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Samuel Fletcher: Science, Space and Star Trek

May 4, 2016

It all began with Star Trek. Awestruck and curious, as a child Professor Samuel Fletcher became intrigued by space and spaceships. His family often watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as Fletcher grew up, he became interested in both the humanist philosophical themes of the show as well as the science. After graduating with an AB in physics from Princeton University in 2008, Fletcher went on to the University of California, Irvine, where he completed an MS in statistics and an MA in philosophy in 2012 before graduating with a PhD in philosophy in 2014.

Fletcher incorporates developments in physics, mathematics, and other sciences in his philosophical work. For example, he uses the relationship between Einstein's theory of general relativity and Newton’s theory of gravitation to describe not just how the former’s picture of space and time has changed with respect to the latter, but also why the older, conceptually different Newtonian picture continues in many domains of life to serve us well.

Part of Fletcher’s motivations for his work are personal: regarding the intricate interconnected aspects of the scientific picture of the world, he opines that “I want to figure things out, to my own satisfaction.” Fletcher believes that really understanding how science works requires persistent, focused, yet efficient commitment to detail. He aims to use formal methods—logic and mathematics—to pose and evaluate more precise versions of broad questions, such as “Why can we still use scientific theories that we know are false?”  

Fletcher understands that most people perceive philosophy as distinctively separated from the sciences and mathematics. Through his research and teaching he aims to show that there are many ways in which philosophy and science intersect productively. As a resident fellow in the Minnesota Center of Philosophy of Science, he has recently been encouraging discussion among students and researchers about philosophical and conceptual issues in the foundations of statistics, whose methods are ubiquitous across the sciences.

His travel experiences since completing his PhD have broadened his research perspectives and approach. Before joining the University of Minnesota, Fletcher worked at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP), housed at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, as a Marie Curie Fellow—a position he still holds. While based at the MCMP, Fletcher traveled to 15 different countries in Europe and the Americas within 14 months, which allowed him to begin many fruitful international collaborations. This summer, Fletcher will travel back to Munich for three and a half months to continue his research and collaborations with his European colleagues, including the organization of a conference, “Infinite Idealizations in Science,” as well as organizing the Third Summer School on Mathematical Philosophy for Female Students.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.