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The Future of Science’

To the Editors:

Steven Weinberg ends his paean to scientific fundamentalism [“The Future of Science, and the Universe,” NYR, November 15, 2001] on the optimistic note that “there are new values that we can invent.” “Though aware that there is nothing in the universe that suggests any purpose for humanity,” he continues, “one way that we can find a purpose is to study the universe by the methods of science, without consoling ourselves with fairy tales about its future, or about our own.” Does he really not recognize that the imaginative journey on which his essay takes us offers just another such fairy tale—more consoling, or less, depending on our taste in these matters?

Ruth Hubbard
Professor Emerita of Biology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

Steven Weinberg’s latest essay, “The Future of Science, and the Universe,” is troubling for a number of reasons. On the face of it, he seems victim of one of the more common fallacies in asserting that either the world will curl back into a fiery ball, or it will stretch out into a thin and icy plateau. Leaving aside the issue of whether our perceptions govern anything more than our own ear canals and eyeballs, assuming, let’s say, that what we see is actually happening, when dealing with the unspeakable numbers of chemical and physical reactions in the universe, isn’t it possible that any number of futures are possible? Isn’t the constancy of change a factor in Weinberg’s predictions?

Looking a little beyond the fallacies, Weinberg presents his findings as “not entirely jolly,” even tragic, he says, but here I must point out that what interests us, the facts, so stated, interest us when they relate to us. Thoreau discovered as much in his studies of nature: “Facts must be the vehicle of some humanity in order to interest us…must be warm, moist, incarnated—have been breathed on at least. A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.”

Weinberg’s either/or view of the future of the universe frightens a little because it has no humanity in it. Those distant stars no longer warm even a corner of the heart? There’s no celebration of the individual in our quest for knowledge anymore?

Further, Weinberg’s description of his view as tragic is a misnomer. As the tragic stems from the Greeks through Shakespeare and to today, it involves cathartic empathy and weeping for a wholly human suffering. That our little world is going to perish in either a firestorm or an ice storm, Weinberg’s view that in the interim we have no purpose or meaning, this is not tragic, it’s a kind of nihilism.

What’s most troubling of all is that Weinberg uses science to prove that “there is nothing in the universe that suggests any purpose for humanity.” Here he seems to have detached language and fact from any human reason at all. He floats in a sea of arrogance and scientific fiddling, and mistakes our mortality for meaninglessness.

If science loses its human ideals, if science begins to tell us horror stories about the meaninglessness of our little world party here on earth, it seems that the efforts of scientists past are lost.

What’s more, on a practical note, when we’re at war (a war being conducted by a president and cabinet not popularly elected) don’t we have a more immediate purpose—scientists and humanists alike—to alleviate what suffering we can?

Mark Wagner
Professor of Humanities
Nichols College
Dudley, Massachusetts

Steven Weinberg replies:

I thought that I had made pretty clear what degree of certainty or uncertainty should be attached to predictions about the future of the universe, but maybe not. It is just about certain that the universe has been expanding for at least ten billion years and that it will go on expanding for at least another few billion years. During that time the sun will almost certainly get too hot for human life as it now exists on earth. It appears that the expansion began to accelerate a few billion years ago, but we will need more data to be sure about this.

All plausible theories, moreover, indicate that the universe will either continue to expand and cool or will recontract to a state of enormous temperature and density, just as a ball thrown straight up in the air will either escape the earth’s gravity or fall back to the surface. I can’t think of any third alternative, but perhaps someone will. The ultimate decay of all matter into electrons and radiation is far from certain, but there is a good chance that this question will be settled soon experimentally. All this is neither a fallacy nor a fairy tale—it is just the best we can do right now to predict what will really happen to the universe.

I find some consolation in the ability of humans to ponder the future in this way, though Professor Hubbard is quite right to say that this is a matter of taste. But whatever one’s taste in consolation, surely it is better to confront what scientific research reveals about the universe without wishful thinking, demanding neither that it console us nor that it be a “celebration of the individual,” as Professor Wagner would like, but asking only whether it is likely to be true.

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