PH431      Half Unit
Physics and the City: From Quantum Jumps to Stock Market Crashes

This information is for the 2015/16 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Bryan Roberts LAK 5.03


This course is available on the MSc in Economics and Philosophy, MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy, MSc in Philosophy of Science and MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.


There are no prerequisites for this course; it is accessible to students of all backgrounds.

Course content

One of the most surprising discoveries of the 20th century is that many things can be described by tiny atoms moving randomly about. Thinking about the physical world in this way led to the invention of modern particle physics. Thinking about the financial world in this way led to modern financial modeling. This course is about some of the philosophical issues underlying the relationship between physics and finance.

Students in this course will explore some of the most important conceptual and philosophical questions underlying physics and finance, like: How are assumptions about randomness compatible with observed forms of determinism? What does it mean to be an atom? How does the quantum world differ from the everyday world? What explains why physical models have unexpected applications in finance? What role should analogy play in physical and financial modelling?

The course will proceed at a conceptual level that is suitable for students of all backgrounds. We begin by introducing the concept of atoms and of the random walk, and investigate the role it played in the development of quantum theory and particle physics. We then explore how random walks and other models used in physics are applied in financial models, and analyse some some of the philosophical issues underlying this practice.


10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT.

Formative coursework

One essay outline. Weekly problem sets and short discussion questions submitted through Moodle and for review in classes.

Indicative reading

Weekly essential readings will be provided on Moodle, selected individually from various book chapters and journal articles. Some indicative readings include Norton, John D. Einstein for Everyone (chapters 34-37), Derman, E. My Life as a Quant (excerpts), Weatherall, James O. The Physics of Wallstreet. (excerpts), Mirowski, Phillip. More Heat than Light (excerpts).


Exam (67%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (33%, 1500 words) in the Week 11.

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2014/15: 8

Average class size 2014/15: 8

Controlled access 2014/15: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills