To Explain the World: the Discovery of Modern Science

Sam Kean in The New York Times:

KeanSteven Weinberg doesn’t think much of Plato or Pythagoras. Nor does he hold René Descartes or Francis Bacon in ­especially high regard. But in his new book on the origins of science, “To Explain the World,” Weinberg casts particular aspersions on science historians themselves. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Weinberg has set out to write a broad historical overview that can explain how humanity invented science. But he finds that historians disdain nearly everything that excites him. They mistrust overarching narratives and notions of progress. Some dispute the very idea of a scientific revolution.

…Certain numbers, called constants of nature, come up over and over in studying physics, and many physicists want to know the reason those numbers have the values they do. Why is gravity as strong as it is? Why do electrons have one specific mass and charge and not another? Scientists haven’t made much progress here, and Weinberg suggests that perhaps there isn’t any deep reason. Perhaps we live in one of many universes, each of which has constants with essentially random values. The universe is the way it is just because. It’s a prospect that would have horrified Newton, and probably depresses any number of modern scientists. It amounts to abandoning the search for deeper meaning. As Weinberg wrote in his book “The First Three Minutes,” “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” But “To Explain the World” ultimately undercuts such nihilism. It tells a rich, meaningful tale about the emergence of science, and evokes a sense of “how difficult was the discovery of modern science, how far from obvious are its practices and standards.” Maybe the universe at large is pointless and random, but we still have the triumph of science, Weinberg reminds us, this “extraordinary story, one of the most interesting in human history.”

More here.