Book of the week: Lake Views

Graham Farmelo delights in a top physicist's views on science, policy and faith

January 28, 2010

Steven Weinberg is, in some ways, the Richard Dawkins of physics. Both are elegant writers, gifted explicators, hard-line rationalists, militant atheists and always game for an intellectual dust-up. But while Dawkins is a very good scientist, Weinberg is a pre-eminent one, among the greatest theoretical physicists the world has seen in the past 50 years.

Weinberg has contributed to our understanding of all the fundamental forces of nature and of the workings of the Universe on the grandest scale. His literary talent first became clear in 1977 when he published The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, the most popular modern account of the beginning of the Universe until Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time just over a decade later.

Over the past 30 years, Weinberg has written several books for non-specialists, several first-rate textbooks, including his classic trilogy on quantum field theory, and, last year, the monumental and deplorably under-reviewed Cosmology. Of all top-class theoretical physicists no one, apart from Freeman Dyson, writes with the same combination of authority and grace.

Lake Views is Weinberg's second collection of essays. As he says in the preface, this collection follows the first (published in 2001) in being "rationalist, reductionist, realist and devoutly secular". Above all, the overwhelming impression one has when reading Weinberg is that we are seeing the world through the eyes of someone who not only loves physics but regards the physicist's way of looking at the world as uniquely valuable.

In a friendly interview with Dawkins last year, when Dawkins suggested to him that "physics is a sort of senior science ... biology has the complexity but physics has the fundamentals", Weinberg laughed and replied, "Of course, we physicists feel that way, but we're much too polite to say so."

In Weinberg's opinion, research in fundamental physics is directional, heading towards a bedrock fundamental theory that underpins how the Universe works. He makes clear his disdain for sociologists who deny that physics is tending towards an asymptotic limit. "As I understand it," he writes, "most sociologists of science either deny the existence of this asymptotic limit or choose to ignore it."

He has previously stuck his neck out and said that this "final theory" is likely be discovered in the present century, but with so many problems currently besetting physics - several of them discussed here - there is little risk that he and his colleagues will imminently render themselves redundant.

Weinberg is as good on physicists as he is on physics. In one of two essays on Einstein, he sympathetically reviews Einstein's mistakes, pointing out that the greatest error of the most accomplished modern physicist was that "he became a prisoner of his own successes" by trying to repeat the research tactics that yielded the triumphs of his heyday.

Robert Oppenheimer, Einstein's colleague at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is the subject of an intriguing book review, including the story of a "terribly formal" lecture Weinberg gave at the institute, when he was interrupted by Oppenheimer, who said that the performance reminded him of himself at a similar age. Weinberg blurted out his thanks, only for Oppenheimer to comment gravely, "It wasn't a compliment."

Many of the most powerful essays here are about science policy. An abiding concern of Weinberg's is that the US space programme must focus on serious science. In "The wrong stuff", he fumes at much of what is laughably called the science programme of the astronauts on the space shuttle and the Great Orbital Turkey (aka the International Space Station). Most of this programme "has the flavour of projects done for a high school science talent contest", Weinberg says.

He insists that it would be best for Nasa to explore space with artificial sensors after facing down the expensive public appetite for sending people into space. Unimpressed with the astronauts' proverb "No bucks without Buck Rogers", Weinberg dismisses George W. Bush's vision of "manned" space exploration as being devoid of economic, military or scientific purpose. It will be fascinating to see if Barack Obama can fashion a programme that commands not only the support of results-hungry scientists but also of an adventure-loving public who will pay for it.

Much more pressing is the question of nuclear weapons. As Weinberg notes, while other topics command much more attention - especially global warming and the spread of infectious diseases - a nuclear catastrophe could be even more serious, with the potential to wipe out entire countries. In "The growing nuclear danger", he writes that he is surprised that this possibility crops up so rarely in political campaigns.

Yet the nuclear stockpiles remain at roughly Cold War levels, and it is by no means impossible that an all-out nuclear war could begin by accident. This essay is a powerful and well-informed corrective to the prevailing complacency.

Weinberg is chary of writing about topics far outside his areas of speciality. But when he is tempted, he does not mind offending his opponents with his plain speaking. This may explain his observation that in all the causes he has publicly espoused, "I have kept a perfect record of never having changed anyone's mind."

He will certainly not sully his clean sheet with the essay in which he berates Israel's opponents, especially Jewish and Israeli liberals he sees as eager to show that they are "more anti-Israel than thou". He sets the tone of the essay in its opening sentence: "The greatest miracle of our time is the rebirth of Israel in its ancient home." In the words that follow, he offers not a word of disapproval of Israel's foreign policy or of sympathy for the Palestinians.

He is similarly forthright in one of the book's highlights: a review of Richard Dawkins' polemic The God Delusion. Part of the review is devoted to criticising the book's critics, including Terry Eagleton, who allegedly "sneers" at Dawkins' lack of theological training. That is like dismissing a critic of astrology on the grounds that he or she cannot cast a horoscope, Weinberg says. However, he takes issue with Dawkins for failing to appreciate that non-believers have largely won the argument, although the point appears to be blunted a few pages later when Weinberg agrees that anyone who denies the existence of God could not possibly be elected President of the United States.

Dawkins is given some stick, too, for treating religions with a contempt that is much too even-handed. Weinberg believes that part of the problem in dealing with Islamic terrorists is the "certitude of their faith", something he believes is not shared by other religions, strangely not mentioning those who waved their Bible in support of George W. Bush for years. "I share Dawkins's lack of respect for all religions," Weinberg concludes, "but in our times it is folly to disrespect them all equally."

All physicists will take pleasure from this book. Many others will enjoy it, too, if the publishers take the initiative and ensure that it is properly promoted. They should urge Dawkins' admirers to read Weinberg if they are in the least bit curious about modern physics and how a great physicist thinks about science policy. Lake Views is an excellent place to start.

THE AUTHOR

Steven Weinberg is Josey Regental chair in science at the University of Texas at Austin, and has been a member of the physics and astronomy departments there since 1982.

He is most notable for having won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, and has also won a host of other prestigious awards including the 1991 National Medal of Science and the 2004 Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society, where he was described in the citation as "the pre-eminent theoretical physicist alive in the world today".

Along with his specialist academic work on elementary particles and cosmology, Weinberg has become a champion of the atheist cause. Weinberg has said of his own beliefs: "Maybe at the very bottom of it ... I really don't like God. You know, it's silly to say I don't like God because I don't believe in God, but (I don't like God) in the same sense that I don't like Iago, or the Reverend Slope or any of the other villains of literature."

Lake Views: This World and the Universe

By Steven Weinberg
Harvard University Press 2pp, £19.95 ISBN 9789674035157
Published 28 January 2010

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