must necessarily seem utterly crazy
in order to have the slightest chance of being right became a
standard idea, which today has become nearly a cliché.
This seminar will not presume a deep knowledge of physics on
the part of students, but it would of course help to have taken at
least a year’s worth of physics in college or high school.
(Calculus will not be used or needed.) The course will presume, on
the other hand, a deep interest in the building blocks of the
universe and simultaneously a deep interest in how the human mind
works.  Undergraduates will be warmly welcomed, as will graduate
students in various fields.  The overriding hope is to bring this
dramatic era truly to life, and this necessarily will involve
talking about a number of subtle ideas of physics but it won't
involve a great deal of intricate mathematics.  In summary, the
seminar’s central goal is to understand the fantastic and mysterious
mental leaps made by some of the greatest physicists of all time
during what was surely the most amazing period of physics of all
The texts we will use will include:
“The Atom in the History of Human Thought” by
Bernard Pullman
Oxford University Press, 1998.  ISBN 0-19-
“Niels Bohr’s Times” by Abraham Pais
Clarendon Press Oxford, 1991.  ISBN 0-19-
“Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel” by Banesh
The Viking Press, 1972.
“Inward Bound: Of matter and forces in the physical
world” by Abraham Pais
Oxford University Press, 1986,  ISBN 0-19-851997-4
Students are responsible for ordering their own books. The
books are available from various 	sources.  Additional hand-
outs will be made available.
The course will involve active student participation in the
sense that it will be a discussion between instructor and students,
with students strongly encouraged to ask questions and explore ideas
on their own.  There will be no exams, but at the end of the
semester, students will write a term paper of five to ten pages
exploring some specific aspect of the story of the gradual growth of
humanity’s collective understanding of the atom.  Typically, a paper
would focus on how a certain physicist’s thoughts evolved, or
perhaps on how two particular physicists influenced each other.

For additional information please contact Helga Keller
( / Tel. 812.855.6965)