A Brief History of Utrecht History, Philosophy & Foundations of Physics

Interest in the history of the natural sciences in the Netherlands began in the second half of the nineteenth century. This mainly concerned 'national heroes' such as Huygens and Leeuwenhoek. From the middle of the twentieth century, the field became more professional. In 1953, Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis was appointed professor in the history of mathematics and natural sciences in Utrecht. He earned international acclaim for his book The Mechanization of the World Picture (1950). He also published extensively on mathematics education.

Dijksterhuis was succeeded in 1967 by Reyer Hooykaas, another prominent historian of science, especially known for his work on the relation between science and religion. In 1977 Hooykaas was succeeded by Harry Snelders. Under their leadership, the Institute for the History of the Natural Sciences at the Janskerkhof became an important breeding ground for science historians in the Netherlands.

At the physics department, Johan Bernard Ubbink was appointed the first professor of Foundations and Philosophy of Physics in 1961—a new chair insisted upon by H.A. Kramers.

In the 1980s, history of science, biohistory and foundations of physics were merged into the new Institute for the History and Foundations of Science (IGG), part of the physics department at De Uithof (now the Utrecht Science Park). Ubbink was succeeded by Jan Hilgevoord in 1987, and then by Dennis Dieks in 1993, whose research focus is primarily quantum foundations, and secondarily the philosophy of spacetime. Hilgevoord brought a PhD student with him from the University of Amsterdam, Jos Uffink, who became a staff member until leaving for the US in 2010 (and returning to Utrecht University after retirement in 2023), with a research focus complementary to Dieks': philosophy of thermal physics. Snelders was succeeded by Albert van Helden in 2001, who was succeeded by Bert Theunissen (history of the life sciences) in 2005.

Frans van Lunteren obtained his PhD under Snelders and Dieks in 1991, and became an assistant professor of history of physics and of science more broadly, until 2007.

F.A. Muller obtained his PhD under Dieks in 1998, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship on quantum foundations. In 2002 an informal reading group became the Foundations of Physics Research Seminar, which runs to this day and is still being convened by Muller in Utrecht, despite the Erasmus University Rotterdam becoming his primary affiliation in 2005.

In 2002, the IGG started a two-year research Master's programme in History and Philosophy of Science. It started small, with only a handful of students in the first years, but has grown into one of the largest HPS master's programmes in the world, with approximately 25 students per cohort.

The editorial office of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics moved to Utrecht in 2003 (from Pittsburgh and before that Cambridge), were it remained for a decade with Dieks and Uffink as Editors-in-Chief. Andrea Lubberdink, Hanneke Janssen and Geurt Sengers were the consecutive managing editors, with Janneke van Lith as (book review) editor. The Editor-in-Chief of the journal Foundations of Physics from 2007 till 2016 was Utrecht Nobel laureate in physics Gerard 't Hooft; philosopher of physics Fedde Benedictus the managing editor ever since 2010. 

Other researchers at Utrecht University were also doing history and philosophy of science. In 2007, they were all united in the new Descartes Center for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities. For a few years there was also a separate master's program in Historical and Comparative Studies of the Sciences and the Humanities (HCSSH), but in 2012 that program was merged with HPS.

In 2014, the IGG merged with the Freudenthal Institute for Science and Mathematics Education into a renewed Freudenthal Institute (FI); still within the Science Faculty but now officially hanging under the mathematics department. The HPS group of the FI still has a strong research tradition in history and philosophy of physics, in addition to broad expertise in history and philosophy of the life sciences, climate science, and of "knowledge" in a much broader sense.

In that same year, historians of physics & knowledge David Baneke and Daan Wegener, both Utrecht alumni, joined as university lecturers, whereas Dennis Dieks retired. A year later, Dieks was succeeded by another scholar of quantum foundations, Guido Bacciagaluppi

The year 2018 saw the 19th UK and European conference in Foundations of Physics come to Utrecht.

In 2022 Niels Martens was recruited, complementing Utrecht's research profile with philosophy of astronomy & cosmology, and initiating the UPAC colloquium in 2023. Two large ERC projects, BOHR21 (Bacciagaluppi) and COSMO-MASTER (Martens), led to a wave of postdoctoral and doctoral recruitments, coinciding with the Radboud Centre for Natural Philosophy being founded in Nijmegen. This new stage of professionalisation of history, philosophy and foundations of physics in the Netherlands was consolidated at the end of 2023 in Utrecht with the 1st HPP-NL workshop, which now takes place twice a year in alternating Dutch cities.

Besides the HPS Group, the Science Faculty at the Science Park houses the History of Mathematics Group, which also has a longstanding tradition of research touching upon physics, in particular the history of geometry and of astronomy. Nowadays one also finds several researchers and lecturers in history and philosophy of physics at the Humanities Faculty in the city center, e.g. the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme (e.g. Sjang ten Hagen) and the Philosophy research group, as well as at University College Utrecht (e.g. Emma Mojet) in between the city center and science park.