January 27, 2003

Albert, David
[PHIL G4675] Direction of Time, [PHIL V3576] Physics and Philosophy, and [PHIL W3551] Philosophy of Science

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

As you can tell from the amount of courses I've taken with him, I like Professor Albert. However, of the three I consider only Physics and Philosophy to be exceptional. Philosophy of Science is very good too but Direction of Time is disorganized, confused, and very weak overall....
Physics and Philosophy deals with various interpretations of quantum mechanics, some of their mind-boggling consequences, and how they bear on certain metaphysical doctrines, e.g., determinism and indeterminism, materialism. In addition to the fascinating subject matter, the appeal of the course lies largely in its accessibility: no background in physics or math is presupposed in lectures or in Albert's book--the only text for the course. As you long as youÂ’re willing to work a bit on the necessary technical/formal stuff, even if you are a non-science major (I am), you will be able to understand quantum mechanics in a general but sophisticated way. It's one of the best classes I've taken. The only assignment was a paper, due at the end of the semester, of approximately 20 pages. You can get away with something a bit shorter....
Philosophy of Science also had only one requirement, a 15 pager. The course is a good introduction to the field and you explore interesting issues, e.g., how to interpret scientific theories, realism, scientific explanation, objectivity. Albert was irresponsible about putting photocopies on reserve. In fact, the syllabus was generally vague and you did not have to do any reading because he didn't talk about the readings in class nor did he test us on them. He sort of just lectured on the subjects--if you were interested you could do the reading. Despite his sometimes surprising nonchalance learned a lot in the course and found his lectures interesting.....
Direction of Time is a different story. The only text used was Albert's own book about the conflict between the time asymmetry of thermodynamics (and our everyday lives) and fundamental physical theories. It is a confusing book and, unlike his book on quantum mechanics, poorly written. For one thing, he goes parenthesis crazy. In addition to his stylistic unclearness, the structure is awkward. He makes the problems more complicated than they have to be and the class mirrors the confusing progression of the book. I don't know if there are better, non-overly-technical books/articles on the subject, but if there are I wish he had assigned them. Further, after I finally deciphered his main points I wondered why there was a whole course devoted to them: they're few and simple once the decoding of his insane style is through. It seemed that he had stretched his book into a semesterÂ’s worth of material by being so confusing. I left the class annoyed that I hadn't learned more about this problem or about the philosophy of time in general. There was a choice between a final exam and a final paper. I took the test, which I found shockingly easy.