To Explain the Weinberg: The discovery of a Nobel Laureate’s view of the history of science

In my dim and distant youth, I was an ardent fan of twentieth-century physics and consumed a large quantity of popular books and articles (mostly New Scientist and Scientific American) on the subject as well as graduating to some high-grade serious history of science on both relativity and quantum physics. One of the books I read was The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe by theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg. This book impressed me very much, as it did the reviewers at the time, and I came away with a deep respect for Steven Weinberg as a science writer. Now in his eighties Weinberg is still highly active and this year he published his own history of science, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. This book proved to be highly contentious because of Weinberg’s avowed presentist approach to writing history of science and its appearance generated a lot of debate some of which I collected in one edition of Whewell’s Gazette (scroll down to book reviews). This situation led me to the thought that I should read and review Weinberg’s tome for myself, a thought that for various reasons didn’t really appeal. However rescue was at hand. Chris Graney, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and more than welcome guest blogger, has taken on the task, read, analysed and reviewed To Explain the World and it is with great pleasure and some relief (I won’t have to read it after all) that I present his thoughts on Weinberg’s book to the eager readers of the Renaissance Mathematicus.

In To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, author Steven Weinberg covers science history from the Milesians of ancient times to the Standard Model of today. His emphasis is on physics and astronomy, and he includes thirty-five ‘Technical Notes’ for the mathematically advanced reader that explain the physics and mathematics of things such as ellipses, refraction, and centripetal acceleration. His treatment of science’s history is not just a re-hashing of stock stories: he gives attention to Tycho Brahe; he does not lionize Galileo. He tries to show what he thinks science is and is not. The average Joe or Jane who has a casual interest in science and history and wants an overview by a prominent scientist should read the book. He or she will learn quite a few things, most of them not wrong.

However, the Renaissance Mathematicus is about neither casual interest in the history of science, nor history in which most things are not wrong, nor deference to prominent authors. And so, having generally recommended this book, I have two big specific criticisms of it: one regards facts; and the other regards philosophizing.


Weinberg makes factual errors. For example, in Chapter 10 on Medieval Europe, he discusses how the French cleric Jean Buridan rejected the Aristotelian idea that all motion requires a mover and introduced the idea that objects remain in motion once set in motion. Buridan called this impetus. Weinberg mischaracterizes impetus, saying that it was a foreshadowing of the modern idea of momentum, not momentum itself. “He [Buridan] never identified the impetus carried by a body as its mass times its velocity,” writes Weinberg (p. 133), “which is how momentum is defined in Newtonian physics.”

This is not correct. Buridan wrote regarding impetus that a moving body is impressed with —

…a certain impetus or a certain motive force of the moving body, in the direction toward which the mover was moving the moving body, either up or down, or laterally, or circularly. And by the amount the [mover] moves that moving body more swiftly, by the same amount it will impress in it a stronger impetus… by the amount more there is of matter, by that amount can the body receive more of that impetus and more intensely.

Thus Buridan plainly says that impetus is proportional to mass and proportional to velocity. That is mass-times-velocity momentum. He differs from modern momentum only in that he does not separate angular momentum, moment of inertia, etc. He uses momentum to explain the motion of bouncing balls, vibrating strings, and falling bodies in a manner consistent with Newtonian physics. He says that in the absence of resistive forces that will corrupt momentum, an object will continue in motion forever.

The Buridan quote above is from Edward Grant’s Source Book in Medieval Science p. 276-277. Weinberg cites the Source Book twice in that chapter, but not regarding Buridan. Regarding Buridan he cites the Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

Buridan is not the only instance of Weinberg getting things wrong. He says a number of weird things about the appearance of stars, mostly because he insists on discussing the stars in modern terms of brightness, rather than of size as they were traditionally viewed. He tries to explain the term magnitude (p. 88), never drawing the connection to size. This creates problems in a number of places, most notably when he wonders how Copernicus could speak of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars all being seen to be circular in shape — “how could [Copernicus] know anything about the shape of the stars?” Weinberg asks (p. 155; I wonder how he thought Copernicus might know anything about the shape of the planets?). The answer is found by looking at the sky with good eyes. Then one sees that Copernicus (like Ptolemy and Tycho and many others) was right and that all these bodies do appear round to the eye. They appear as little round dots — the more prominent ones look like larger round dots, the less prominent like smaller round dots. Thus the term magnitude — size — and thus Copernicus’s comments.

There are other examples of, if not errors, at least odd phrasing:

  • Weinberg tries (p. 58) to distinguish a gnomon (“simply a vertical pole, placed in a level patch of ground open to the Sun’s rays”) from a sundial (“different from a gnomon; its pole is parallel to the Earth’s axis rather than to the vertical direction, so that its shadow at a given hour is in the same direction every day. This makes a sundial more useful as a clock, but useless as a calendar.”). But all shadows fall in the same direction at a given hour, and so both the vertical pole and the sundial pole can be used to keep time; and all shadows vary in length with the seasons, and so both can be used to mark the time of year.
  • He cites Newton as noting that “the observed phases of the five planets other than Earth show that they revolve around the Sun [p. 237]”, but Jupiter and Saturn show no observable phases, and Mars only shows a gibbous phase consistent with it having a certain position relative to Sun and Earth. Only the phases of Venus and Mercury prove their motions around the Sun. Newton did talk about phases of all five planets (in his Phenomena), but Weinberg’s phrasing is odd.
  • He says the Inquisition gave a public formal order censoring Copernican books (p. 184), but according to Maurice Finocchiaro, the historian who translated and published the relevant documents, the Inquisition took no formal action; it was the Congregation for the Index (which Weinberg does mention elsewhere) that issued the censoring order.
  • Weinberg states that Kepler made a case for heliocentrism “based on mathematical simplicity and coherence, not on its better agreement with observations [p. 172]”, but Kepler seems to indicate otherwise. “It behoves us,” Kepler wrote, “to whom by divine benevolence such a very careful observer as Tycho Brahe has been given, in whose observations an error of 8′ of Ptolemy’s computation could be disclosed, to recognize this boon of God with thankful mind and use it by exerting ourselves in working out the true form of celestial motions….”

Almost all the errors/oddities that I have pointed out here could have been fixed with relatively little effort, and without substantially changing the book. I have read complaints from historians concerning Weinberg writing about history as a non-historian, and in particular writing as a scientist who judges the past by his own standards as a scientist of today (see Steven Shapin’s review in the Wall Street Journal; there was an editorial about this in Physics in Perspective). In my opinion, Weinberg is clear about his approach, often stating “I think this” or “I don’t think that”. An example is found in his discussion of Descartes, where he both praises Descartes (“This was Descartes at his best as a scientist [p. 209]”) and criticizes him (“The writings of Descartes on scientific method have attracted much attention among philosophers, but I don’t think they have had much positive influence on the practice of scientific research…. [p. 213]”). I have no complaint with what Weinberg is doing. His position is clear. The reader can consider accordingly. But Weinberg is obligated to get the historical facts right.


Weinberg peppers To Explain the World with comments related to philosophy and religion, some of which are problematic. For instance, at one point Weinberg writes “whatever the final laws of nature may be, there is no reason to suppose that they are designed to make physicists happy [p. 165]”. But then later we find, “We learn how to do science, not by making rules about how to do science, but from the experience of doing science, driven by desire for the pleasure we get when our methods succeed in explaining something [p. 214].” And so apparently science exists because indeed the laws of nature are designed to make physicists happy — a sentiment Weinberg repeats elsewhere (p. 248, 255).

Weinberg also writes, “Modern science is impersonal…; it has no sense of purpose; and it offers no hope for certainty…. We learn not to worry about purpose…. We learn to abandon the search for certainty [p. 254-255]”. But then later we find, “…the Standard Model provides a remarkably unified view of all types of matter and force (except for gravitation) that we encounter in our laboratories, in a set of equations that can fit on a single sheet of paper. We can be certain that the Standard Model will appear as at least an approximate feature of any better future theory [p. 264].” And so apparently there is hope for certainty after all.

Such contradictions arise because Weinberg juxtaposes an insistence on purposelessness with an insistence that science is purposeful and inevitable because it uncovers a beautiful (i.e. makes physicists happy) reality, or at least it approaches that reality over time (p. 252, 254, 268). He describes the Standard Model (p. 264-265) as impersonal, lacking element of purpose, not being deduced from mathematics or philosophical preconceptions, and not following straightforwardly from observation of nature, yet he then states that it is a product of guesswork and aesthetic judgment, validated by its successes. Is there nothing personal, purposeful, and philosophically preconceived in aesthetic judgment? In closing the last chapter Weinberg writes, “Still, we have come a long way on this path, and are not yet at its end…. It is toward a more fundamental physical theory that the wide-ranging scientific principles we discover have been, and are being, reduced [p. 268]”. Is there nothing personal, purposeful, and hope-filled about being on a path, moving toward some fundamental end but not yet being there? The point here is not to argue for purpose in science or for a nature designed to make physicists happy, but to illustrate the contradictions in Weinberg’s philosophical musings.

Unfortunately, where Weinberg is more consistent in his philosophizing is on religion, and there he does a disservice to science. To Explain the World is not especially hard on religion as these things go, but Weinberg does insert comments that seem religion-unfriendly, and entirely disposable. There is a comment about the Copernican “demotion of earth” (p. 156) being a problem for all religions; a comment about the works of Descartes being placed on the Index of books forbidden to Roman Catholics (p. 213); a comment about how even if Galileo had been mistaken it would still have been wrong for the church to sentence him to imprisonment and deny his right to publish, just as it was wrong to burn Giordano Bruno for being a heretic (p. 187-188).

Each of these are isolated remarks that do not tie in with the rest of the text, and each can be debated. Kepler thought the Copernican system actually elevated Earth’s position up from the sump of the universe. As for the church being wrong about censorship and treatment of Galileo, well, Weinberg is clear on judging the past by the standards of today, and no, we do not do such things today. But he is selecting what to judge. It was also wrong to execute people for who-knows-what crime and to stick their heads on pikes by the dozen on the town bridge for everyone and their toddler to see, as was done at the time, and we do not do such things today. Yes, some church people in the seventeenth century behaved like ogres. But at that time a lot of other people behaved like ogres in many ways, too. To insert comments about these ogres but not those ogres is to select your data points, and, as judged by the standards of the modern scientist, that is poor practice.


Impaled heads on the south gate of London Bridge, 

from Claes Visscher’s Panorama of London in 1616.

This selecting of data points extends more deeply than just throwaway comments. Weinberg’s discussion of figures such as Kepler, Boyle, and Newton omits just how large religion loomed in their thinking. The Kepler discussion is the most egregious example of this (Weinberg does include some references to religion regarding Boyle and Newton). Kepler was an astronomer who wrote about how he originally wanted to be a theologian but how he was able to glorify God through astronomy; who saw the Holy Trinity reflected in the Copernican universe, with the Sun representing God the Father and thus properly placed at the focus of elliptical orbits; whose Mysterium Cosmographicum (which Weinberg discusses) was an effort to uncover the mathematical rationale God used in building the solar system. But none of this is in To Explain the World. Weinberg portrays Kepler as simply a Platonist who applied to historical accidents an interest in mathematical oddities (p. 163-164). Perhaps most annoying is the following Kepler quote, which Weinberg includes (p. 179) to illustrate how Kepler challenged opponents of Copernicus:

Advice for Idiots. But whoever is too stupid to understand astronomical science, or too weak to believe Copernicus without affecting his faith, I would advise him that, having dismissed astronomical studies, and having damned whatever philosophical opinions he pleases, he mind his own business and betake himself home to scratch in his own dirt patch, abandoning this wandering about the world.

Now look at Kepler’s words in a larger context:

So everything the psalmodist said of the world relates to living things. He tells nothing that is not generally acknowledged, because his purpose was to praise things that are known, not to seek out the unknown. It was his wish to invite men to consider the benefits accruing to them from each of these works of the six days.

I, too, implore my reader, when he departs from the temple and enters astronomical studies, not to forget the divine goodness conferred upon men, to the consideration of which the psalmodist chiefly invites. I hope that, with me, he will praise and celebrate the Creator’s wisdom and greatness, which I unfold for him in the more perspicacious explanation of the world’s form, the investigation of causes, and the detection of errors of vision. Let him not only extol the Creator’s divine beneficence in His concern for the well-being of all living things, expressed in the firmness and stability of the Earth, but also acknowledge His wisdom expressed in its motion, at once so well hidden and so admirable.

But whoever is too stupid to understand astronomical science, or too weak to believe Copernicus without affecting his faith, I would advise him that, having dismissed astronomical studies and having damned whatever philosophical opinions he pleases, he mind his own business and betake himself home to scratch in his own dirt patch, abandoning this wandering about the world. He should raise his eyes (his only means of vision) to this visible heaven and with his whole heart burst forth in giving thanks and praising God the Creator. He can be sure that he worships God no less than the astronomer, to whom God has granted the more penetrating vision of the mind’s eye, and an ability and desire to celebrate his God above those things he has discovered.

To talk about Kepler as a Platonist while leaving out this aspect of Kepler is to select the data points. (Note — “Advice to Idiots” is a marginal note in Kepler’s book, not part of the text itself.)

My real job is to be a community college professor — to, ahem, Bring Science to The Community — and I absolutely hate the sort of thing Weinberg is doing. Not only is selecting the data not in the spirit of science, it does a disservice to science in general, and makes my job harder in particular. Why? Because Weinberg is in the USA (Texas, specifically), and here in the USA (especially Texas) we have many flare-ups over religion, science, school textbooks, and the like. See the March issue of National Geographic, whose cover story is “The War on Science” for a recap. I experience this issue directly with a number of my students. Weinberg, by choosing to highlight books on the Index or the troubles of Galileo, while being silent on the deep religious motivations of people like Kepler, skews the story of science in such a way as to add fuel to those flare-ups, when he could instead help to cool them down (he is not alone in this regard). Kepler is obviously a possible point of connection between “science people” and “religion people”. It is in science’s interest to emphasize such points of connection, as science is not winning in “The War on Science”. We need what allies (or at least non-enemies) we can get. Science needs prominent writers like Weinberg to talk up Kepler’s religion just as much as they talk up the Inquisition. Weinberg’s philosophy comments and selecting the data points on religion is a missed opportunity for science.

Read it — but with eyes open

The problems with facts and philosophizing are significant in To Explain the World, but they will not prevent its readers from learning a good deal about science and its long history. Indeed, the amount of history touched upon is at times itself a drawback. Chapter 9 on Arab scientists is a particular example of this. Here Weinberg introduces one scientist after another — in two pages of text (p. 110-111) we meet, and leave, Omar Khayyam, Ibn Sahl, Jabir ibn Hayyan, al-Kindi, al-Razi, and Ibn Sina. But, most readers probably know nothing about any of these scientists, and after finishing the book they will know something. And, the problems with facts and philosophizing will not prevent readers from picking up some technical details on physics and mathematics — although those readers should be aware that Weinberg occasionally includes mathematical material that many readers will not follow. For example, his discussion of the derivative, which includes invoking the idea that squares and cubes of small terms can be neglected (p. 223), will likely be useless to readers not already familiar with that material. The readers can just wade through and continue on, knowing they will likely learn something about the derivative no matter what. The problem regarding technical material is not aided by the absence of any illustrations in the main text, where they are often needed — where Weinberg describes Kepler’s nesting of Platonic solids, for instance (p. 162).

The problems with Weinberg’s book will not prevent readers from learning a good deal about science and its history, and will not prevent them from getting a scientist’s perspective on this subject. Read To Explain the World. Just keep your eyes open for its problems.


Filed under Book Reviews

51 responses to “To Explain the Weinberg: The discovery of a Nobel Laureate’s view of the history of science

  1. Phillip Helbig

    I’m currently reading it as an eBook. My main complaint is that it is not good as an eBook. When I first tried reading it, it essentially didn’t work at all. At the store where I bought both the eBook reader (a tolino) and the eBook (via their online shop), I was told that this was probably due to the fact that many non-German eBooks don’t conform strictly enough to the standard, but that the next operating-system update should nevertheless allow them to display better. The update came in a couple of weeks later and the book is readable, but could be better. For example, one cannot easily jump from footnote signs or endnote numbers in the text to the corresponding note and back. (At least the footnotes and endnotes are separate, but that has nothing to do with the eBook.) I did look at the paper version first to make sure there were no colour and/or high-resolution images which would make me regret having bought the eBook version.

    With regard to his Whig interpretation of the history of science, I think we agree that this is OK. He states clearly that this is his way of seeing things, and notes that the inventor of the term disparaging term “Whig interpretation of history” was himself unabashedly Whiggish when it came to science.

    Facts: Ideally, there should be no factual errors, but the ones you pointed out are minor. Yes, they shouldn’t be there at all, there is really no excuse, but many popular-science books are much worse.

    Philosophizing: He is telling the history of science. Where people’s religious conviction was not relevant to their science, there is no reason to dwell on it. (Perhaps it was relevant to their personal motivation, but that is a different story.) So, Kepler’s religious convictions are really not important to the history of science. Galileo’s problems with the Church, whatever the details, were. I also don’t think that atheists (such as myself and Weinberg) teaming up with accommodationists in order to combat fundamentalism is the way to go. (On a similar note, Leonardo’s drawings of helicopters and so on are important if you want to learn about Leonardo, but not if you want to learn about the history of artificial flight.)

    I think you make too much of the meaningful/meaningless dichotomy. Weinberg stated that the more one knows about the universe, the more pointless it seems. But that is not a contradiction to the personal pleasure of finding things out. Most of the things I enjoy doing are pointless in the grand scheme of things. No contradiction.

    As you write, it is a cut above most science books, and it is obvious that the author is a scientist (and also obvious that he is a theoretician, which he is happy to admit) and actually understands what he is writing about at a deep level, rather than relying on other writers.

    Some of my book reviews:

    • So, Kepler’s religious convictions are really not important to the history of science

      Kepler’s religious convictions form the core of the heuristics of all of his scientific work, so yes they are extremely important to the history of science.

      • Phillip Helbig

        I should have said “modern science” (as in the subtitle of the book) instead of “history of science”. Sure, they are part of the history but if Weinberg is interested, as he says he is, in the forerunners of our understanding of the universe today, Kepler’s laws qualify but his religious views don’t.

      • Without his religious views there would be no laws, at least not from him.

  2. laura

    What a great review. Just to add my two cents, I had a similar reaction — I appreciated Weinberg’s technical analysis — which for the most part was right at the level I needed — and upfrontness about what he’s trying to do. I thought he gave a terrific overview of Ptolemaic astronomy for amateurs and also a good overview of Newtonian mechanics for amateurs like me. I also appreciated the attention to Huygens’ work on centrifugal force which, in my albeit limited reading experience, gets left out of popular books on 17th century physics.

    I also agree that the parts when Weinberg tries to explain how modern physics is inherently objective and divorced from preconceptions were the worst bits and Weinberg really struggles to back up his case by trying to show that, historically, scientific insight comes from his sort of right-thinking. Another error that ties into that is when he seems to claim that Kepler accepted solid-spheres astronomy in Mysterium Cosmographicum (with the spheres and the solids really existing in space) and only rejected the solid spheres of the planets later when he worked with the Tychonic data. That isn’t true but it fits into Weinberg’s larger theme that aesthetic preconceptions usually lead to wrong answers. He also, imo, uses a double standard wrt Kepler and Galileo in assessing what kind of evidence could “reject” the Ptolemaic model. And it’s a little cheap that, after dumping on Descartes’ deductive method, he then lists Gassendi and Huygens as having arrived at the concept of rectilinear inertial motion before Newton while omitting Descartes. At its worst the book reads like Weinberg is being cavalier about facts to create a history of science that fits his own aesthetic preconceptions about how science should work, exactly as he accuses earlier thinkers of doing! But it’s still a thought-provoking book.

    • Phillip Helbig

      “I also agree that the parts when Weinberg tries to explain how modern physics is inherently objective and divorced from preconceptions were the worst bits and Weinberg really struggles to back up his case by trying to show that, historically, scientific insight comes from his sort of right-thinking.”

      I think that there is some confusion here. Science itself is objective, but the process by which we make progress in science is highly subjective, contingent, and personal. This is not a contradiction.

    • Actually I thought his criticism of Descartes was one of the strongest parts of the book. He doesn’t just dump on him for getting so many things wrong; he complaint is that Descartes claimed to have an infallible method for obtaining correct results. He does praise Descartes’ explanation of the rainbow, where Descartes threw his own philosophical dictums overboard.

      Are you familiar with Richard Arthur’s essay, where he says that “one can fairly say that a significant part of what subsequently became known as Cartesian natural philosophy was plagiarized from Beeckman”? Arthur concludes his essay with this explanation for the hostility that Descartes manifested to Beeckman in later years:

      the fact that Beeckman had discovered this coherent ontology through piecemeal reflection on phenomena would have severely compromised Descartes’ insistence on the necessity of the rational foundation he was trying to provide for natural philosophy, as well as exposing his own derivations of these results to a more skeptical scrutiny. From this perspective, I think the threat to Descartes’ project as well as his reputation was very real

      • laura

        I think I read that essay — or at least one you’ve posted here about Descartes’ use of Beeckman’s journal. But Descartes’ theory of the rainbow came pretty early in his career, and Descartes was a mathematician and did his early work on optics and geometry before he became the great rationalist philosopher. Even then, I doubt Descartes would have said it was possible to understand unusual natural phenomena like the rainbow purely rationally. So I’m not sure I would agree he was violating his principles in studying the rainbow empirically.

        I don’t really have a problem with Weinberg’s criticism of Descartes per se, anymore than his criticism of Aristotle. My complaint is he sets up Cartesian rationalism as basically incapable of producing useful results in physics and later avoids the inconvenient fact that Descartes’ rationalism produced something very close to the Newtonian theory of inertia — closer than Beeckman’s concept of same as I understand it. Descartes’ conceptualization of the behavior of bodies in elastic collisions was also hugely important to subsequent thinking. Sure, he was wrong in pretty much all the particulars and didn’t share or appreciate Galileo’s insight about the relationship between idealism and practice and how experiment can adjudicate the two. It would be crazy to try to do physics on Cartesian principles today, in the same way it would be crazy to do astronomy based on Keplerian principles today. But that doesn’t mean Cartesian theorizing didn’t have value in the 17th century. imo, Weinberg wants to make claims about good scientific practice that don’t have the universalism he wants them to.

        (As an aside: I think it’s likely Gassendi was also strongly influenced by Beeckman in developing his theory of inertia. I also think Descartes’ logical “proof” that inertial movement of bodies can only be rectilinear is really beautiful, but that’s a purely personal/aesthetic judgement.)

      • laura: As I said in my introduction I haven’t read Weinberg however if, as is stated here, he says that Cartesian rationalism didn’t produce any useful results in physics he is merely repeating modern mainstream thought on the subject, which is fundamentally correct.

        Descartes added three appendices to his Discourse on the Method – Dioptrique, Météores and Géométrie – to illustrate its use but none of which actually use the Method! Worse than this I have failed to find any 17th-century scholar who actually used Descartes’ method in their work. The only one who claims to do so is Huygens when redrafting the vortex theory in the face of Newton’s (deadly) criticisms, however Huygens actually substantially changes the method without actually saying so.

        Does Descartes use the method when discussing rectilinear inertia? I don’t think he does.

      • Descartes appended *Geometry*, as well as *The Rainbow*, as appendices to *Discourse on the Method*. As I understand it, he did so as “proofs of concept” of his rationalism (or as Wikipedia puts it, “to give examples of the kinds of successes he had achieved following his method”). In *The Rainbow* he wrote in criticism of his predecessor Maurolycus, “This shows how little faith we should place in observations unaccompanied by true reason.” Descartes here is boasting about getting the correct 42 degrees instead of Maurolycus’s 45 degrees for the angle of the rainbow. As Boyer’s old article (“Descartes and the Radius of the Rainbow”, Isis 43:2 (July 1952) p.95-98) remarks, “The value 42 degrees runs like a golden thread through at least half a dozen published works from 1269 to 1611. If Descartes was unaware of any of these anticipations, one can only conclude that he had a remarkable facility for overlooking, in the works of his predecessors, anything which might be of value in connection with his own discoveries.”

        I do have a problem with Weinberg’s criticism of Aristotle, but enough for now.

      • thony: Weinberg’s overarching theme is how difficult it was to “learn how to learn about Nature”. I don’t remember whether he uses the phrase “the scientific method”, but it runs like a golden thread through the book: that halfway-house between pure deductivism and pure empiricism. Weinberg explicitly defends the term “the scientific revolution”.

        Thus his lovingly detailed and sympathetic exposition of Ptolemaic astronomy, and his dismissal of nearly everything else before c.1500.

        Weinberg implicitly assigns two grades (or should that be marks?) to his subjects: “contribution to progress”, and “compared to his contemporaries”. Thus Aristotle receives low marks on the “progress” side of the ledger, since Weinberg regards his legacy as almost entirely baleful. But the Stagyrite gets good marks otherwise:

        I agree with Lindberg that it would be unfair to conclude that Aristotle was stupid. My purpose here in judging the past by the standards of the present is to come to an understanding of how difficult it was for even very intelligent persons like Aristotle to learn how to learn about nature. Nothing about the practice of modern science is obvious to someone who has never seen it done.

        Plato, as a strong influence for deductivism, gets low “progress” marks. Francis Bacon and Descartes get low marks in both categories (“overrated”), for championing outmoded approaches just when “the scientific method” was crowning.

        Irony alert: Weinberg is a well-known devotee of string theory, perhaps the most mathematically intense branch of modern physics, and the one that has had so far zero confrontation with experiment! (Come to think of it, Weinberg might say something about this in To Explain the World, but I can’t remember what.)

      • laura

        Micheal: last comment, but yes, Meteorology, La Dioptrique and La Geometrie are all appended to the Discourse on Method (I’m not sure whether they actually were always bundled together for sale but that was the intention). From my readings on Descartes, historians dispute how much they actually reflect his “method” with historians of the exact sciences tending to take a dimmer view. But much of La Geometrie dates from the mid-20s and Descartes’ “proof” of the sine law of refraction from at least the end of the 20s since Beeckman reports being shown it at the time. So it seems likely much of the science in the Essays predates Descartes’ arrival at his “method”. In general, it seems that natural philosophers *say* they are doing and what they *actually* do are often quite different, and Descartes is just an extreme example of this. Still, Descartes obviously thought his Essays (and his later work on matter and motion) were the products of his method and he produced and inspired a lot of seminal results in 17th century physics even among thinkers (like Leibniz) who were extremely skeptical of him and his claims.

  3. I did read Weinberg’s book (Kindle edition, no problems of any kind). I find myself both less and more critical of it than Graney’s review, though on balance probably less.

    I would say the biggest error in the book is the subtitle: The Discovery of Modern Science. This suggests a comprehensive treatment, with an emphasis on recent developments, rather than a highly personal account of the evolution of astronomy and physics from antiquity up through Newton (and a smattering of other stuff).

    The difference in outlook between Weinberg and current historical practice leads to (IMO) much mutual misunderstanding. Weinberg ultimately cares only about how we got here — with here meaning Newtonian physics. Hence, for example, his dubious treatment of Kepler’s religious views: for understanding Kepler, a serious omission, but for understanding the impact of Kepler’s discoveries, not such a big deal. (Why include anything at all on the topic? A legitimate criticism; Weinberg’s own atheism doubtless colored his narrative choices.)

    Weinberg highlights his disagreement with modern historical practice early on, quoting Lindberg:

    It would be unfair and pointless to judge Aristotle’s success by the degree to which he anticipated modern science (as though his goal was to answer our questions, rather than his own)….The proper measure of a philosophical system or a scientific theory is not the degree to which it anticipated modern thought, but its degree of success in treating the philosophical and scientific problems of its own day.

    and responding:

    I don’t buy it. What is important in science (I leave philosophy to others) is not the solution of some popular scientific problems of one’s own day, but understanding the world. … If the historian’s aim is only to re-create the past, to understand “how it actually was,” then it may not be helpful to judge a past scientist’s success by modern standards. But this sort of judgment is indispensable if what one wants is to understand how science progressed from its past to its present.

    Make no mistake, in the phase “only to re-create the past”, that “only” is to be read dismissively. Caveat lector!

    I see this comment is mostly negative. I will come to Weinberg’s defense on a couple of points in another comment.

    • Phillip Helbig

      “I did read Weinberg’s book (Kindle edition, no problems of any kind).”

      As I mentioned, I have a tolino. I am generally quite happy with it. It supports ePub (and .txt and .pdf); I think there should be an open standard for eBooks. With Amazon, one technically rents or leases the books, rather than buying them. I prefer the latter. Also, Amazon can, and does, change and/or delete content after one has paid. Many new books have Adobe DRM, which I see as essential in making sure that authors get paid. However, out-of-copyright books from Project Gutenberg or wherever can be downloaded in various formats.

  4. ramberg62

    Good review, although I have one objection. I’m not a Kepler scholar, but I understand that Kepler did accept heliocentrism, generally speaking, on aesthetic grounds. He used the accuracy of Tycho’s observations to reject circularity and eventually adopt elliptical orbits. These two things–heliocentrism and ellipses–are not the same thing in terms of Kepler’s work. He was a heliocentrist long before the Astronomia Nova.

    • Kepler saw heliocentricity as the product of a god who was a geometer and this was his grounds for adopting the theory

      • Plus his “philosophical” (=physical) motivations. As James Voelkel (The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova) puts it, in discussing Kepler’s student disputation “Fragmentum orationis de motu terrae”:

        [It] provides additional evidence that it stemmed from a unified consideration of philosophical, theological, and astronomical factors. Most important to this study is that it shows that, from his student days, Kepler was arguing for Copernicus by means of physical reasons (however ill-defined) and that even then he was aware that he faced strong resistance.

      • Yes, because he believed he was studying a ‘real’ cosmos, God’s creation and not just a mathematical model.

      • I think we’re in agreement. It’s not either-or with Kepler, all three aspects dovetail. This holds true even as you delve into the details of his discoveries (e.g., the second law).

        I find Weinberg’s omission of this an egregious consequence of his focus on the evolution of science (and no doubt his atheism). Did Kepler’s theological arguments slow the acceptance of the second law? Not to my knowledge: calculational difficulties and skepticism over his physics proved the main obstacle. Is the theology essential to understanding Kepler? Absolutely.

        Weinberg shows the strength of his background when he avoids dismissing the polyhedral hypothesis as one of those oddball quirks of a great mind, as many treatments used to do. He compares Kepler’s theory to the fascination today for structures like exceptional Lie algebras. “Finite collections of mathematically elegant objects have not lost their appeal in modern physics” (approximate quote).

  5. So, stop me if you’ve heard this a hundred times: A historian and a brain surgeon are chatting at a party. The brain surgeon explains “I’m retiring soon, and I want to write about history. I wonder if you could give me a few pointers.” The historian replies “You know, I’ll be retiring soon also, and it would be great if you could give me a few tips about brain surgery.”

    Chris Graney, a job very well done: thoughtful, insightful and respectful. This review really makes me want to read more; as a result, I will be ordering a new book this weekend and it will be Setting Aside All Authority. Weinberg, along with Penrose and other physics superstars, who have the ability to peer into the abyss and move humanity forward, do seem to have a problem looking backwards. Or is it a problem of taking too big a bite. As you imply, attempting to justifying a theory of everything with everything that came before.

  6. axelboldt

    “But all shadows fall in the same direction at a given hour, and so both the vertical pole and the sundial pole can be used to keep time”

    I don’t think this is correct. Consider a vertical pole at the equator. On equinox, its shadow will point due west before noon and due east after noon. On the days before September equinox, the shadow will travel from west-southwest (in the morning) to south (at noon) to east-southeast (in the evening). So there is no single shadow location you could label “11 am” that would work throughout the year: you would need different “11 am” labels for different days of the year. By contrast, a sundial pole (which at the equator would be horizontal in north-south direction) will cast a shadow whose location uniquely specifies the time of day throughout the year.

    • Phillip Helbig

      “Consider a vertical pole at the equator.”

      I’ll get to it as soon as I am finished with the spherical cow in a vacuum.

    • C M Graney

      The rays of the sun are parallel as they impinge upon the earth, and so shadows are all parallel, regardless of the hour of day. One shadow’s behavior duplicates another’s. The surface on which a shadow is cast can make its behavior more or less complex, but at 10 AM tomorrow a vertical pole, a horizontal pole, and a pole angled parallel to the Earth’s axis are all parallel. This is true at any location on Earth. They can all be used for marking the time of day, and they can all be used for marking time of year.

      • axelboldt

        Put a vertical pole in your backyard tonight, and tomorrow morning at 11am mark off its shadow’s position. A week later at 11am the shadow will be elsewhere (unless you live at the north or south pole). So a vertical pole doesn’t make for a convenient sundial: the mere position of the shadow doesn’t tell you what time it is, unless you already know the day of the year. A pole that’s parallel to the earth’s axis doesn’t have this problem: its shadow’s direction only depends on the time of day, not on the day of the year..

  7. Chris: I’d like to put in my two cents on the religious topics you raise, I hope you don’t mind. I find myself in both agreement and disagreement.

    Weinberg writes:

    It was essential for the discovery of science that religious ideas be divorced from the study of nature.

    (quoted thus in Shapin’s review). For sheer historical inaccuracy, this statement is way worse than mixing up the Inquisition with the Congregation for the Index. I won’t belabor the point (coals to Newcastle).

    I do note the twin sources of Weinberg’s attitude: the dark side of presentism, and atheism. The two have a synergistic effect. Perhaps if Weinberg had been more aware of the former, he would have held the latter in check in coloring his views of the past.

    I get uneasy though when you write about “The War on Science”, concluding:

    We need what allies (or at least non-enemies) we can get. Science needs prominent writers like Weinberg to talk up Kepler’s religion just as much as they talk up the Inquisition.

    This seems to suggest that Weinberg should dissemble his actual opinions for political ends. What’s bad about Weinberg’s treatment isn’t that it’s “religion-unfriendly”, but that it’s historically wrong.

    As you say, presentism isn’t always indefensible: “As for the church being wrong about censorship and treatment of Galileo” etc. But I cannot agree with you about selecting atrocity data points (to coin a phrase). Weinberg has a clear selection criterion: “bad things” that at least arguably belong to the history of science. If one shouldn’t condemn X without also condemning worse thing Y, for all X and Y, then why stop at 17th century Europe? He doesn’t mention the Cambodian killing fields or the Mongolian massacres either.

    I also wonder at some of the “inconsistencies” you highlight under the heading “Philosophizing”. The structure of the first one seems to jump from “X happens” to “the universe is designed to make X happen” without any intermediate steps; here X=”physicists are made happy”. The second one seems to equate “certainly true” with “will appear at least as an approximate feature in any future theory”. The canonical example is Newtonian vs. Einsteinian gravity, but of course others abound, most notably Ptolemaic vs. Keplerian astronomy in To Explain the World.

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  9. C M Graney

    Doesn’t he say “It was essential for the discovery of science that religious ideas be divorced from the study of nature. Once one invokes the supernatural, anything can be explained….”? Also, the “discovery of science” is a vague concept.

    About science needing prominent writers like Weinberg to talk up Kepler’s religion just as much as they talk up the Inquisition: Yes, we do. The world of science has been fighting against “science denial” for decades, and not winning ( Given the measles outbreak in the US, for example, arguably we are losing. We need a different approach. One approach is to look for points of commonality with people who are often skeptical of science. Kepler is such a point. Astronomy textbooks regularly include a short “history” section, which in turn always includes a paragraph about science-and-religion — like Weinberg’s book, always in regards to Galileo, the Inquisition, etc.; never in regards to Kepler. They all select the data. I teach a lot of science-skeptical people — the “Creation Museum” is in my state, just an afternoon’s drive away. In so selecting, these books choose to tell certain people that “scientists are The Other”, and “you and your kind are on the wrong side”. The same can be said about plenty of popular science shows (for example: By contrast, for such people Kepler is *not* “The Other”. He is a guy to whom they could relate — a major scientific figure who could generate interest in science among people who are used to being told that their kind and science don’t mix. I don’t think science-and-religion stuff needs to be included in textbooks, or in Weinberg’s book, but if it is going to be there, then don’t only include Galileo and the Inquisition; for science’s sake (and for accuracy’s sake) include Kepler, too. It is not political to opt not to select only certain stories from science’s history.

  10. A most interesting and thorough review, and some great comments afterwards.
    If I may add just one point, it seems to me that Steven Shapin’s WSJ review of Weinberg’s book – and many other reviews – bring into focus the interesting fact that there exist two very different approaches to the history of science – a dichotomy that deserves examination.
    For historians such as Professor Shapin, the history of science is the study of a branch of human history – not unlike the study of the history of music or the study of the history of art (interesting that the latter is mentioned in the review). It is part of the story of human history, or a *history* of science with emphasis on the first word, if you like.
    On the other hand, practicing scientists such as Steven Weinberg who take an interest in the history of their subject tend to have a very different approach, simply because their motivation is different to that of the historian – the goal is to gain a better understanding of the natural world, by understanding how our view of the natural world developed – it’s a history of *science* , with emphasis on the second word.
    The scientist’s approach has its own logic too, because of the underpinning ‘realist’ philosophy of most scientists – that there is a real world out there that we are slowly uncovering. For a scientist interested in how his/her area of science developed, the ultimate goal is usually a better understanding of the natural world – and thus there is a crucial difference between science and art and therefore between the history of science and history of art. From a scientist’s point of view, the social context of a discovery may be interesting, but it is ultimately irrelevant in the sense that it has little bearing on the validity of the result. If the result matches experiment, it will stand the test of time – if not, it will eventually be rejected, irrespective of social considerations . As Freeman Dyson says in this month’s issue of Physics Today ,“In the long run, it does not matter who discovered what. We all share the joy of discovery even if we do not share the credit.”

    I notice that Professor Shapin makes it clear in his review that he is very aware that different observers have a different interpretation of what constitutes a useful history of science. What is considered a ‘Whig’ history by historians from a humanities background may be considered perfectly sensible by many scientists – and what is considered significant social history by historians may be considered irrelevant by scientists. (A good example of the latter is Paul Forman’s thesis on the importance of social context for the acceptance of quantum theory – a thesis that is hotly contested by most quantum physicists). At its most extreme, there is the scientist who might claim that there is no subject called the ‘history of science’ – there is only science, our attempt to uncover the natural world. The history of our attempts to uncover it is part of science.

    To finish with my favourite example, it is interesting that in over 100 Nobel prizes in physics awarded during a century that saw upheavals such as relativity, radioactivity and quantum physics, there are extremely few Nobel discoveries that are considered incorrect through the lens of today’s science – they have stood the test of time very well so far. It is that sort of history that is of interest to most scientists, i.e., science that has stood the test of time. Yet such ‘history’ is terribly incomplete from the point of the professional historian, whose goal is to trace ‘what happened’ – a task that is very different
    Kind regards, Cormac

  11. Steve McCluskey

    I really like your critique of Weinberg’s book, but you miss a detail when you say Weinberg said that “Jean Buridan rejected the Aristotelian idea that all motion requires a mover.”
    In fact, Buridan considered that impetus was a cause of motion (in an Aristotelian sense), a point which Weinberg makes clear at p.133 where he says that “Buridan shared with Aristotle the assumption that something has to keep moving things in motion, and he conceived impetus as playing this role, rather than as being only a property of motion, like momentum.”
    On this point, Weinberg was aware of the conceptual difference between Medieval Aristotelianism and post Newtonian inertial physics.

  12. Another point on the general theme of who should write the history of science, if I may.
    Shapin’s example of the historian of medicine who wants to become a surgeon unwittingly highlights a problem with the pure historian’s approach – namely that some fields (of modern science) are of a sufficient technical difficulty that they can only be truly understood by specialists who have spent years in the field. In truth, it is not that difficult for a modern gauge theorist to gain an understanding of the development of gauge theory, if they take the time to read all the relevant material (my later father did). But could someone write a useful history of gauge theory if they did not possess any advanced training in mathematics and understand the material? Surely at best, the ‘history’ would be a regurgitation of what other scholars said, at worst a series of misunderstandings. I think it is this aspect of science – technical difficulty – that makes many of us scientists wary of historians accounts of the development of a particular field. After all, who would expect an informed history of the development of classical music from someone who has never had any formal training in music?

    This point might explain why professional historians often seem to put great emphasis on events that seem of little importance to scientists. For example, one suspects that Paul Forman simply doesn’t understand that quantum duality (once established by the observation of electron diffraction in 1925) will always bring one to the phenomenon of quantum uncertainty – irrespective of the Weimer republic (that Heisenberg got there first is incidental).

    This point might also explain the strange specializations historians seem to go in for. One historian I know has made nuclear secrecy in the years 1940-44 his life’s work. But why nuclear secrecy instead of nuclear weapons, or even nuclear physics? Could it be that it is technically much easier to focus on the human angle? Perhaps professional historians emphasize the social context unconsciously because that’s the bit they understand. As always, my money is on joint studies….

  13. Cormac I think you are being rather condescending in your comments on the historian who specialises in the history of nuclear secrecy. Science does not exist in a vacuum but is a central element of the socio-political structure of modern life. The parallel developments of nuclear physics and the atom bomb in the 1930s and 40s were highly political subjects. Just witness the fact that Schrödinger registered his discovery of the nuclear chain reaction under a British naval patent basically rendering it secret, which itself was a highly political act.

    I live in Germany and there has been a more than fifty year debate to what extent the German physicists actively worked to develop an atom bomb or alternatively actively sabotaged the Nazi nuclear programme. That debate is problematic and remains unresolved exactly because of nuclear secrecy in the period under discussion. The history of nuclear secrecy is a central theme of western politics in the 19402 and 50s and a complex interdisciplinary subject involving history of science, social and political history as well as military history and one that I can well imagine could happily keep a good historian occupied for a life time or two.

  14. Yes – words like ‘condescending’ quickly arise whenever the question of technical expertise is mentioned in discussions of the history of science. It’s understandable – one imagines Shapin’s historian felt patronized by the surgeon’s surprise – but it doesn’t solve the problem. Indeed, I suspect one reason the issue of technical expertise is rarely raised by scientists in a public forum (although often in private ) is that no-one likes to be labelled as condescending – but is it not better to have such debates in the open?

    it seems to me that the point stands, although it may be uncomfortable. Think of any technical scientific subject, and then writing a history of it -ouch! Of course nuclear secrecy in Germany in the 1940s is a subject of huge interest and depth – but my point is that it’s not really what scientists would consider a history of *science* – it’s a history of human activity, or a history of technology (btw, the topic I was referring to was nuclear secrecy on the American side in the years 1950-54, my typo). In a course on the history of 20th century science taught by a scientist, nuclear secrecy would be a small paragraph, or maybe a footnote, while nuclear physics would merit an entire chapter or two – presumably this might be the other way round for a historian. So what the two communities call ‘the history of science’ may be in a sense two very different subjects….it’s not that one subject is less than the other

  15. Cormac: I am deeply unsympathetic to radical relativism, and love technical histories, but I think the search for fresh territory lead to the sociological turn, not technical incompetence.

    I enjoyed Weinberg’s book, but I didn’t learn much from it; all or almost all of his treatment of Ptolemaic astronomy, for example, appears in Dreyer and similar works. How many times can historians traverse the road to Newtonian mechanics?

    To keep this comment short, I will simply add that any treatment of the history of nuclear weapons that ignored the secrecy issue would be … strange, to put it mildly.

    Weinberg’s list of the 13 best books on science for the general reader included Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb; it does a masterful job covering the sociological, political, and technical facets.

  16. It’s a bit of a side issue — it says nothing about Kepler’s devoutness — but with regard to the famous 8′ of an arc, let me note that Kepler did not in fact treat the Tycho treasure trove as infallible. On another occasion, he was quite prepared to assume an observation as being 20′ in error. (Voelkel, p.115). As Stephanson realized and Voelkel amply demonstrated, Astronomia Nova is not a blow-by-blow historical record but a carefully constructed argument. In that light, the 8′ quote is probably best regarded as a rhetorical flourish.

    Perhaps that soaring passage from the Harmonices Mundi could be cited instead:

    I can give myself up to the sacred frenzy, … I have stolen the golden vessel of the Egyptians to make from them a tabernacle for my God far from the confines of the land of Egypt. … let the book await a hundred years for its reader, God has waited six thousand years for his work to be seen.</em

    Variant translation: It may well wait a century for a reader, as God has waited six thousand years for an observer.

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  18. Hi Micheal, ‘ The making of the atomic bomb’ is indeed a truly great book. Btw, I would never use words like ‘technical incompetence’ – it’s more a question of different spheres of expertise. My point is that, just as many scientists struggle to understand the science of antiquity, many historians struggle to understand some fields of 20th century science -a question of specialisation and training. it’s a fairly obvious point, but often greeted with great hostility.
    Forums like this reinforce my own radical opinion taht there may exist two histories of science, one of interest to historians, and one of interest to scientists – and not that much overlap in between!

  19. For instance, at one point Weinberg writes “whatever the final laws of nature may be, there is no reason to suppose that they are designed to make physicists happy [p. 165]”. But then later we find, “We learn how to do science, not by making rules about how to do science, but from the experience of doing science, driven by desire for the pleasure we get when our methods succeed in explaining something [p. 214].” And so apparently science exists because indeed the laws of nature are designed to make physicists happy — a sentiment Weinberg repeats elsewhere (p. 248, 255).

    The first idea is that the universe is impersonal. The second is that scientists enjoy doing science and their methods succeed in explaining something. The conclusion that ‘science exists because indeed the laws of nature are designed to make physicists happy’ has no relation to the either idea and does not follow from them. It’s not Weinberg who’s struggling with philosophy (basic logic in fact).

    • Phillip Helbig

      Your comment is confusing because the first paragraph is a quote from Thony’s original post.

      I agree with your comment, and disagree with Thony here: There is no reason to suppose that the laws of nature are designed to make physicists happy. At the same time, we can enjoy science, presumably because our brains evolved for doing similar tasks. No contradiction. Thony said “science exists because indeed the laws of nature are designed to make physicists happy”, but this does not follow from Weinberg’s statements (whether or not you agree with them).

      No rational person would claim that the laws of nature are designed to bring sexual satisfaction to humans. But nevertheless many or even most of us enjoy sexual satisfaction and invest considerable effort into obtaining it. Why? Because it was evolutionarily
      advantageous to do so. Ditto for science, or at least science makes use of abilities which evolved because they were advantageous.

      • C M Graney

        To be fair to Thony, he didn’t post that — his guest blogger (yours truly) did.

        Weinberg says not that scientists enjoy doing science and their methods succeed in explaining something, but rather that scientists learn how to do science by the experience of doing science, which produces enjoyment (i.e. makes them happy) when it explains something. Perhaps I could have used different phrasing instead of “and so [following Weinberg] apparently science exists because indeed the laws of nature are designed to make physicists happy”, instead maybe “and so [following Weinberg] apparently science exists because indeed evolution has designed physicists to be made happy by the laws of nature, much as evolution has designed everyone (and pretty much every complex organism) to be made happy by the laws of sex” — different phrasing, but I’m not sure better. At any rate, my opinion is that Weinberg’s idea that science exists because it creates pleasure idea seems at odds with his idea that there is no reason to suppose that the laws of nature are designed to make physicists happy, and the book would probably be better by simply doing without this kind of philosophizing.

      • Phillip Helbig

        Sorry for the wrong attribution.

        “my opinion is that Weinberg’s idea that science exists because it creates pleasure idea seems at odds with his idea that there is no reason to suppose that the laws of nature are designed to make physicists happy”

        I’m pretty sure that Weinberg doesn’t believe this. The laws of nature are what they are and, since the universe is not teleological, obviously are not like they are because of anything at all to do with us. We have evolved useful skills (if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here). Some of these are closely related to science, or have been exapted to do science. So, it’s not that the laws are designed for us, but rather that we are designed for the laws. A species which wasn’t happy in its environment is at a huge disadvantage.

        Science might be like what some psychologists think music is like, that it did not evolve for its own sake, but makes use of faculties evolved for other reasons, but once there can be used for other things (for example, play a prominent role in sexual selection—just ask any rock start and/or his groupies).

  20. There is a nice interview with Weinberg in Quanta magazine, he makes his views very clear on this

    • Phillip Helbig

      Interestingly, Weinberg says here that he is not a proponent of the multiverse. At the same time, his weak-anthropic (the hyphen is crucial) explanation for the value of the cosmological constant invokes the multiverse—probably the most famous example of the multiverse in cosmology; at least Weinberg is the most famous person to invoke it.

  21. Phillip Helbig

    According to Weinberg’s annual salary is $536,000. The article does put it into perspective, though, when discussing no. 1 on the list (Weinberg is no. 9), whose annual salary is a cool $4.33 million: “His stellar salary rivals that of many college coaches.” 😐

  22. michaelfugate

    Two books that might be of interest:
    The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution
    David Wootton Allen Lane: 2015.
    ISBN: 9781846142109
    The Meaning of Science
    Tim Lewens Pelican Books: 2015.
    ISBN: 9780141977423

  23. araybold

    I don’t follow your argument in the first paragraph under ‘Philosophizing’. The fact that the laws of science (as found so far), and the finding of them, give pleasure and motivation to some people, shows that the known laws have this property, but not that this had to be the case. Here’s an analogy: mountaineering gives pleasure to mountaineers, which is an explanation for the existence of mountaineering as an activity, but does not imply that mountains were designed to be climbed (or that they are all climbable).

    • Rob Flammang


      Your analogy to mountaineering is extremely apt and clearly illustrates an important point. The mountains were not made for the enjoyment of the mountaineers, but obviously mountaineering is made for the enjoyment of mountaineers.

      In English, the word science is used to mean the activity of scientists, but it is also used in an informal sense to mean the objects of study of science taken as a collective. In other words, in the case of science, English confounds mountaineering with mountains. Clearly Science, as in the material universe, was not made for the enjoyment of scientists. But clearly science, the activity, was and is.

  24. Pingback: Let the debate begin! | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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