Ls&Cs: Steven Weinberg

The physicist Steven Weinberg died last week. He wasn’t as famous as Stephen Hawking, but he was arguably nearly as significant, succeeding several decades ago in unifying two of the four fundamental forces into one theoretical framework (the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic), for which he won a Nobel Prize.

Here’s his Wikipedia entry.

He wrote a number of books, but only a few for general readers. The first was The First Three Minutes, about the origin of the universe, way back in 1977, but still largely relevant, I gather, despite later refinements such as “inflation.” Then there was Dreams of a Final Theory, about the quest for a unified theory of physics, including the then-burgeoning field of string theory. I’ve read the first, though not the second (though I have a copy). More recently was To Explain the World in 2015 (which I read), a history of science whose gist is that it took centuries for philosophers to learn how to ask questions that could be answered, and became scientists. (My review here.) He’s also published two books of essays for general readers.

Here’s the NYT obit, and here’s a remembrance at Scientific American by Dan Falk.

His first book had this now-famous quote:

“The more that the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

About which he later expanded:

“What I meant by that statement is that there is no point to be discovered in nature itself; there is no cosmic plan for us,” he said. “We are not actors in a drama that has been written with us playing the starring role. There are laws — we are discovering those laws — but they are impersonal, they are cold.”
He added: “It is not an entirely happy view of human life. I think it is a tragic view, but that is not new to physicists. A tragic view of life has been expressed by so many poets — that we are here without purpose, trying to identify something that we care about.”

And his second most famous quote was this:

“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”

It’s a passage from this speech/essay from 1999, in the context of religious support for, or at least lack of opposition to, slavery (near the end of the essay).

The SciAm piece also includes these thoughts:

“One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from that accomplishment.”

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