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Looking at Cosmos Beyond Our Own

Undergraduate weighs in on arguments that pit physics against philosophy

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January 6, 2016 | by Erin Meyer
Kimberly Clinch

Historically, philosophy and physics were inextricably linked, junior Kimberly Clinch argues. Clinch, who has always loved space, used her summer undergraduate research project to weigh in on arguments that pit physics against philosophy. Photo by Jim Prisching

This is another in a series of Q&As profiling Northwestern undergraduate researchers.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Is there a cosmos beyond our own? Once relegated to the realm of fantasy fiction, the question now is at the center of serious scientific debate about whether whole other universes actually exist billions of light years away from our own.

To Kimberly Clinch, a math major in Northwestern University’s rigorous Integrated Science Program, the question is rich with possibility.  

Clinch, who has always loved space, used her summer undergraduate research project to weigh in on arguments that pit physics against philosophy.

She rejects the notion that inquiry should begin and end with physical science.

“I am a ‘cosmophile’ who happens to be fascinated by hard science,” Clinch said. “I don’t think it’s in humanity’s best interest to make everyone pick a side -- physics or philosophy.”

By the end of the summer, Clinch’s work came to deal only tangentially with the multiverse, focusing instead on man’s role in our universe and the relationship between physics and philosophy.

Historically, philosophy and physics were inextricably linked, Clinch argues. She spent last summer on a reading list that included works by Aristotle and Einstein, whose famed academic pursuits often occupied a space somewhere between physics and philosophy.

“There was a time when the top physicists were also the top philosophers,” she said.

Through the lens of classic texts, including Aristotle’s “Metaphysics,” Clinch set out to re-examine the debate surrounding the multiverse from a philosophical perspective.

Her goal was to determine whether philosophical views support or oppose methods and theories of modern cosmologists in their studies of the multiverse.

“The physics community as a whole is kind of disparaging toward philosophy,” Clinch said. “This research topic arose out of my frustration with the contemporary division between philosophy and physics.”

Philosophy and its pursuits, she argues, can play an important role in helping scientists pose the right questions.

Read more in a Q&A with Clinch, who recently spoke to Northwestern News about her research and reflected on her time at Northwestern. 

What attracted you to the undergraduate research grant program?

I was surprised when I learned I could earn money by tackling a reading list I have been meaning to take on for a long time. During the school year I don’t get a lot of time to read, for pleasure anyway. And this year is the first year I’ve lived off campus in an apartment with roommates. I needed rent money.

You started your college career in the McCormick School of Engineering, switched to the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and you are now enrolled in Northwestern’s Integrated Science Program (ISP), an accelerated science and math curriculum. Tell me about your academic path.

During my second quarter, on Mondays and Wednesdays, I had metaphysics, followed by physics, followed by math. I loved the chronology of the day. And I was fascinated with how the math and physics were used to help answer metaphysical questions about free will.

At Northwestern I am able to do the ISP curriculum, combining molecular biology and astrophysics. I couldn’t tailor all of that together at another school like I have been able to at Northwestern.

Why the multiverse theory?

I have always been fascinated by space. I remember being a little girl and learning that the light we see is millions of years old and that we are looking back in time.

I like to try to visualize space as an infinite and unbound sphere, as physicist Stephen Hawking describes it, or another universe where the rules of relativity do not apply.

What questions did your research address?

My findings, or final paper, ended up veering from the multiverse topic, although it still tackled the importance of bringing physics and philosophy together.

My decision to refocus the research on free will was similar to the switches that take place in hard science when a researcher is looking for one thing and notices an unrelated but interesting phenomenon taking place under his/her microscope. I found ideas in my readings that had implications for free will, and I realized that these implications were a worthy finding in and of themselves.

You were an active member in the Real Food campaign, which helped convince Northwestern officials to increase the amount of “ecologically sound, community-based, humanely-produced or fair-trade” food in dining halls. Tell me about that.

My high school biology teacher was an organic farmer during the summers when school was out. He was the one who got me thinking a lot about sustainability and consumer choice.

Doing this food challenge is a big thing. The university signing on to this Real Food challenge will really make a difference in some tomato farmer's life, for instance.

My interest in the life sciences is tied to sustainability.

Where does food ecology fit in the spectrum of philosophy and hard science?

Food ecology is a balance to philosophy, hard science and the big questions, including “free will.” If free will is an illusion or a construct, then our perceived choices, whether about sustainability or any other ethical question, are of no consequence.

That can lead to doubt about what is real and whether there is purpose.

The possibility of human life having meaning is of such gravity that we should take care of one another even if we are unsure whether that possibility represents reality. Striving for sustainability is of the utmost importance. Changing our food system should be tackled first, because it will do the most good for humanity.

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