Steven Weinberg’s new book on the history of science (with excerpts)

It’s a great pity that Steven Weinberg’s new book on the history of science, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, is coming out too late to be included in my own book, in which I discuss the apologists’ contention that science was an outgrowth of medieval Christianity. Weinberg’s book, whose existence I discovered through a Facebook post by physicist Sean Carroll, will be released Feb. 17 by HarperCollins.

You probably know that Weinberg is a Nobel Laureate, having received the Big Prize in 1979 along with Sheldon Glashow and Abdus Salam for unifying the weak and electromagnetic forces—a step forward in physics’ drive to unify all four forces. And I knew he had a pretty deep knowledge of the history of science, for he’s written about it in his New York Review of Books articles. But I had no idea he was producing a book.

Screen shot 2015-02-07 at 8.30.44 PM

Intrigued, I wrote Steve asking if he had any more information for my readers, and specifically asked two things: how he came to write the book, and why he thought that modern science seemed to derive largely from Europe rather than elsewhere. I added that I had been reading a lot of apologists who asserted that science was the product of Christianity in the Middle Ages. Weinberg responded by sending me two excerpts from the book that, he thought, would answer my questions. These excerpts are not on the Amazon site, nor anywhere else I can find, but here they are:


I am a physicist, not a historian, but over the years I have increasingly become fascinated by the history of science.  It is an extraordinary story, one of the most interesting in human history. It is also a story in which scientists like myself have a personal stake. Today’s research can be aided and illuminated by a knowledge of its past, and for some scientists knowledge of the history of science helps to motivate present work.  We hope that our research may turn out to be a part, however small, of the grand historical tradition of natural science.

Where my own past writing has touched on history, it has been mostly the modern history of physics and astronomy, roughly from the late nineteenth century to the present.  Although in this era we have learned many new things, the goals and standards of physical science have not materially changed.  If physicists of 1900 were somehow taught today’s Standard Model of cosmology or of elementary particle physics, they would have found much to amaze them, but the idea of seeking mathematically-formulated and experimentally-validated impersonal principles that explain a wide variety of phenomena would have seemed quite familiar.

A while ago I decided that I needed to dig deeper, to learn more about an earlier era in the history of science, when the goals and standards of science had not yet taken their present shape.  As is natural for an academic, when I want to learn about something, I volunteer to teach a course on the subject. Over the past decade I have from time to time taught undergraduate courses on the history of physics and astronomy at the University of Texas, to students who had no special background in science, mathematics, or history.  This book grew out of the lecture notes for those courses.

But as this book has developed, perhaps I have been able to offer something that goes a little beyond a simple narrative: It is the perspective of a modern working scientist on the science of the past.  I have taken this opportunity to explain my views about the nature of physical science, and about its continued tangled relations with religion, technology, philosophy, mathematics, and aesthetics.

Before history there was science, of a sort. At any moment nature presents us with a variety of puzzling phenomena: fire, thunderstorms, plagues, planetary motion, light, tides, and so on.  Observation of the world led to useful generalizations: fires are hot, thunder presages rain; tides are highest when the Moon is full or new; etc. These became part of the common sense of mankind.  But here and there, some people wanted more than just a collection of facts. They wanted to explain the world.

It was not easy. It is not only that our predecessors did not know what we know about the world — more important, they did not have anything like our ideas of what there was to know about the world, and how to learn it.  Again and again in preparing the lectures for my course I have been impressed with how different the work of science in past centuries was from the science of my own times.  As the much quoted lines of a novel of L.P. Hartley put it, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I hope that in this book I have been able to give the reader not only an idea of what happened in the history of the exact sciences, but also a sense of how hard it has all been.

So this book is not solely about how we came to learn various things about the world.  That is naturally a concern of any history of science.  My focus in this book is a little different — it is how we came to learn how to learn about the world.

I am not unaware that the word “explain” in the title of this book raises problems for philosophers of science.  They have pointed out the difficulty in giving a precise distinction between explanation and description.  (I will have a little to say about this in Chapter 8.)  But this is a work on the history rather than the philosophy of science.  By explanation I mean something imprecise, the same as is meant in ordinary life, when we try to explain why a horse has won a race or why an airplane has crashed.

The word “discovery” in the subtitle is also problematic. I had thought of using The Invention of Modern Science as a subtitle.   After all, science could hardly exist without human beings to practice it.  I chose “Discovery” instead of “Invention” to suggest that science is the way it is not so much because of various adventitious historic acts of invention, but because of the way nature is.  With all its imperfections, modern science is a technique that is sufficiently well tuned to nature so that it works — it is a practice that allows us to learn reliable things about the world.  In this sense, it is a technique that was waiting for people to discover it.

Thus one can talk about the discovery of science in the way that a historian can talk about the discovery of agriculture.  With all its variety and imperfections, agriculture is the way it is because its practices are sufficiently well tuned to the realities of biology so that it works — it allows us to grow food. I also wanted with this title to distance myself from the few remaining social constructivists: those sociologists, philosophers, and historians who try to explain not only the process but even the results of science as products of a particular cultural milieu.

The science in the subtitle of this book is modern science, a technique that goes beyond casual observation, and is now practiced throughout the world by professionals who call themselves scientists.  Among the branches of science, this book will emphasize physics and astronomy.  It was in physics, especially as applied to astronomy, that science first took a modern form.  Of course there are limits to the extent to which sciences like biology, whose principles depend so much on historical accidents, can or should be modeled on physics.  Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the development of scientific biology as well as chemistry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries followed the model of the revolution in physics of the seventeenth century.

Science is now international, perhaps the most international aspect of our civilization, but the discovery of modern science happened in what may loosely be called the West.  Modern science learned its methods from research done in Europe in the scientific revolution, which in turn evolved from work done in Europe and in Arab countries in the Middle Ages, and ultimately from the precocious science of the Greeks.  The West borrowed much scientific knowledge from elsewhere — geometry from Egypt, astronomical data from Babylon, the techniques of arithmetic from Babylon and India, the magnetic compass from China, and so on — but as far as I know it did not import the methods of modern science.  So this book will emphasize the West (including medieval Islam) in just the way that was deplored by Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee: I will have little to say about science outside the West, and nothing at all to say about the interesting but entirely isolated progress made in pre-Columbian America.

In telling this story, I will be coming close to the dangerous ground that is most carefully avoided by contemporary historians, of judging the past by the standards of the present.  This is an irreverent history; I am not unwilling to criticize the methods and theories of the past from a modern viewpoint.  I have even taken some pleasure in uncovering a few errors made by scientific heroes that I have not seen mentioned by historians.

A historian who devotes years to study the works of some Great Man of the past may come to exaggerate what their hero has accomplished.  I have seen this in particular in works on Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Grosseteste and Descartes. But it is not my purpose here to accuse some past natural philosophers of stupidity.  Rather, by showing how far these very intelligent individuals were from our present conception of science, I want to show how difficult was the discovery of modern science, how far from obvious are its practices and standards.  This also serves as a warning, that science may not yet be in its final form.   At several points in this book I suggest that, as great as is the progress that has been made in the methods of science, we may today be repeating some of the errors of the past.

Some historians of science make a shibboleth of not referring to present scientific knowledge in studying the science of the past. I will instead make a point of using present knowledge to clarify past science.  For instance, though it might be an interesting intellectual exercise to try to understand how the Hellenistic astronomers Apollonius and Hipparchus developed the theory that the planets go around the Earth on looping epicyclic orbits by using only the data that was available to them, this is impossible, for much of the data they used is lost.  But we do know that in ancient times the Earth and planets went around the Sun on nearly circular orbits, just as they do today, and by using this knowledge we will be able to understand how the data available to ancient astronomers could have suggested to them their theory of epicycles.  In any case, how can anyone today, reading about ancient astronomy, forget our present knowledge of what actually goes around what in the solar system?

For readers who want to understand in greater detail how the work of past scientists fits in with what actually exists in nature, there are “technical notes” at the back of the book. It is not necessary to read these notes to follow the book’s main text, but some readers may learn a few odd bits of physics and astronomy from these notes, as I did in preparing them.

* * * * * **

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.

The book is only $21 in hardcover, or $16 on Kindle. As you can see, Weinberg is a lucid and entertaining writer, and I’d recommend this book without having seen it. In the meantime, read his article “A designer universe?” from the 1999 New York Review of Books, which takes up the question of whether the Universe gives evidence for a god. Since Weinberg is an uncompromising atheist, you can guess the answer.


  1. Posted February 9, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Pre-ordered on Amz.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 9, 2015 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      I will too. Reading Jerry’s website is costing me a fortune in books I wouldn’t otherwise have heard about!

  2. Posted February 9, 2015 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    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.

    I see what he is doing there, as it is part of a list of clarifications of science versus other field, but it strikes me as a funny way of putting it, given what we know about his worldview. Perhaps “nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of God or the afterlife, except that there is evidence for either one, is implied.

    It sounds like a great, great book! It will make a fine appetizer before the Albatross is severed!

    • Posted February 9, 2015 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Oh my gosh. Except that there is no evidence for either one. Sheesh.

      • Posted February 9, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        Sorry just “neither”.


        • Posted February 9, 2015 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          * “Or” not “Sorry”!!!

          • Posted February 9, 2015 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

            Hilarious. This comment thread must be infectious.

            Yes, you’re write, neither is better.

            • Posted February 9, 2015 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

              Get it? “Write”?

              That’s called a “MacPherson” right there.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 9, 2015 at 5:43 pm | Permalink


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 9, 2015 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

                Or I should say, “hay!”

              • Posted February 9, 2015 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

                Just don’t accuse her of being homophonic.

              • rickflick
                Posted February 9, 2015 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

                Write as wrane. I always feel like I’m being teased. I’m profoundly orthographically dyslexic. There is no cure. I once read a book on how to spell and it was totally unintelligible to me. 😎

    • Posted February 9, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      And served, not severed. F**ksake.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        I had visions of some kind of umbilical cord connecting it to its author that needed to be cut so that it could venture forth into the bookshops!

        • BillyJoe
          Posted February 10, 2015 at 6:09 am | Permalink

          Likewise. I thought the word “severed” was used purposefully.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      That particular quote startled me a bit, since I don’t think of Weinberg as an accomodationist. That statement encapsulates a primary accomodationist assumption — leaving off as usual the recognition that IF good evidence is forthcoming for God or an afterlife, THEN science is perfectly capable of saying something about those topics.

      The methods of science aren’t honed in on finding only “natural” explanations. They eliminate bias in order to look for regularities and make predictions. The so-called ‘supernatural’ could in principle be part of modern science — as could vitalism, the ether, and N-Rays. They’re not because they couldn’t stand up to the standards of more information and better analysis.

      A lot of pseudoscience is actually fine science … if judged by the standards of a different century. Was science discovered? Created? A bit of both, I think. Science evolved.

      • darrelle
        Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        Exactly. I was surprised by that statement by Steven also. Science is capable of probing whatever it is that the term “exists” is typically used to describe. Period. “Everything that ever was, is and ever shall be,” as a certain well spoken scientist liked to say. Doesn’t matter whether you call it natural or supernatural. If it can have any affect noticable by humans, and for damn sure proponents of supernaturalism claim it can, then science can see it too.

        The natural / supernatural distinction is a con, a shell game that was designed, or perhaps evolved, to protect beliefs that are contrary to the evidence to a degree that causes internal dissonance.

        • Sastra
          Posted February 9, 2015 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think the terms themselves are the con since they describe things which are fundamentally different. In naturalism everything mental depends on something non-mental; if it’s the other way around then it’s supernatural. We’d need words to distinguish between those two cases anyway and what we’ve already got is useful enough.

          The shell game is the mantra that science can’t say anything about the supernatural … unless it’s positive. The con is that the “supernatural” isn’t under the same category as the “natural” (empirical reality) — it’s more like art or morals or values or emotions.

      • Posted February 9, 2015 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Sastra for making the point I was about to make. Naturalism is an empirical (and tentative, though well-supported) conclusion of science, not an a priori requirement. I like Weinberg’s work and I will probably buy this book, but this is an unfortunate slip. I wonder if he attempts to explain or justify this somewhere in his book?

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted February 9, 2015 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          I think it’s an American cultural thing, where so many of your famous scientists feel obliged to make statements like this up front so as to have a quote for the inevitable criticism from the powerful religious lobby. Those who don’t, like our host, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins (not American of course but well known) etc, are immediately labelled “strident and aggressive atheists”, and often have to put up with ignorant and personal attacks and even threats, and are judged on that rather the content of their books.

          • Posted February 9, 2015 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

            If you look at Weinberg’s other writings, they can be as “strident” (read “honest”) as Dawkins’. I don’t think he would pull punches here just to keep from upsetting the religious crowd.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted February 9, 2015 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

        The tools and methods of science might well be suited to studying the supernatural — if it exists and interacts with the natural world. But what we’ve learned so far pretty much rules out that possibility; all the explanations we’ve found are purely naturalistic.

        So (leaving aside the part about God and the afterlife) I think Weinberg is justified in saying that the goal of science going forward is to find explanations that fit seamlessly with what we already know — i.e. purely naturalistic ones.

    • eric
      Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Well it may be a good book but I stil find that quote a bit annoying. The reason 21st century science tries to find purely naturalistic explanations is because that approach has worked incredibly well in the past. Its because of the repeated and historically consistent failure of non-naturalistic explanations. Were they not such a dismal and consistent failure, science would investigate them.

      Like many accommodationists, he’s making a virtue out of a vice. We don’t hypothesize religious or supernational explanations not because we hold them to be outside of science, but because they stink at explaining anything and so we don’t waste our time with them any more. Should some new religious hypothesis come along that makes accurate, testable and confirmable predictions about the world, I’m absolutely sure there will be scientists falling all over themselves to investigate it.

      • Posted February 9, 2015 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Eric, I strongly agree with your points about science, but I don’t think it is fair to see accomodationism in W’s quote. He was a professor in my dept when I was a physics grad student, and I did not see any accomodationism in his public pronouncements.

        • Sastra
          Posted February 9, 2015 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

          How are you defining “accomodationism?”

          • Posted February 9, 2015 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

            Sastra, if your question is directed at me, I was reacting to this sentence in Eric’s comment:
            “Like many accommodationists, he’s making a virtue out of a vice.”
            My claim is that W is not trying to make a virtue out of a vice here with respect to religion. If he had been trying to do that, he’d be an accomodationist, one who gives special privileges to religion and insulates it from ordinary scrutiny.

            • Sastra
              Posted February 9, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

              I think the concern is that Weinberg’s statement that “science has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of God or the afterlife” is granting a special privilege to religion by insulating the God and afterlife hypotheses from the ordinary scrutiny of science.

            • eric
              Posted February 9, 2015 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

              Lou, the quoted comment is accommodationist in character and meaning. It sends a ‘different magisteria’ message to the reader, a message that the existince of gods and supernatural events is not a topic on which science can say anything. This is untrue. Science can and has said a lot about those subjects. Namely that there is nothing to them that is testable, confirmable, and has actually been found to have merit.

              Look, let me try and make a parable. We’ll call it the parable of the two pet owners and the bystander.

              Bystander: “You two never seem to race your pets against each other to see which is faster. Why is that?”

              Alice, owner 1: “I have a cat. Owner 2 has a horse.”

              Bob, owner 2: “Actually, your pet is a horse. You just decided to start calling him “cat” yesterday.”

              Alice: “Well, anyway we have never raced his pet ‘horse’ and my pet ‘cat.'”

              Bob: “We used to race all the time. You’ve lost thousands of times and never won. Then you up and decided to rename your pet ‘cat’ and declare that we should only count races betweem my horse and the animal named ‘cat.’ Since no such races exist, there’s no results.”

              Alice: “see, bystander, Bob agrees! There are no race results between his pet horse and my pet ‘cat.’ They have never raced.”

              Bystander: “Why can’t you race them now?”

              Alice: “Because my animal is a cat, silly! Its called nonoverlapping petisteria.”


              Alice is making accommodationist arguments. Doesn’t mean she intentionally is one, it just means those arguments go out of their rational way to defend a difference that is historically post-hoc. There were many religious explanations for phenomena. They lost out to scientific ones. So the owners decided to claim religions don’t make explanations, and have never competed with other methods to explain phenomena; its not in their magisteria. And some nonreligious people bought it.

        • Posted February 9, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          In case I wasn’t clear, I don’t see accommodationism, either; if that were his project, I’m sure it would take more than one little throw-away line in a whole big book!

          I’m confident I’m reading something that’s not the author’s meaning, and/or he isn’t aware of how that line sounds to those of us who are reading accommodationism every day.

          • Sastra
            Posted February 9, 2015 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            The quote is practically a textbook example of the original meaning of ‘accomodationism,’ coined by Austin Dacey in 2008. I’m not sure how central this point is to Weinberg’s book or whether he meant it the way it sounded or not. I preordered it anyway because even if he is an accomodationist that doesn’t mean he’s not worth reading for other reasons … or even for that one. I admire him a great deal and would enjoy thinking about any of his ideas, including the ones I disagree with.

        • Posted February 9, 2015 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

          Well, I think it’s inarguable that the sentence in question toes the accomodationist line, regardless of Weinberg’s track record (which I know is staunchly gnu in character).

          Perhaps he qualifies that statement elsewhere in the book. I hope he does.

    • peepuk
      Posted February 9, 2015 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      I would understand it if rephrased like this:

      Natural science has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of God or the afterlife. Natural science can only explain natural phenomena.

      But then I would disagree with the first part and change it like this:

      Natural science has nothing positive to say about the existence of God or the afterlife. It can only explain natural phenomena.

      In the current form I cannot make sense of this sentence (very small brain + not native English speaking).

      • Posted February 9, 2015 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        Does it help to say, “There is no evidence for or against”? This is true, trivially even, and most of us recognize that there any number of unlikely or impossible things for which there is no evidence against.

        It’s the lack of evidence for that tips the scale for an empiricism/materialist like me. Just how far it tips it is a matter of taste (and perhaps a measure of one’s own humility). Hell, even Dawkins, by his own description, is ‘only’ a six on the way to seven.

        • peepuk
          Posted February 9, 2015 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

          Thanks, my bad indeed. I’m looking forward reading it.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 9, 2015 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Right. He may be thinking of the notion that you cannot prove something does not exist in the sense that it might exist somewhere not yet explored, or beyond the possibility of exploration for whatever reason.
      The important thing about gods and the afterlife is there is no good evidence for them yet. Russell’s tea pot may exist. We just don’t get too excited about the chances.

      • Posted February 9, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        I think that’s right. And consider also this aspect of science: it emerges from hypotheses more and less emerging from observed phenomena. Hypotheses are falsified all the time. How many hypotheses are there that are proposed in the same way across multiple sciences, are falsified, and rise again like zombies to be asserted and falsified over and over? The God hypothesis is the only one I can think of.

        There may be other, godless theories that are pet projects of someone or other that go through the pointless cycle above – but if it’s not a religiously-based theory, we don’t its proposers “clergy” or “believers”: we call them crackpots, quacks, loons, nujobs, etc.

        • Posted February 9, 2015 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

          Yes, and Weinberg himself knows all about falsified hypotheses. I remember well his dejection when the proton stubbornly refused to decay on time.

      • peepuk
        Posted February 9, 2015 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        Yes thanks, I didn’t understand the word “though” in this sentence.

        “it might exist somewhere not yet explored or
        beyond the possibility of exploration”

        Yeah, I’m probably to narrow-minded for that. As I see it science has explored the possibilities for existence of god and afterlife, but found none. Instead it has found reasonable explanations why we have these false beliefs.

        Though no reason for me not to buy his book. These excerpts made me curious.

    • Posted February 9, 2015 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Well, Sean Carroll notes that the LHC results have to say about the afterlife in his Skepticon 5 presentation.

      Re the discussion above, perhaps PCC can ask Steven to weigh in here … ?


      • peepuk
        Posted February 10, 2015 at 6:09 am | Permalink

        Would indeed be very interesting.

  3. Posted February 9, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I’m excited about this book; I’ve been asking around for a long time for recommendations about books that traced the development of scientific ideas, so maybe this will be the one.

  4. Alex Shuffell
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    You had me worried for a second with your opening lines. I’ve been excited about this book for a few weeks after Amazon recommended it, which is nice of them.
    It was lovely to read you calling Steven Weinberg ‘Steve’ and for him to allow us to read all that.

  5. DTaylor
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting Weinberg’s Preface. My pre-order list is growing!

  6. Posted February 9, 2015 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    “read his article “A designer universe?” from the 1999 New York Review of Books”

    Paywall for most of the article.

  7. Posted February 9, 2015 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    That’s fantastic. Thanks to both of you. I look forward to reading it. To be honest, sometimes I have a hard time getting excited for books about atheism or evolution since I know these subjects so well I often think I will have little to learn from yet another book (though I read them all anyway). This one I am excited for, since I love the history of science, but I don’t know all that much about it.

    Also, don’t take this the wrong way; I will read Faith vs Fact as soon as possible and WEIT is my #1 recommendation to friends (and enemies) asking me about evolution – even ahead of Greatest Show On Earth, though I recommend that and The Blind Watchmaker as well.

    The more smart books, the better. I will probably even read Shermer’s new book, although it’s not one I’m excited about (mostly because I’ve read a lot on that subject and his writing style irritates me a bit). We need all these books to counteract the Heaven Is Real stuff out there.

    So thanks again. Your hard work is greatly appreciated.

    • Posted February 9, 2015 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      I’ve recommended WEIT to numerous people, WAY ahead of The Greatest Show On Earth, which was a great disappointment. The Blind Watchmaker, yes, and The Selfish Gene, and any of Dawkins’ writings on evolution. And ahead of them all, The Ancestor’s Tale, which is in my Top Five of science books for a non-professional audience.

      I thought The Greatest Show was written over the head of its intended audience. I haven’t actually tested this hypothesis, because fortunately WEIT was out there to make the same argument in a more accessible way.

      • Posted February 9, 2015 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        I liked all of the books, including TGSOE. One thing about that one is is that Dawkins would often insert a comment about recent politics, such as comments about Donald Rumsfeld, etc. I feel the problem there is that those bits will become dated before too long.

  8. eric
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Science and technology benefit each other, but at its most fundamental level science is not undertaken for any practical reason.

    Well that depends on who you are talking about undertaking it. Individual practicioners? Then you are probably right, they do it for the discovery rather than the practical reasons. Governments and venture capitalists? I’m pretty sure they fund science mostly for the practical reasons. Even basic science is funded for those reasons, because scientists have been able (only partially successfully) to convince legislators that society’s best bet for future applied benefits is to fund a wide amount of basic research. I happen to think we scientists are right about that and in fact that the country would benefit greatly from even more basic research. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the country is funding science because we expect that 20 or 50 years down the road, we will realize some benefit in prosperity or geopolitical power because of it.

  9. Ginger K.
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I have a pic of me with Steven Weinberg at FFRF’s convention in San Antonio in the 90s. He won an Emperor Has No Clothes Award. Also, for your enjoyment: KD

    A day wifowt kittehs iz a day wifowt sunshine. — Dr Jerry Coyne, translated into LOLCat by Ginger K. Eben teh smallest kitteh iz a masterpeece. — Leonardo da Vinci, translated into LOLCat by Ginger K.

    Date: Mon, 9 Feb 2015 16:25:54 +0000 To:

    • Posted February 13, 2015 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      Cooool….diamond-, uh rhinestone-encrusted, no less🐯

  10. Dermot C
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Crystal clear writing. And a fascinating topic which often comes up. Very nice of him and you to share this, Jerry. x

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Oooo this is going on my book list. I would have loved to take a course like he describes. I also like the quote about how strange the past is. I often found the past a strange place when I studied Ancient Greeks and Romans and sometimes it made me very sad.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 9, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Very true. But sometimes it is equally amazing to me to come across similarities. The one I remember most fondly for some reason, the phrase “bit / bite the dust.” When I first came across that reading The Illiad in high school I figured it was an artifact of translation. Later in college studying ancient greek history I learned that this very common phrase is an accurately direct translation and that the meaning, though certainly more literal back then, is very similar today. And that it could date back to oral traditions.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 9, 2015 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        “It could date back to oral traditions”. Well it does talk about biting (rim shot).

        I’m actually impressed when the propaganda lives on like how the Romans saw Cleopatra- a lot of it Augustus’s propaganda machine at work.

        • darrelle
          Posted February 9, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

          I can’t believe I walked right past that one and didn’t make use of it!

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted February 10, 2015 at 12:54 am | Permalink

          Re propaganda, an obvious example is the Vandals – who were only mindless destroyers from a Roman propaganda point of view.

          It gives me a problem though, in condemning pointless wanton damage – I can’t call it ‘vandalism’ without perpetuating the slander, but there isn’t another English word for it.

          • Posted February 10, 2015 at 2:14 am | Permalink

            Then use three as you just did.

            “You pointless wanton damagers!” doesn’t have quite the same ring though…


          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 10, 2015 at 8:09 am | Permalink

            Try Juteism on for size! 🙂

  12. Xray
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    “the few remaining social constructivists”. Priceless. That is a subtle cut that goes very deep. Steven Weinberg is a national treasure.

  13. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Great piece and thanks Greg for the site to the whole article.

    I believe prof. Weinberg, had he not gone into physics, would have been equally as successful in History.

  14. Posted February 9, 2015 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting. I will put it on my list of books to read, and we will see…
    Another such book that I had enjoyed was Science as a Way of Knowing by John Moore. It too covers the history of science. But I would look forward to reading this new book to see additional details and insights.

  15. Gareth Price
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    “As is natural for an academic, when I want to learn about something, I volunteer to teach a course on the subject.”

    I remember Weinberg writing something similar in a short essay. Is this what academics really do? Personally I would volunteer to teach courses in something I knew about.

    • Posted February 9, 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      I imagine it’s harder work to dig into a new subject deeply enough to teach it according to one’s own high standards. I imagine it’s more rewarding, as well.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 9, 2015 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      But what about something you wanted to learn about? Wouldn’t having to teach it to others compel you to learn it well enough to do so? I’ve always found the old adage “teaching something to someone else results in you learning that thing better yourself,” to be very accurate. The process of trying to figure out how to relate something in a way that others will understand seems to inspire me to look at things from more directions and figure things out more concretely than if I were merely learning it for myself. In which case I am more likely to settle for a less concrete understanding since there is so much to learn it is impossible to devote enough time to learn everything I would really like to learn to such a high level of understanding.

      • Gareth Price
        Posted February 9, 2015 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        It might be good for the person giving the lectures. But is it really so good for the students? Weinberg is, I guess, extremely clever.

        • darrelle
          Posted February 9, 2015 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

          I’d say that like pretty much anything else it depends on the particular circumstances pertaining to each specific incident. So, sometimes yes, it is quite good for the students, and sometimes no, it ain’t so great for the students. More often than not it is probably merely okay for the students, again like most other things.

          Regarding Steven Weinberg specifically, my past experiences of listening and reading what he has had to say on a range of topics, together with the fact that he is an accomplished scientist and the course was about the history of science, I am fairly confident that the class was a good thing for the students. But that’s just my opinion.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted February 9, 2015 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

          Who would you rather learn from? Someone who’s as excited about digging into the subject as you are? Or someone who’s been there, done that, and given the same lecture from the same notes for 20 years?

      • Gordon
        Posted February 9, 2015 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        ” I’ve always found the old adage “teaching something to someone else results in you learning that thing better yourself,” to be very accurate.”

        Exactly the argument one can use for graduate tutors – all for your benefit hence the low pay

  16. Michiel
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Great, this sounds like just the sort of book I’m looking for right now. I’ll definitely order it soon!

  17. RGBowman
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    “In any case, how can anyone today, reading about ancient astronomy, forget our present knowledge of what actually goes around what in the solar system?”

    Prof. Weinberg, don’t ask that question to a member of the US Republican Party…
    “Don’t know, not sure, I’m not a scientist.”

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 10, 2015 at 2:09 am | Permalink

      You can’t forget what you’ve never learned in the first place. 😀

  18. Posted February 9, 2015 at 4:46 pm | Permalink


  19. Kevin
    Posted February 9, 2015 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Weinberg is one of my all time heros.

    Before history there was science. We have been doing science longer than most people are aware. We would not be where we are without it. It is more apart of us than most people are aware.

    I look forward to reading this book. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Posted February 9, 2015 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    It was a surprise to come across a sentence near the end of A Designer Universe that I’ve seen so many times in the past and have practically memorized:

    “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 was like watching a classic movie for the first time and hearing a strangely familiar line, then realizing “Hey! This is where that came from!”

  21. Emerson
    Posted February 11, 2015 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    “the techniques of arithmetic from Babylon and India, the magnetic compass from China, and so on — but as far as I know it did not import the methods of modern science.”
    I fully agree. And here the figure of Galileo really deserves to be the main founder of modern science because:
    “1) He gave autonomy to science, making it out of the shadow of theology and bookish authority of the Aristotelian tradition;
    2)He first applied the new method, the experimental method, defending it as the appropriate means to attain knowledge;
    3)He gave science a new language, which is the language of rigor, mathematical language.”(*)
    His fundamental book Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienzeis is always to be remembered for many things, but the study about gravity shown very well the new way to thing.
    (*) Introduction to science epistemology (

  22. Posted February 13, 2015 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    My copy has just been despatched!


    • Diane G.
      Posted February 13, 2015 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

      I was going to say I hoped you got all the spatch out, till I found this:

      despatch–chiefly British variant of dispatch

      (Notice how carefully I check before concluding you’ve mistyped…)

      • merilee
        Posted February 13, 2015 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

        I trust it wasn’t spatchcocked first?

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 13, 2015 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

          And I had to look up that one as well. Cook I am not!

          • Posted February 13, 2015 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

            I think it’s a Britishism. Heard it from Jamie Oliver (not personally:-)

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 13, 2015 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

              Well, according to Wikipedia, Martha Stewart’s touched on it at least once. 😀

              • Posted February 13, 2015 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

                Hasn’t Martha touched on everything:-(. I think she even does leashes and dog/cat beds now, too.

                Spatchcocked chickens are really great, but have nothing to do with the dispatch of Weinberg’s book to Ant…

      • Posted February 14, 2015 at 1:42 am | Permalink

        » early 16th cent.: from Italian dispacciare or Spanish despachar ‘expedite,’

        Oddly, the email that prompted my comment did spell it “dispatch”.

        Now I don’t know if I usually spell it with an “e” or I did mistype … (That’s a problem working for a US company; all my reports have to be in American English, so, after nearly 15 years, my instincts are now muddled.)


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