Tag Archives: physics


Past talk:
12:00 Friday, April 10                                                                                       WAG 316

Richard Fitzpatrick

“Ptolemy’s Almagest: Fact and Fiction”

The modern world inherited two major scientific treatises from the civilization of Ancient Greece. The first of these, the Elements of Euclid, is a large compendium of mathematical theorems concerning geometry, proportion, and number theory. The Elements is rightly regarded as the first, largely successful, attempt to construct an axiomatic system in mathematics, and is still held in high esteem within the scientific community. The second treatise, the Almagest of Claudius Ptolemy, is an attempt to find a simple geometric explanation for the apparent motions of the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets in the earth’s sky. The scientific reputation of the Almagest has not fared as well as that of Euclid’s Elements. Nowadays, it is a commonly held belief, even amongst scientists, that Ptolemy’s mistaken adherence to the tenets of Aristotelian philosophy—in particular, the immovability of the earth, and the necessity for heavenly bodies to move uniformly in circles—led him to construct an overcomplicated, unwieldy, and faintly ridiculous model of planetary motion. The aim of this talk is to re-examine the scientific merits of the Almagest and to determine whether the aforementioned criticisms are fair.

UT Professor of Physics Fitzpatrick is author of several books, including Plasma Physics: An Introduction (2014) and a translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry (2007).

Past talk:
Co-sponsored with the UT Austin Physics Colloquium 
4:15 Wednesday, February 18                                                                               RLM 4.102

Slide1Matthew Stanley

 “The Pointsman or the Steam Whistle: Maxwell’s Demon, T. H. Huxley, and the Nature of Consciousness”

Two of the greatest achievements of Victorian science – energy conservation and atomic theory – also raised deeply unsettling issues regarding human consciousness.  Repeated success in explaining the human body as an engine running on thermodynamic principles seemed to question traditional notions of the soul, free will, and moral responsibility.  Thomas Henry Huxley (best known as Darwin’s bulldog) led the scientists who embraced this notion that humans were merely complicated machines, and that consciousness had no meaningful role in the world.  Many other scientists, however, defended the reality of free will and the soul.  This group included James Clerk Maxwell (known for his work in electromagnetism, optics, and thermodynamics) who deployed his technical skills in physics to defend his Christian beliefs.  Both sides in the argument built persuasive metaphors, usually drawn from Victorian industrial culture.  Maxwell’s central metaphor for free will (the “pointsman”) eventually took on a life of its own as his eponymous “demon.”

Dr. Stanley is Associate Professor at the New York University Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His latest book is Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science (Chicago, 2014).