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.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Tim Woollings - Four Way Interview

Tim Woollings is an Associate Professor in Physical Climate Science at the University of Oxford, leading a team of researchers in the Atmospheric Dynamics group. He obtained his PhD in Meteorology in 2005 and since then has worked on a variety of topics spanning weather prediction, atmospheric dynamics and circulation, and the effects of climate change. He has studied how the jet stream varies over weeks, years, and decades, and how we can better predict these changes. He was a contributing author on three chapters of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Tim worked at the University of Reading as a postdoc, research fellow and then lecturer before moving to the University of Oxford in 2013. He is now the Oxford Joint Chair of the Met Office Academic Partnership. His new book is Jet Stream.

Why climate?

It has never been more important to learn about how our climate system works, and how we are affecting it. You certainly get a lot of satisfaction when your work touches on hugely important …

The Apollo Chronicles - Brandon Brown *****

There were two reasons I wasn't expecting much from this book. Firstly, there have been so many titles on the Apollo programme and the space race. And secondly, a book that focusses on the engineering involved would surely be far too much at the nut and bolt level (literally), missing out on the overarching drama that makes the story live. Also there were so many people involved - 400,000 is mentioned - that we couldn't have much human interest because we would be bombarded with lists of names.

Instead, I was charmed by Brandon Brown's account. His father was one of the engineers, but he isn't given undue prominence - Brown picks out a handful of characters and follows them through, bringing in others as necessary, but never overwhelming us with names. And while it's true that there is a lot of nitty gritty engineering detail, it rarely becomes dull. Somehow, Brown pulls off the feat of making the day-to-day, hectic engineering work engaging.

I think in part this …

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expect…