I now realize that the technical and conceptual are both needed
"I always try to find a balance between my technical and my reflective side. During my Bachelor, I performed in-depth calculations in physics, but meanwhile I was busy thinking through the philosophical implications of our scientific theories in two minors of philosophy of science and history of philosophy. Strolling through this limbo between scholarly fields for quite some time, not much was needed to persuade me when I found the History and Philosophy of Science programme (HPS), bridging philosophical, historical, and scientific tools. After two years, my belief that the technical and the conceptual are both needed, has become more of a realization. Often the devil is in the details, and if you want to improve an intellectual building, you must first work through these details in order to understand why things are as they are today.
The way I see it, universities should challenge a student’s beliefs by uncovering assumptions and taking apart worldviews; and to help putting the pieces back together. This is surely what HPS has given me. During the course History of the natural sciences the idea that science is (and always has been) a cumulatively growing, secular and progressive truth-machine is heavily challenged. But during Philosophy of Science the meaning of natural laws and the scientific method itself are thoroughly discussed.
The flexibility to shape your own HPS-curriculum and the diversity and interdisciplinarity of its courses allows you to create your own path within the programme. For me, it has been an excellent environment to train the necessary skills of the intellectual: how to think clearly, write this down coherently, and speak understandably with your peers.
HPS provided me with the opportunity to cultivate my always-present love of history, and the development of ideas and their interplay with cultural factors. During the course History of Science in Islamic Civilization, I analyzed a calculation of π by the early fifteenth-century Persian mathematician al-Kāshānī; translating Abjad numerals, checking the calculation, and putting it and its author into historical context. Later, this research led to a journey to Istanbul, where I and my co-worker presented our work at a Summerschool, which was a beautiful intellectual and cultural interchange.
Now, in the last year of the programme, I return to the subject that fascinated me from the start: the ‘foundations of science’. Conceptual problems usually arise from the sciences themselves, instead of being imposed on them, but often this philosophical unevenness can be smoothed out by pragmatic success. In ‘foundations’, we analyze beyond pragmatics; sacrificing some speed of the scientific process on the altar of understanding. Focusing on specific problems in quantum mechanics and the theory of gravity, hence coming back to my roots in physics, I intend to pursue this much further during a PhD programme".
The curriculum is shaped by the interests of students themselves
"Just after obtaining a BSc degree in bèta-gamma with a major in physics, I applied for the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) Master’s programme. In my motivation letter, I wrote that “in the coming years, I hope to unravel more of the intricate relationships between physics, philosophy and society. No doubt, the Master’s programme in History and Philosophy of Science provides an excellent place to pursue these studies”. Two years later, on the eve of my MSc graduation, I can only conclude that the Master’s has surpassed these expectations.
During HPS, I learned how to think. Especially my one-year research project into the influence of World War I on the Belgian reception of Einstein’s theory of relativity enabled me to develop the ability to push myself to mental limits. During our first-year courses, me and my fellow students were intensively trained to ask questions and to discuss. As an inspiring example, the Science and the Public course made me aware of the historical development of fundamental issues regarding the role of science in society. This sparked the ambition to undertake extracurricular activities in the form of an editorship of De Omslag.
I especially liked how the lion’s share of the HPS curriculum is shaped by the interests of students themselves. In my case, this gave me the possibility to broaden my knowledge of more technical issues relevant to my historical research, such as the Foundations of quantum mechanics (HPS optional course) and General Relativity (secondary elective). The icing on the cake came when I was allowed to take part in a study trip to Iran, where we visited the history of science department of the University of Tehran.
After my graduation, I will continue in history of science as a PhD candidate at the Institute of Physics of the University of Amsterdam, focusing on historical exchanges of ideas between the disciplines of history and physics. Given the academic level of the HPS research Master’s programme, I am confident about the progress of this most challenging project."
Be open-minded and step out of your intellectual comfort zone
Why did you choose this Master’s?
"I did a bachelor in philosophy and drawn to HPS due to the thematic intersection between science and the humanities. I had vague dreams about continuing to do a PhD afterwards. I was convinced by the focus of the HPS programme on preparing students for research. Another reason was the amount of freedom and the extent to which students could create their own curriculum.
What’s good about this Master’s?
The programme stimulates active participation in academic life, like going to conferences, attending public colloquia and helping out with research projects. I presented my work at a few conferences and I also participated in an international research project. I felt that our skills were very much valued by the departmental staff. This is extremely important. We all know that finding the courage to ask people for things or approach potential future employers can be tough when you’re still relatively inexperienced.
What advice would you give prospective students?
I think it’s important for an HPS student to be open-minded and to be prepared to step outside one’s intellectual comfort zone in order to understand new views and theories. Sometimes a theory might strike you as ‘ridiculous’ on first glance, but if you take the time to understand it you might find yourself in agreement.
A big part of the master is your own research. I finished all my courses in the first year and devoted the second year to writing my thesis. There are a few compulsory courses on history of natural sciences and humanities and philosophy of science. You learn how to evaluate scientific practices from many different perspectives. For me it was a wonderful addition to study together with students with many different backgrounds from physics to art history. This made for extremely interesting class discussions.
What did you do after your graduation?
I was able to find a PhD position in philosophy of innovation even before the end of my Master’s programme. I am currently working on the ethics of co-creation in technological innovation at Eindhoven Technical University. The historical insights and methods I learned during my studies are still extremely useful for me. I am able to see the ethics of innovation more fully in context than I would have if I had opted for a purely philosophical master’s degree."
Mandi Astola (from Finland), HPS graduate