Steven Weinberg teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and the National Medal of Science. His latest book for general readers is Lake Views: This World and the Universe.

Eye on the Present—The Whig History of Science

‘Scenography of the Copernican World System’; engraving from Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia macrocosmica, 1660
It was the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield who described and condemned what he called “the Whig interpretation of history.” In a book with that title, the young Butterfield in 1931 declared that “the study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of …

Physics: What We Do and Don’t Know

A view of about a quarter of the ‘Hubble Deep Field,’ a tiny patch of sky about one thirtieth the diameter of the full moon, photographed in December 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope with an exposure time of ten days, showing the ‘deepest-ever’ view of the universe. The galaxies in this picture are so far away that their light has been traveling to us for most of the history of the universe.
In the past fifty years two large branches of physical science have each made a historic transition. I recall both cosmology and elementary particle physics in the early 1960s as cacophonies of competing conjectures. By now in each case we have a widely accepted theory, known as a “standard model.”

The Election—IV

Here is the Romney strategy: since you don’t like what you’ve got, vote for what you haven’t got. Whatever it is you haven’t got, it is better than what you’ve got. That was supposed to be enough to secure election after what we’ve got—Obama’s apparent economic failure. But the Romney campaign is taking what-you-haven’t-got-ism to new heights of what-you-mustn’t-know-ism.

Why the Higgs?

Part of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider under construction, Cessy, France, 2007
The following is part of an introduction to James Baggott’s new book Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the “God Particle,” which will be published in August by Oxford University Press. Baggott wrote his book anticipating the recent announcement of the discovery at CERN near Geneva—with some corroboration from Fermilab—of …

The Big Higgs Question

The central part of the Compact Muon Solenoid is lowered into place, Cessy, France, February 28, 2007

By the 1980s we had a good comprehensive theory of all observed elementary particles and the forces (other than gravitation) that they exert on one another. One of the essential elements of this theory is a symmetry, like a family relationship, between two of these forces, the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. Electromagnetism is responsible for light; the weak nuclear force allows particles inside atomic nuclei to change their identity through processes of radioactive decay. The symmetry between the two forces brings them together in a single “electroweak” structure. The general features of the electroweak theory have been well tested; their validity is not what has been at stake in the recent experiments at CERN and Fermilab, and would not be seriously in doubt even if no Higgs particle had been discovered. But one of the consequences of the electroweak symmetry is that, if nothing new is added to the theory, all elementary particles, including electrons and quarks, would be massless, which of course they are not. So, something has to be added to the electroweak theory, some new kind of matter or field, not yet observed in nature or in our laboratories. The search for the Higgs particle has been a search for the answer to the question: What is this new stuff we need?

The Crisis of Big Science

Construction of an underground shaft for the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas. The SSC was supposed to be the largest particle accelerator in the world, but its funding was canceled by Congress in 1993.
During the debate over the Superconducting Super Collider, I was on the Larry King radio show with a congressman who opposed it. He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was “No.”

Symmetry: A ‘Key to Nature’s Secrets’

The five regular polyhedra. Steven Weinberg writes that ‘they satisfy the symmetry requirement that every face, every edge, and every corner should be precisely the same as every other face, edge, or corner.... Plato argued in Timaeus that these were the shapes of the bodies making up the elements: earth consists of little cubes, while fire, air, and water are made of polyhedra with four, eight, and twenty identical faces, respectively. The fifth regular polyhedron, with twelve identical faces, was supposed by Plato to symbolize the cosmos.’
In conversations with friends who are not physicists or mathematicians, I find that they often take symmetry to mean the identity of the two sides of something symmetrical, like the human face or a butterfly. That is indeed a kind of symmetry, but it is only one simple example of a huge variety of possible symmetries.

The Universes We Still Don’t Know

Stephen Hawking at the World Science Festival’s opening night gala at Lincoln Center, New York City, June 2, 2010
In 1992 I joined with other physicists in lobbying for the funding of a large elementary particle accelerator, the Superconducting Super Collider. We had the bright idea of holding a seminar for members of the House of Representatives, at which we would explain the importance of this facility for scientific …

The Missions of Astronomy

Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Copernicus; illustration by Stefan Della Bella from the frontispiece of Dialogo di Galileo Galilei (1632), on view in the exhibition 'Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works,' at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas Austin through January 3, 2010
A few years ago, I decided that I needed to know more about the history of science, so naturally I volunteered to teach the subject. In working up my lectures, I was struck with the fact that in the ancient world, astronomy reached what from a modern perspective was a …

Without God

In his celebrated 1837 Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard, titled “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted that a day would come when America would end what he called “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands.” His prediction came true in the twentieth century, and in no …

The Election and America’s Future

For what has been called “the most consequential election in decades,” we have asked some of our contributors for their views.—The Editors   K. ANTHONY APPIAH Princeton, New Jersey If there’s one thing that supporters of the current administration insist upon, it’s that George W. Bush “is a …

The Wrong Stuff

Ever since NASA was founded, the greater part of its resources have gone into putting men and women into space. On January 14 of this year, President Bush announced a “New Vision for Space Exploration” that would further intensify NASA’s concentration on manned space flight. The International Space Station, which …

What Price Glory?

War offers ample opportunities for most varieties of foolishness. Among these, there is one sort of folly to which war is especially well suited: the lust for glory. One can hardly ever be sure about a commander’s motives in any one case, but there are familiar signs of that lust: …

Is the Universe a Computer?

Everyone knows that electronic computers have enormously helped the work of science. Some scientists have had a grander vision of the importance of the computer. They expect that it will change our view of science itself, of what it is that scientific theories are supposed to accomplish, and of the …

The Growing Nuclear Danger

The United States possesses an enormous nuclear arsenal, left over from the days of the cold war. We have about 6,000 operationally deployed nuclear weapons,[^1] of which roughly 2,000 are on intercontinental ballistic missiles, 3,500 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and a few hundred carried by bomber aircraft. These are thermonuclear …

Can Missile Defense Work?

  1. On December 13, 2001, President Bush announced that in six months the United States would withdraw from the 1972 ABM treaty, a treaty that limits the testing and prohibits the deployment of any national missile defense system by Russia or the US. The stated reason for this decision …

The Future of Science, and the Universe

In the program for a lecture series at the New York Public Library I saw one vision of the future: Raymond Loewy’s conception of an airliner, as exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.[^1] I was there at the 1939 World’s Fair, but I don’t remember Raymond Loewy’s …

Can Science Explain Everything? Anything?

One evening a few years ago I was with some other faculty members at the University of Texas, telling a group of undergraduates about work in our respective disciplines. I outlined the great progress we physicists had made in explaining what was known experimentally about elementary particles and fields—how when …

A Designer Universe?

I have been asked to comment on whether the universe shows signs of having been designed.[^1] I don’t see how it’s possible to talk about this without having at least some vague idea of what a designer would be like. Any possible universe could be explained as the work of …