Descartes Centre Colloquium with Stefano Furlan and Jürgen Beyer
Stefano Furlan: Uprooting the Tree of Physics: John Wheeler, the Violent Universe, and Law without Law
John Wheeler (1911-2008) is widely regarded as a key figure in 20th-century physics, but the reasons for such a status are, at least in part, intriguingly elusive. After a brief introduction illustrating what can be meant by "historical epistemology" when applied to recent physics, I will provide an overview of Wheeler's trajectory between the early 1950s, when he started to work on general relativity and related issues, to the mid-1970s, the beginning of a phase of transition that would ultimately lead him to his famous "it from bit". More specifically, I will outline Wheeler's peculiar attitude towards the past, his relationship with Einstein and Bohr, his heuristic methodology, his geometrodynamical program, the long path that brought him to become the enthusiastic popularizer of black holes, his surprising conclusion of a fundamental lawlessness of the universe, his renewed interest in the foundations of quantum mechanics - and how all these topics were linked together in Wheeler's highly original vision.
Jürgen Beyer: Writing a biography of the first European atheist: Matthias Knutzen (c. 1646 – after 1674)
In the second half of the seventeenth century "atheism" was a frequently used label for a wide range of ideas and practices. Very few persons would outright deny the existence of any supernatural beings, and even fewer would do so publicly and in their proper name. Matthias Knutzen is generally considered to have been the first atheist of this kind. He presented his views in three handwritten tracts which he spread at Jena University in 1674 before disappearing from sight. In the following year Jena theology professor Johannes Musæus published the three texts as an appendix to a refutation of Knutzen's teaching after having collected an impressive amount of biographical data on Knutzen. Musæus' book has been the basis of all research on Knutzen so far. No serious attempt has been made to write a biography based on other sources. I am trying to do this. New sources even allow us to extract new information from the texts which have been known for almost 350 years.
Stefano Furlan is currently completing his doctoral research, carried out at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin. After humanistic studies, always cultivated, and a specialisation in theoretical physics and astrophysics, he has devoted himself to frontier issues in physics and to putting them into a historical-critical perspective. At the centre of the majority of his works is the figure of John A. Wheeler, not only an illustrious pioneer in those fields, but also a thinker of exceptional originality, whose unpublished papers make it possible, among other things, to investigate unexplored and fascinating interactions between the sciences and many other disciplines, from philosophy to art.
Jürgen Beyer obtained his Ph.D. in History at the University of Cambridge and has mostly worked at the University of Tartu (formerly better known internationally under its German and Swedish name, Dorpat). He has published widely on the cultural history of early modern Lutheranism.
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