To Explain the World: the Discovery of Modern Science

Lewis Dartnell in The Telegraph:

Earth_rising_3197121bThere have been many accounts of the historical progression of our understanding of the world around us, especially focusing on the transformative developments that began in the 17th century, but few have had the unique selling point of Steven Weinberg’s To Explain the World. Weinberg is a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, known for his research on elementary particles and the interactions between them, as well as on cosmology. In this sense, then, Weinberg’s chronicle of the long development of physics leading up to the role he has personally played in it is akin to Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. To Explain the World is a sweeping narrative of the progression of ideas, from the geometrical proofs and beliefs on the nature of the cosmos proposed by ancient Greek philosophers, through the Golden Age of Islamic science in ninth-century Baghdad, to Copernicus’s heliocentric architecture of our solar system, Galileo’s discoveries through his spyglass, and Newton’s work on optics and the laws of motion. But Weinberg strives to show not just how our understanding of the cosmos has developed through history – a straightforward chronology of deductions and discoveries – but also to explore how humanity “came to learn how to learn about the world”. He masterfully explains how the emergence of the modern scientific method, the mechanism by which we interrogate the world and devise well-supported explanations we can be confident in, is itself a discovery.

For me, the highlight of the book is the discussion of Nicolaus Copernicus and the transformative shift in our world-view in the mid-16th century. The Copernican Revolution is a well-known story: the classical heritage of the Ptolemaic Earth-centred cosmos with its complex geometrical system of epicycles and deferents for the paths of the planets was replaced by Copernicus’s sun-centric architecture for the solar system. Where Weinberg excels is in his explanation of why the Copernican model became preferred, despite having no observational support and not providing improved predictions.

More here.