Dreams of a Final Theory
by steven weinberg
pantheon, 338 pages, $25
In the second-to-last chapter of his new book, Dreams of a Final Theory, Steven Weinberg writes, “It would be wonderful to find in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role. I find sadness in doubting that we will.” This statement seems to indicate a subtle change in thought since the publication of Weinberg’s first popular science book, an explanation of the big bang theory called The First Three Minutes (1977), at the end of which he wrote, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” The difference is the sadness Weinberg expresses in the new book, perhaps the result of age or experience.
Steven Weinberg received the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his contributions to the unification of the electromagnetic and weak interactions of subatomic particles. He would like to live to see the other forces, gravity and the strong nuclear force, joined together with those two in a grand unified theory of nature; hence the title of his interesting and frustrating book. Weinberg often comes close to recognizing the limits of physics as a discipline, but then pulls back, forces a stiff upper lip, as it were, and reminds himself and the reader that in the end science is still the best way to satisfy humanity’s longing for ultimate answers.
Weinberg’s feelings toward organized religion are complex. He opposes it when evangelicals attempt to meddle in the public school system to get creationism taught as a viable theory alongside evolution. But he also expresses a grudging respect for religious conservatives: “At least the conservatives, like the scientists,” he writes, “tell you that they believe in what they believe because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy.” Religious liberals, on the other hand, with their extreme tolerance and notion that all belief systems are equally valid, remind Weinberg of what physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said when he was presented with a particularly ill-conceived theory: it was so bad that it wasn’t even wrong.
These ruminations take place in the penultimate chapter, entitled “What about God?” The reader might ask, what could come after God? The answer, in this case, is an unconvincing pitch for the superconducting supercollider, which was canceled late last year by Congress. It might seem crass to follow a chapter about God with a plea for more funding, but in fact for Weinberg the concept of God never approaches even the diluted status it had for Einstein, who at least paid lip service to what he felt was the impersonal designer of the cosmos.
Weinberg’s pleas for the SSC, on the other hand, occur pretty much throughout the book; he believes it is absolutely essential to taking the next step in the search for the final theory, the theory that Einstein sought in vain.
Weinberg resolutely believes that such a theory exists (with all its Platonic implications), and that an operation on the order of the $11 billion SSC is absolutely essential to its discovery. He therefore disapproves of the narrow congressional interests that brought about the SSC program’s demise. There are other programs, he thinks, that should have been cut first. What one wonders at this point is why physicists and scientists in general tend to be liberals, when it has been precisely conservative Presidents like Reagan and Bush who most attentively listened to the scientists’ pleas for big projects, and who most seriously promoted them. There is an ironic justice in the fact that the SSC was finally killed under a Democratic Congress and Administration.
What frustrates the most about Weinberg, however, is his failure to recognize more of a kinship with “religious conservatives,” whom he sometimes treats, like most scientists do, as science’s consistently worst enemy. (Images of Galileo and burnings at the stake are, tediously, evoked once again.)
But as Weinberg himself demonstrates elsewhere in his own book, science has always had enemies throughout its history. Because of their innate skepticism and constant empirical probing, science and scientists have been poorly tolerated in virtually every society in history. In fact, science was severely hobbled in every culture in which it took root—except one: Western Christendom.
It may be too much for Weinberg to accept that Christianity patronized and succored science in its infancy, as more and more historians are beginning to realize. But it should not be too much for him to realize that, among world civilizations, the Christian West hindered science the least—and for reasons that are not themselves accidental.
Science is itself a religion in at least this sense: it is dependent on axioms that cannot themselves be demonstrated but must be granted (or believed). Science shares with Christianity (and Judaism) the fundamental axiom that the world operates according to rational laws. Most scientists may no longer believe in the creator, whose rational mind, Jews and Christians believe, lies behind the ordered universe, but they do still treat His creation as though it were rationally designed.
What threatens this axiom for scientists, Weinberg should realize, is surely not Christianity in any of its forms, but rather the proliferating movements of mumbo jumbo, charitably grouped under the category New Age, and the more sophisticated and hostile ideologies in the academy. Weinberg is, thankfully, not blind to these dangers, and chapter seven, “Against Philosophy,” illustrates his belief that anti-Western ideologies are ultimately anti-scientific, even if he fails to notice a natural ally for science in the Church.
An even more encouraging chapter in the book is “Beautiful Theories,” and it does much to make up for Weinberg’s blind spots. There have been many superficial tributes to the so-called “simplicity” and “elegance” of scientific theories in popular writings, and Weinberg explores this aspect of science through a description of Einstein’s general relativity. One often supposes that one must have some mathematical bent in order to appreciate what simplicity means in a physical theory, but Weinberg shears through this myth and brings Einstein’s work into fresh perspective.
The remarkable thing about Einstein, as Newton before him, is the extent to which he converted an entire generation of physicists to his new view of gravitation with what, for many years, was rather slim observational evidence. The famous test of light rays being bent by the sun’s gravity, for instance, initially had a rather large margin of error, and the advance of the perihelion of Mercury was the only other piece of evidence, however telling. Nevertheless, scientists accepted Einstein’s theory without much question right through the 1960s, when a new generation explored the possibilities of neutron stars (discovered in 1967) and technology allowed the more advanced measurements of gravity that have virtually settled the question in Einstein’s favor.
This manner of proceeding might seem a bit backwards, but what convinced so many physicists during the interim was indeed the simplicity of Einstein’s theory. It made do with so few assumptions that the majority in the physics community felt it simply had to be right.
The same was true of Newton. For many years after his Principia, the observed paths of comets did not seem to cleanly fit his inverse square law of gravitation to the absolute accuracy that the theory predicted. Again, most scientists imputed this lack of fit (correctly as it turned out) to their ignorance of as yet unknown factors such as rotational pressures on the comets rather than to flaws in Newton’s theory.
These are facts worth remembering in a culture that tends to be excessively empirical about so many facets of life. While much of academia, especially the humanities, has been corrupted by political correctness and an excessive pursuit of dissociation, the hard science of physics still looks for unity, cohesiveness, and simplicity.
Weinberg makes one grateful for that fact. He calls himself a rough and ready realist. One can quibble with the term, but it is perhaps better to take him at his word, and hope that physicists and cosmologists retain their realism, for it is under siege everywhere else in the academy. There is still hope, meanwhile, for closer and closer ties between science and “religious conservatives,” especially if attacks on science intensify, as it seems they surely will.
John Farrel is a freelance writer living in the Boston area.