Weinberg formulates his understanding of what science is from the very beginning.
All of them were mastered and, so to speak, put into operation during the practice of research communities during the 17th century, and again became essential components of the process that Wootton calls the invention of science. He also traces the progressive adaptation of science itself (as we would now say, fundamental science) to applied and technological problems. He illustrates this trend with the example of the links between barometric experiments (and, more generally, the study of gases) and the invention of the first steam engines, stretching the thread from the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. However, you cannot tell everything, so I will limit myself to three quotes that very clearly convey Wootton’s philosophical position:“Science as a method and as a practical activity is a social construct. However, science as a system of knowledge is something more, since it has repeatedly demonstrated its effectiveness in finding correspondences with objective reality … That is why we can see in its current state the result of an evolutionary process, during which good science has acquired the best chances over the past five centuries. survival rather than bad ”(pp. 540-541).“Science is different in that its successes are not only cumulative, but also, if you use a refinement that the compilers of dictionaries do not recognize, are accumulative. The past not only leaves its mark on the present; in science, the achievements of bygone times are rejected only in order (if we do not take into account censorship, religion or political interference), in order to give way to new, even deeper and more significant successes. This specific feature of science turns the description of its evolution from 1572 to the present day into a story of true progress. Nor does it allow the story to be told in the same skeptical spirit as one would write a history of democracy or the history of a novel ”(p. 554).“Our life is literally permeated with the consequences of the invention of science, and most likely it will be so in the future. However, we are not just taking advantage of the technological benefits that we owe it. Modern scientific thinking has entered our culture so much that it is now very difficult to imagine how our ancestors lived in a world where it was not possible to talk about facts, hypotheses and theories, where knowledge was not based on experimental data and where nature had no laws. The Scientific Revolution has become almost invisible to us precisely because it turned out to be fantastically successful ”(p. 571).
I asked David Wootton to clarify his central concept of the sociocultural invention of science. Wootton replied that with this use of words he wanted to emphasize that science did not arise automatically, not as a result of the action of some immanent laws of the development of civilization or the evolution of human psychology. The specific ways of thinking and collective communication that made possible the emergence and subsequent advances of scientific knowledge were not inherited from previous cultures, where they were simply absent. They arose as a result of a synergy of economic, technological, cultural and social factors that historically could not be activated until the 16th century. That intellectual activity (primarily in the field of geometry and astronomy), which is usually called the science of the ancient world, has some features of similarity with science in the modern sense, but there are still much more differences between them. In addition, the Hellenistic traditions of free research were gradually lost during the era of Roman rule and returned to Europe only 1,500 years later through the Muslim culture.
In general, Wootton summed up, science was invented – just as the telescope, microscope, air pump and steam engine were invented. Only it was not invented by individuals, but by geographically distributed communities that began to emerge in the second half of the 16th century. In the course of their emergence and formation, they created their own tools, language tools, communication resources and value attitudes. Therefore, the invention of science was the result of partly natural and partly spontaneous sociocultural processes that could well have led to a different outcome. The fact that it did take place is, in a sense, a happy gift of fate, a great and, probably, even the greatest gain of the 17th century Western European civilization. During our conversation, Professor Wootton emphasized that the proof of this thesis became one of the main objectives of his research.
Great physicists rarely spend time and energy on a detailed study and description of the past of their science. I can barely recall only three such cases: Albert Einstein published (co-authored with Leopold Infeld) the book "The Evolution of Physics"; Ernst Mach presented the monograph “Mechanics. Historical and critical sketch of its development ”; James Clerk Maxwell, having received the post of director of the Cavendish Laboratory, devoted the last years of his life to an in-depth analysis of the scientific heritage of Henry Cavendish and the publication of https://123helpme.me/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn/ his works. But if they take on this difficult and not always rewarding work, they come to very non-trivial conclusions. Steven Weinberg’s book “To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science” (HarperCollins, 2015) convinces of this. It is based on a course of lectures that Weinberg has given in recent years to students at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor.
Weinberg is famous and respected all over the world. Leading theoretical physicist, Nobel Prize winner and winner of many other awards, member of the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London, one of the creators of the Standard Model of elementary particles (and at the same time the inventor of this term), author of fundamental works on quantum field theory, quantum mechanics and cosmology. As for the new monograph, it adequately continues the list of Weinberg’s books and articles for a mass audience, which have long become high classics of popular science literature. I hope that its Russian edition is not far off.
At first glance, it might seem that the title of the book promises too much. Weinberg pays almost all attention only to astronomy and physics, limiting himself, moreover, to the time interval from the fourth century BC to the end of the seventeenth century. However, with these two disciplines began the process of revealing the laws of Nature, which formed the basis of modern civilization. Science as a way of knowing the world found itself in physics and astronomy. The description of "self-discovery", or, more precisely, the self-realization of science as a unique sociocultural phenomenon, is the core of Weinberg’s book.
And within this framework, its content is very rich and nontrivially multidimensional. Weinberg, in his own words, wanted to show how the working scientist imagines the science of the past. “I took this opportunity to explain my views on the nature of physical science and its long and difficult relationship with religion, technology, philosophy, mathematics and aesthetics” (p. X). These relationships are discussed in the book on many specific examples.
Weinberg formulates his understanding of what science is from the very beginning. This is by no means a collection of concrete facts, even if verified by experience and explained theoretically. Science is, first of all, a self-developing mechanism of interaction between Man and Nature, which allows to decide with a high degree of reliability whether human opinions and beliefs comply with its laws. This mechanism is not at all omnipotent, but in the sphere of its correct use it has no real competitors. “For all its imperfections, modern science … allows one to obtain reliable knowledge about the world around us” (p. XI). As Weinberg writes, it is a technology for the production of knowledge, which humanity had to discover for itself and whose capabilities it had to gradually learn to use. Weinberg’s book just tells about the processes of the emergence and evolution of this technology. Although these processes have evolved in different social and cultural contexts, the results of scientific research have the greatest possible objectivity. This strong denial of the cultural relativism of scientific knowledge runs like a red thread throughout Weinberg’s book.
Weinberg calls his version of the history of science irreverent. “I see nothing wrong with criticizing the methods and theories of the past from a modern point of view” (p. XII). And this is natural, because he wants to show how difficult the discovery of science was and how unobvious from the point of view of everyday intuition its working methods and value criteria were. Throughout the existence of science, these methods and criteria have been continuously tested for strength, polished and improved. This methodological "natural selection" became the basis for the cumulative nature of scientific knowledge. “Each new theory not only incorporates earlier successful theories as definite approximations, but even explains why they might have worked” (p. XIV).
Weinberg also uses this criterion of methodological originality when discussing the historical and geographical origin of science. He acknowledges that many of the components of the future corpus of scientific knowledge first appeared in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China. However, only the civilization of ancient Greece of the Hellenistic era gave rise to a fundamentally new approach to obtaining and evaluating knowledge, which became the predecessor of the methodology of modern science. So science, according to Weinberg, arose only once and in only one cultural area.
Of course, this did not happen out of nowhere. Weinberg introduces to the reader a galaxy of ancient Greek thinkers from Thales of Miletus to Plato, seeing them as carriers of a poetic approach to the study of nature. He does not ignore either the Pythagoreans, or the pre-Euclidean geometers, or, of course, Aristotle. Weinberg is certainly delighted with the breadth of Stagirite’s interests and the wealth of his factual knowledge. Nevertheless, he uses Aristotle’s views on the movement of falling bodies as an argument in a dispute with those who are inclined to associate his writings with the birth of the scientific method. These views, like all of Aristotelian physics, had no other factual justification, except for very superficial observations, which were never subjected to critical verification. Such deductions are very ingenious and may even be confirmed over time (in particular, Aristotle came to the idea of the Earth’s sphericity in this way), but it is impossible to build the foundation of scientific knowledge on them.
Weinberg sees a real breakthrough in scientific methodology in ancient astronomy. Therefore, he tells in detail about the works of Eudoxus, Calippus, Heraclides, Aristarchus of Samos, Hipparchus, Erastophenes, Apollonius and, naturally, Ptolemy. It is worth noting that he sees in the model of motions of the planets, the Sun and the Moon, which was proposed by Eudoxus and developed by Calippus, the first example of what modern physicists call fine-tuning of the numerical parameters of a theory to the results of observations. He finds other examples of fine construction in the theory of Ptolemy, which he analyzes in every detail.
Steven Weinberg giving a public lecture ?? The Standard Model, Higgs Boson: Who Cares ??? at the University of Texas at Arlington. October 2012. Photo from the website linearcollider.org
Having put an end to the era of Hellenism, Weinberg proceeds to describe the fate of science in the Arab world and to its revival (through Arab mediation) in medieval Europe. In particular, he very subtly examines the disputes of the European scholastics of the 13th century about the legacy of Aristotle (more precisely, about the interpretation of this legacy in the writings of Thomas Aquinas). In his opinion, science ultimately benefited greatly from these debates, for they saved it from both dogmatic Aristotelianism and dogmatic Christianity. For details, refer to the text of the monograph.
The second half of the book is entirely devoted to the scientific revolution of the 16th – 17th centuries, which was started by Copernicus and completed by Newton. Weinberg, hardly surprising, sees it as a radical mutation of intellectual history. “I come to this conclusion precisely as a working modern scientist. With a few striking exceptions to be found among the Greeks, science before the sixteenth century reminds me of neither my own experience nor the work of my colleagues. The science of that time was strongly intertwined with religion and with what we today call philosophy, and besides, it had not yet established a constructive relationship with mathematics. Since the seventeenth century, physics and astronomy have been my home. I recognize in them what I see in today’s science – the search for objective laws, formulated in the language of mathematics, which allow one to accurately predict a wide variety of phenomena and allow verification by comparing these predictions with observations and experiments. " I apologize for the long quote, but it reflects Weinberg’s thoughts very accurately.
Weinberg’s consideration of the scientific revolution is quite traditional in terms of key figures: Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Huygens, Newton (plus a considerable number of scientists of a somewhat smaller caliber). It is impossible to retell what has been written, and it is not necessary. Suffice it to say that Weinberg disassembles many subtle details of new scientific advances, which is not so often found in books for a mass audience. For example, he traces in detail both the genesis of Newton’s law of universal gravitation and its substantiation with the help of astronomical observations. At the same time, he is more than once distracted from the main topic for the sake of tracing analogies between the scientific problems of those distant times and the affairs of modern science. Thus, he emphasizes that “successful theories can work for reasons that are incomprehensible to their creators” (p. 248), illustrating this conclusion using the example of not only Newtonian physics, but also quantum mechanics. He also cites a prophetic, albeit rarely cited, prediction of the existence of forces acting at immeasurably shorter distances than electricity, magnetism, and gravity, which can be found in Newton’s Optics. This prediction was fully justified in the twentieth century, when strong and weak interactions between particles of the microworld were discovered. Such allusions are scattered throughout the final chapter, a brief excursion into the history of physics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
But that is not all. Weinberg supplemented the book with thirty-five "technical notes", where, with the help of school algebra and geometry (mathematical tools are not used more seriously), many scientific results that are mentioned in the main text are analyzed in detail. Some of these descriptions (more precisely, reconstructions) are quite elementary, some are not so simple. For example, Weinberg, following Pierre Fermat, deduces the law of refraction from the principle that light always propagates between two points in the shortest possible time, and then receives the same law as a consequence of the wave theory of light, which was once done by Christian Huygens. While Weinberg considers these appendices optional, they make the book much more interesting.