At the Core of Science

William Blake: Newton, 1795–circa 1805

In 1967, Steven Weinberg, then a visiting professor at MIT, published what has become one of the most frequently cited papers in physics. In it, he presented a mathematical model that “unified” two of the four fundamental forces of nature. What he showed was that these two seemingly very different forces—the electromagnetic force and the “weak” force, which affects radioactive decay—were actually both manifestations of a single more basic force.

For this achievement in bringing dramatically increased coherence to our understanding of how nature works at its deepest level, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 (along with Sheldon Glashow and Abdus Salam, who were also involved in the effort). Weinberg has continued to make profound and innovative contributions to theoretical physics, as the Higgins Professor at Harvard and then as the Josey Regental Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he currently teaches. He has an outsized role in setting the agenda for his fellow physicists, many of whom regard him as the most distinguished living member of their profession.

Weinberg has also shown himself to be a superb explainer of science. At a rarefied level, his weighty treatises The Quantum Theory of Fields and Gravitation and Cosmology are masterworks of theoretical exposition, revered by graduate students. For a popular audience, his 1977 book The First Three Minutes gives a cinematically gripping account of what was happening in the infant universe just after the Big Bang. (It was on the last page of this book that he made his oft-quoted observation, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”) And as readers of The New York Review have long been aware, Weinberg is an eloquent and persuasive commentator on the philosophical and public policy aspects of science—on the tension between science and religion, on the pros and cons (mainly cons) of a missile defense system, on the abuse of science by certain postmodernists, and on the quest for a “final theory” of physics.

Now Weinberg has added another credential to his crowded vita: historian of science. In his past writings, he had mainly concerned himself with the modern era of physics and astronomy, from the late nineteenth century to the present—a time, he says, when “the goals and standards of physical science have not materially changed.” Yet to appreciate how those goals and standards took shape, he realized he would have to dig deeper into the history of science. So, “as is natural for an academic,” he volunteered to teach a course on the subject—in this case, to undergraduates with no special background in science or mathematics. Then he immersed himself in the primary and secondary literature. The result is To Explain the World, which takes us all the way from the first glimmerings of science in ancient Greece, through the medieval world, both…

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