This week, I met with the media liaison at my campus and we discussed my research project and ways to explain and motivate it to a general public. Inevitably, she wanted to know what the sort of “philosophizing” that Nick and I are undertaking in our ACLS sponsored project was good for. When I explained to her, among other things, reflecting on the conceptual and metaphysical foundations of a physical theory may lead to progress in the science itself. For instance, I elaborated that both Newton and Einstein achieved great progress because they were engaging in serious–one might say philosophical–reflection of fundamental principles and concepts such as space and time. She liked that, but it was way too abstract. Sure, Newton unified celestial mechanics and terrestrial physics and was able to reproduce, from few basic assumptions, Kepler’s and Galileo’s laws. And sure, this led to a greater understanding of these matters. But she wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to know whether either Newton’s or Einstein’s philosophizing led to anything tangible, something to which everybody could relate to. I told her that Newton’s laws allowed for the prediction of the motion of celestial bodies (even though Ptolemy and Copernicus could do that too), as well as the calculation of the trajectories of projectiles (and thus helped the military to determine the angle at which they had to put their cannons, etc, but she didn’t really like that). The GPS systems now so common in our cars, I continued, relied on computations based on both special and general relativity, which in turn both depended on Einstein’s “philosophizing”. That was obviously the sort of things she wanted to hear.
So I ask you, dear reader, do you know of any great examples of how Newton’s or Einstein’s (or anybody else’s–I also told her about Maxwell) philosophizing led, quite directly, to tangible results? If so, I (and probably many readers) would love to hear them!