Skip to main content

To Explain the World - Steven Weinberg *****

There was a time when one approached a popular science book by a 'real' working scientist with trepidation. There was little doubt they would get the science right, but the chances are it would read more like a textbook or dull lecture notes. Thankfully, there are now a number of scientists who make pretty good writers too, but one area they tend to fall down on in history of science. I've lost count of the number of popular science titles by working scientists (including, infamously also the reboot of the Cosmos TV show, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson) which roll out the tedious and incorrect suggestion that Giordano Bruno was burned for his advanced scientific ideas.

Luckily, though, Steven Weinberg, as well as being a Nobel Prize winning physicist for his work on the electroweak theory (and all round nice guy), has made something of a hobby of history of science and his accounts are largely well done. I might disagree with some of his emphasis, and there are a couple of arguable points when dealing with Newton, both in his introduction of centripetal force and in the claim that the Royal Society published Principia, but on the whole the history is sound.

Perhaps surprisingly for a modern physicist, whose working life has been focussed on the peculiarities of particle theory and the significance of symmetry, Weinberg chooses to write about the period when the scientific method was evolving. So he starts with the Ancient Greeks and runs through to Newton, with only a short summary chapter filling in everything else in physics.

I have given the book five stars because I think that Weinberg builds this structure beautifully, showing how very different the ancient ideas of natural philosophy were from natural science and explaining in far more detail than I've ever seen in a popular work how the different models of the universe (what we would now call the solar system) were developed through time, including really interesting points like the way that Ptolemy-style epicycles were maintained in the early Copernican era.

He is also very good on the period when Arab scientists did original work and brought the mostly forgotten Greek works to the attention of the world. Here he treads what feels a very sound line between the older tendency to play down the Arab contribution and the more recent tendency to allow this period more of a contribution than it really had. Weinberg is perhaps a little sparse in his appreciation of the medieval period, ignoring Grosseteste and only having a passing reference  to one thing that Roger Bacon mentions, but again he then very much puts Descartes and Francis Bacon in their proper place, rather than giving too much weight to their work.

Reading this book you will find out a whole lot about Ancient Greek science plus the contributions of Galileo and Newton, and it will be a rewarding read. Don't expect a lot of context - there is only very sketchy biographical information - so the content can be a little dry in places, but Weinberg's impressive grasp of the gradual evolution of the scientific method more than makes up for this.

The only slight surprise was that the book is significantly shorter than it looks. The main text ends on page 268 of 416. The rest (apart from the index) is a series of 'technical notes' which are effectively textbook explanations of various developments in physics from some Greek basics through to Newtonian matters like planetary masses and conservation of momentum. I'll be surprised if 1 in 100 readers makes it through these. There has also been some carping that Weinberg expects ancient philosophers to take too modern a view, so tends to be over-critical - it's a matter of taste, I suspect.

So, highly recommended if you want a history of the development of physics from ancient Greece through to Newton with a lot of detail on the way that both the model of the solar system and the basics of mechanics were developed in that period. Weinberg's writing may be a little dry with its lack of biographical context, but it is rarely dull as he keeps the ideas flying.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…