Category Archives: Science

Book review: To Explain the World by Steven Weinberg

Surprisingly, this was actually a good book. The author showed slightly more open-mindedness than I expected, with him a secular writer often treating religious individuals like Newton.

Like most good Jewish intellectuals talking about Arabs/Islam, Steven couldn’t help himself mentioning Sayyid Qutb and proving himself a complete ignoramus about this complex character (memoirist, literary critic, social activist, revolutionary), adopting NYT’s opinions about him right from the can. His treatment of Qutb is as unfair as my treating Steven as if he had the intellectual sophistication of your average Tel Aviv falafel vendor.

To Explain the World makes for some entertaining light reading. It is not a powerful philosophical treatise meant to prove a particular point. It is a fun survey of the history of science and treats topics that any science lover would enjoy rereading about, though don’t expect to learn anything new.

I enjoyed his refusal to take post-modernist social scientific theories seriously. This deserves some respect in a mainstream scientist, though a better scientist of Steven’s status and fame could have used this book to launch a powerful and history-making attack on the field of science revisionism. But I do not blame an old man for not wanting to get involved in academic bickering.

On character worship in science: Are there truly any “unique” discoveries?

I am not the only person who has tired of the cults of personality that surround Einstein and other scientists, as if they
were deities who did humanity a unique favor, a favor that no other person could bestow.

In the world of hard, cold reality, many discoveries are made by multiple people simultaneously, or the next person may be a year or two behind. Sometimes, especially in the past centuries, one person may be uniquely suited to make a discovery; they have the right amount of intelligence, funding and motivation, and the right social and historical context, so that had they not made their discovery, nobody else would have for decades or even centuries later.

The above may or may not have been true in the case of Einstein (or other worshiped scientists), and if it was, then he would have been one of the last humans to enjoy such a position, for soon after science was turned into a formal practice, a business and a profession, meaning that all important areas of knowledge had multiple individuals, often multiple teams, working on them with intense focus and motivation, so that scientific discoveries became more of a race than some type of unique divine inspiration. Watson and Crick discovered the 3D structure of DNA and for this they received the Nobel price, but Linus Pauling was right on their heels toward the same discovery and may have done the same soon after Watson and Crick’s date of discovery.

While we can respect scientists for their hard work and intelligence, it is delusional to consider them unique snowflakes who did the world a unique favor. Science is, in its essence, an effort to make an accurate description of the world, which means that given time and funding, if someone does not make a discovery, another person will.

Therefore there is no need, and indeed no place, among self-respecting scientists for character worship and hagiography. I love Descartes, Heisenberg and David Stove, but the only thing unique about them was how good of a human being they were in their hearts[1]. Their thoughts and discoveries, though very useful to me and others, were not unique (ahead of their time, yes, but not unique), and had they not come up with them, another person would have; no scientist or thinker has been conceived by the semen of Zeus and none deserves worship.

All scientists are fallible humans, some are given the fortune of wealth, free time and opportunity, so that they earn renown for making discoveries that many others may have done, and may have done better or sooner, had they been provided with similar luxuries. Any scientist who considers himself unique (and I do not think the kind and introspective Einstein did) is suffering from arrogance and some measure of obliviousness or stupidity.

Technical Details

In a closed system (such as the particles of a fluid contained inside a container), everything that happens is of and from the system itself. If the movement of the particles causes one particle to move faster than the others, we do not give the fastest particle a prize for being the fastest, for we know that its speed is derived from the system, not from any unique virtue that the particle possesses.

In the universe, it being a closed system (to ignore religion), all events and phenomena are derived from the system itself, meaning that the creation of every human being, and the thoughts and motivations present in the brain of every human being, is derived from the system, as much as the velocity of a particle in a closed fluid system is derived from the interactions inside the system.

This means that no human can come up with anything unique, any more than a robot can. Both robot “thought” and human thought are derived from the physical universe of particle interactions, and there is truly no reason to thank, let alone worship, a robot or a human for their thoughts and actions, any more than there is reason to thank a particle in a fluid for being faster than the rest. That is, unless we allow for outside influences; if we think the system is open, as in God or aliens from time to time endow humans with unique thoughts that cannot be derived from the system[2], then we would have God or aliens to thank for the seeming uniqueness of some human thought, and not the human itself, and thus, again, we fail to find reason to admire or worship humans for their thoughts and discoveries.

Thus, whether you are an atheist or a believer in God or aliens, it is always a failure of logic to believe in the uniqueness of scientists or scientific discoveries.

[1] That is, if you admit that there is such a thing as free will and a conceptual “heart” that can practice said free will freely.
[2] And that is all that “unique” means in the present discussion; something that is not a derivation of the system’s interactions.