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

This information is for the 2021/22 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Bryan Roberts LAK 1.01


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 20th century physics is that enormous progress can be made by embracing our uncertainty, and modelling it using probabilistic techniques. This powerful thinking led to discoveries like the first evidence of the atomic hypothesis, that the matter is made of tiny atoms moving randomly about. It also paved the way for the discovery of quantum mechanics, our best theory of matter and energy. These techniques even spilled outside of physics, into places like the social and financial world, where similar techniques were applied.

This course is about some of the philosophical issues underlying the physics of uncertainty, and the kinds of issues they raise for the natural and social sciences.

Students in this course will explore some of the important conceptual and philosophical questions underlying physics and finance, like: How are assumptions about randomness compatible with observed forms of determinism? How is it possible to seek truth using statistical theories? 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? To what extent do such applications help to underpin how the prices of financial instruments are set?

This course will proceed at a conceptual level that is suitable for students of all backgrounds: no background in physics is needed, and there is no advantage to having one.


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

This year, some or all of this teaching will take place online.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the LT.

In addition to the formative essay due mid-term, students must complete 2-4 short weekly reading questions to prepare for discussion in class.

Indicative reading

Weekly essential readings will be provided on Moodle, selected individually from various book chapters and journal articles. Some indicative readings include:

- Malkin, Burton G. A random walk down Wallstreet, excerpts.

- Norton, John D. Einstein for Everyone, Chapters 34-37 on Brownian motion and the origins of quantum theory.

- Weatherall, James O. The Physics of Wallstreet.

- Derman, E. My Life as a Quant. Excerpts.


Essay (50%, 1500 words) in the LT.
Essay (50%, 1500 words) in the ST.

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Student performance results

(2017/18 - 2019/20 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 48.3
Merit 46.7
Pass 5
Fail 0

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2020/21: 25

Average class size 2020/21: 12

Controlled access 2020/21: Yes

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