Steven Weinberg: the 13 best science books for the general reader

Steven Weinberg in The Guardian:

Andromeda-007If you had a chance to ask Aristotle what he thought of the idea of writing about physical science for general readers, he would not have understood what you meant. All of his own writing, on physics and astronomy as well as on politics and aesthetics, was accessible to any educated Greek of his time. This is not evidence so much of Aristotle’s skills as a writer, or of the excellence of Greek education, as it is of the primitive state of Hellenic physical science, which made no effective use of mathematics. It is mathematics above all that presents an obstacle to communication between professional scientists and the general educated public. The development of pure mathematics was already well under way in Aristotle’s day, but its use in science by Plato and the Pythagoreans had been childish, and Aristotle himself had little interest in the use of mathematics in science. He perceptively concluded from the appearance of the night sky at different latitudes that the Earth is a sphere, but he did not bother to use these observations (as could have been done) to calculate the size of our planet.

Physical science began seriously to benefit from mathematics only after Aristotle’s death in 322BC, when the vital centre of science moved from Athens to Alexandria. But the indispensable use of mathematics by Hellenistic physicists and astronomers began to get in the way of communication between scientists and the public. Looking over the surviving highly mathematical works of Aristarchus, Archimedes and Ptolemy, we can feel a twinge of sympathy for Greeks or Greek-speaking Romans who tried to keep up with the latest discoveries about light, fluids or the planets.

It was not long before writers called “commentators” began to try to fill this gap.

More here.