PH430      Half Unit
Einstein for Everyone: From time travel to the edge of the universe

This information is for the 2017/18 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

Does the universe have an edge? Is time travel possible? What is a black hole, and in what sense are space and time described by "geometry"? The modern theory of spacetime introduced by Einstein provides a precise framework in which to ask these questions. This course makes their analysis accessible to everyone.

Students will have the opportunity to engage with Einstein's theories of relativity, to use them to analyse philosophical problems, and to examine their philosophical and practical implications. The topics of the course will include: 1) Relativity: Slowing clocks, shrinking rods, and the relativity of simultaneity; 2) Spacetime: Thinking in higher dimensions, faster-than-light travel, and other philosophical issues; 3) Non-Euclidean thinking: Beyond the geometry of Euclid, measuring curvature, gravity as curved spacetime; 4) Cosmology: Our place in the universe, big bang cosmology, time travel; 5) Limits of space and time: Geometry, black holes, singularities.

Students will learn to apply these conceptual tools to the analysis of space, time and gravity, as well as to formulate and argue for their own perspectives on the philosophical implications of relativity theory. One is often faced with unsubstantiated declarations about the implications of Einstein's theories, by both scientists and non-scientists. This course will equip non-scientists with the conceptual tools needed to critically analyse these claims for themselves. It will also provide students with the tools needed to discuss the philosophy of space and time from a modern perspective.

Einstein for Everyone requires absolutely no background in physics or maths. Students are only required to learn two equations, which really cannot be omitted: E=mc2, and Einstein's equation! However, students with a background in physics will also benefit from the conceptual development and the philosophical problems posed in this course.


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

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 2 essays in the MT.

In addition to this formative essay, which is due mid-term, students must complete 1-2 short weekly reading questions and submit them through Moodle to prepare for discussion in class.

Indicative reading

All weekly readings will all be made available to students on Moodle. The primary readings will be from Norton, John D. (2017) Einstein for Everyone.


Essay (50%, 1500 words) in the MT.
Essay (50%, 1500 words) in January.

Student performance results

(2013/14 - 2015/16 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 41.2
Merit 35.3
Pass 17.6
Fail 5.9

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2016/17: 4

Average class size 2016/17: 5

Controlled access 2016/17: 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