Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Weinberg explains the history of science

Physicst Steven Weinberg is coming out with a new book, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. Here is an audio interview and excerpt:
Science is not now what it was at its start. Its results are impersonal. Inspiration and aesthetic judgment are important in the development of scientific theories, but the verification of these theories relies finally on impartial experimental tests of their predictions. Though mathematics is used in the formulation of physical theories and in working out their consequences, science is not a branch of mathematics, and scientific theories cannot be deduced by purely mathematical reasoning. Science and technology benefit each other, but at its most fundamental level science is not undertaken for any practical reason. Though science has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of God or the afterlife, its goal is to find explanations of natural phenomena that are purely naturalistic. Science is cumulative; each new theory incorporates successful earlier theories as approximations, and even explains why these approximations work, when they do work.

None of this was obvious to the scientists of the ancient world or the Middle Ages, and it was learned only with great difficulty in the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nothing like modern science was a goal from the beginning. So how then did we get to the scientific revolution, and beyond it to where we are now? That is what we must try to learn as we explore the discovery of modern science.
I can only assume that he is dissatisfied with science historian accounts of the so-called scientific revolution. Usually they emphasize all the wrong things.

I haven't seen the book. He appears to have the view that science got fully on track around the time of Newton, but he also credits the ancients for doing brilliant work. Greek astronomy, as perfected by Ptolemy, was a great mathematical theory of the heavens. Newton's work made it all much more scientific because it gave a causal mechanism for the planetary orbits.

I would add that Newton's theory was still not truly causal, as there was no mechanism for how the Sun could affect the motion of a planet millions of miles away. It was a mysterious action at a distance. This was not resolved until general relativity, starting with Poincare's theory of gravity waves in 1905. His was the first truly causal theory of gravity.

Weinberg is hated by the philosophers because of articles against paradigm shifts and a book chapter against philosophy. Now I see that most philosophers have a mental disorder:
Mental illness in academic philosophy

With over 1500 responses, more than 60% of respondents reported some diagnosis for mental illness, with almost one in four respondents mentioning depression in particular. There is substantial co-morbidity between depression and the various anxiety disorders, as there are among the anxiety disorders, so, e.g., the 24% that report depression may also include some of the 5% that checked social anxiety disorder or the 4% that chose OCD.
These rights are surprisingly high. I think of philosophers as level-headed folks, but I guess that is wrong. I wonder how other academic disciplines compare.


  1. "science historian" is an oxymoron. Historians are only concerned with wars and politicians. No wonder they have such an anecdotal and misleading narration.

  2. And yet,
    a fantastic number of scientists know next to nothing about basic human history, and are incredibly bad at conveying even their own field of knowledge. Go figure.

    Get over your ego before it smothers you alive. You aren't that clever, just snarky.

    1. "a fantastic number of scientists know next to nothing about basic human history"

      Actually, scientists completely refute the flaky fatalisms of macro-historical melodrama. Pinker's account of human violence and James C. Scott's history of statecraft actually refutes the entire set of assumptions posed by historians. I was just reminding Eric Foner of his downplaying of Soviet atrocities but if you want to debate me on the worth of historians... Your grumpiness is even less clever.

  3. Roger,
    I followed the link you provided 'most philosophers have a mental disorder'.
    If you had bothered to actually read the responses to the ridiculous article you would have seen that the survey was a pile of poorly defined garbage. GIGO. You really should know better than to cater to your sacred cows without further reflection. For grief sake, consider yourself. I only would only have to mention the words "Einstein was brilliant..." for your own OCD to be triggered like a five alarm call.

    If you ever bothered to read the mental disorder bible of choice, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or DSM (whatever iteration you like), you would find that EVERYONE has a mental disorders (plural), it's just a matter of 'to what degree', and if the individual can they function in society.

    At least Newton admitted he didn't know how gravity worked, he was merely trying to describe its behavior, and expressly said so. Read a damn book about what the man said for cripes sake and you would find he had more than his share of humility and the limits of his understanding.

    As for General Relativity resolving gravity mechanically, oh please, show me an example of an impetus to motion in the field. Oh my, you can't, can you?

    If I drop a book, Newton at least can describe what will happen. What can Einstein's field describe? In this case, nothing. Any motion can be described except a fall from a state of rest...So much for Einstein's field equations describing reality.

  4. Weinberg's book is another data point in my hypothesis that 90% of what physicists say about the history of science is wrong and the other 10% is misleading.