Cancelled History of Physics (HisPhys)

Course content

Selected episodes that elucidate the historical development of central ideas of the usual branches of physics (Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Electromagnetism and Quantum Mechanics).

Some of the episodes are chosen by the students, but among the "must-sees" of the course are:

· Newton's derivation of Kepler's laws

· Clausius' original concept of entropy

· Fresnel's wave theory to explain light diffraction

· Maxwell's heuristic analogies to understand electromagnetic phenomena

· Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity

· The mathematical formulations of quantum mechanics and the discovery of antimatter.

The students will analyze original sources in order to get an insight into the genesis of the main concepts and theories studied in the Bachelor's introductory courses. The focus is to understand how scientists originally thought, in particular, the physical models they used and the mathematical structures that were available at the time. The course will also explore debates between rival theories in order to highlight important dilemmas in the development of physics.

During the course the students will learn to investigate a historical case study of physics by combining original and secondary sources. Furthermore, they shall be able to use the history of physics as a background for reflections on philosophical and sociological questions of this science. The course is dedicated for students who aim at having a deep understanding of original motivations for the development of physics knowledge, and should, therefore, be useful for the ones pursuing a research career. Finally, since a historical approach usually stresses the struggles scientists had in the genesis of theories, the course is quite relevant for the ones who will eventually teach physics.


MSc Programme in Physics with a minor subject

Learning outcome

After having completed the course, the student will have a broad overview of the historical development of physics' main theories and will have examined a particular historical case study in detail.


After having completed the course the student will be able to:

  • Read an original text of physics (in translation if necessary).
  • Find primary and secondary literature on the history of physics.


After having completed the course the student will be able to: 

  • Communicate orally as well as in written form about a selected topic from the history of physics.
  • Analyze primary historical texts (if necessary in translation) of physics.
  • Analyze, evaluate and discuss secondary historical texts on selected topics of the history of physics.
  • Place a concrete piece of physics in its historical context.
  • Independently formulate and investigate historical questions within a specific field of physics.
  • Compare the original formulations with the modern way of teaching physics topics and reflect about pros and cons of the "didactic transformation".
  • Use the history of physics as a background for reflections about the philosophical and social status of this science.

8 hours per weeks divided between lectures by the teacher, seminars given by the participating students and discussion sessions.

Selected primary sources (mostly in English translations) and secondary papers related to specific historical episodes of physics. Materials will be announced on Absalon. 

Basic physics introductory courses are recommended: Introduction to Mechanics and Relativity Theory (Mek1), Classical Mechanics (Mek2), Thermodynamics and Project (Termo), Electromagnetism (EM1), Electrodynamics and Waves (EM2), Quantum Mechanics 1 (KM1), Quantum Mechanics 2 (KM2).

Academic qualifications equivalent to a BSc degree is recommended.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester

Written feedback on the questions students formulate after reading excerpts of original sources. Feedback on the nature of the questions, since they indicate how intensively the students tried to understand the material.

Every week the students hand-in a learning-reflection-essay where to summarize the most important things they have learned and reflect about broader implications, e.g. comparing the way they were taught a topic with how it is presented at the original source.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Continuous assessment
Oral examination, 30 minutes
Evaluations of weekly written work (weighted 50%) and an oral 30-minute exam, no preparation time (weighted 50%) constitute the basis for assessment.

Students have to hand in a total of 6 weekly assignments. This part of the final grade is the average of all 6 assignments.

The oral examination starts with a 10-minute version of the seminar presentation and is followed by questions based on the weekly work.

Both the written assignments and the oral examination have to have been completed in order to pass the course exam.
Only certain aids allowed

During the weekly written evaluations all aids are allowed. During the oral examination the student is allowed to consult an A4 sheet with personal notes (front and back). Other aids are not permitted.

Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
External censorship
Criteria for exam assessment

The grade 12 is given to excellent students that have a sound knowledge of the original formulations of the historical cases studied during the course, including the physical reasoning and mathematical structures available at the time. Moreover, they will demonstrate a deep understanding of the historical episode investigated in their seminars. Finally, the excellent students should be able to reflect about pros and cons between the original formulations and the actual presentations found in classical textbooks.

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Lectures
  • 32
  • Preparation
  • 91
  • Theory exercises
  • 32
  • Project work
  • 50
  • Exam
  • 1
  • English
  • 206