Exploring the Threads of Modern Science

By Shawn Radcliffe

image: Tommy Eliassen

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” ~ Feynman

In his new book To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, physicist Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, Austin, examines how modern science was born. His quest ranges from the Greeks to modern times, all with the goal of finding the threads that led to what he calls “modern science.”

The book focuses largely on physics and astronomy, two of the areas that Weinberg is most familiar with. But these are also sciences that came of age much earlier — in the late 17th century with Newton — compared to chemistry in the 19th century and biology in the early 20th century.

While Weinberg delves into science throughout the ages, this book is more than just a history lesson. As the Guardian writes in its review: “It is a history not of science, but of the questions from which modern science emerged.”

And who better to peer into the past at these questions than a Nobel Prize winner whose work represented a major leap forward in understanding the fabric of the universe — showing how the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism arise from the same underlying theory (he shared his 1979 prize with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow).

The asking of questions, of course, is at the heart of the scientific method. Even more so than the answers that we find, because answers can always be modified by new questions. The asking of questions also sets science apart from other areas of knowledge.

“Science, unlike, say, politics or religion, is a cumulative branch of knowledge,” Weinberg said in an interview with Quanta Magazine. “You can say, not merely as a matter of taste, but with sober judgment, that Newton knew more about the world than Aristotle did, and Einstein knew more than Newton did. There really has been progress.”

However, as remarkable as Newton’s laws of motion were at the time, they are still only an approximation of reality. Ones that remained firmly in place until Einstein’s theory of general relativity came along. But even Einstein’s theory is likely an approximation of an even more precise understanding of the universe.

If you look at more recent developments in physics, you find the same kind of scientific creeping forward — approaching, but never quite reaching the ultimate unknowable. For example, string theory could unify all the forces together — strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetic force and gravity. But physicists remain a long way off from a final solution.

“String theory has provided some deep mathematical ideas about how that might work,” said Weinberg to Quanta. “But we’re far from being able to verify the theory — much further than we were from verifying the electroweak theory 40 years ago.”

Some physicists may dream of one day having a unifying theory of the universe that fits on a t-shirt. But we may never be able to completely explain the universe in such simplistic terms, no matter how many questions we ask. The universe simply may not fit any framework humans can devise. Science offers joy, but not certainty. “Like me,” he writes, “most physicists today are resigned to the fact that we will always have to wonder why our deepest theories are not something different.”“Like me,” writes Weinberg in his book, “most physicists today are resigned to the fact that we will always have to wonder why our deepest theories are not something different.”

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