Books, Science

Steven Weinberg and the smugness of hindsight

One of the more helpful pieces of advice I recommend to new starters in my team are Steven Weinberg’s “Four golden lessons“. Weinberg is a physics Nobel laureate and “considered by many to be the preeminent theoretical physicist alive in the world today” (says Wikipedia). I guess this means he knows his physics … and his four golden lessons certainly are helpful:

First of all, no one knows everything, and you don’t have to.

This is an essential piece of advice for anybody working in an interdisciplinary field like bio-medicine. I have always done my best to make ignorance my comfort zone and hope the members of my team do the same.

Second, forgive yourself for wasting time.

As you will never be sure which are the right problems to work on, most of the time that you spend in the laboratory or at your desk will be wasted.

Third, don’t work on stuff that is already well-understood.

Particle physics was an area where creative work could still be done. It really was a mess in the 1960s (…). My advice is to go for the messes — that’s where the action is.

Finally, learn the history of science.

The best antidote to the philosophy of science is a knowledge of the history of science.

I think the four lessons are good advice, but about the last one I tell my team: The best antidote to a physicist telling you about philosophy is actually reading philosophy yourself. I always keep some Kuhn and Feyerabend handy in case anyone is looking for some light bedtime reading.

Weinberg’s new book: a history of physics and astronomy

Weinberg dismisses the philosophy of science, but he has turned his long-standing interest in its history into a book: To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. Science, for Weinberg, is physics and astronomy.

It is a provocative book, for sure. Aristotle is tedious, Plato is silly, Bacon and Descartes are overrated, says Weinberg. He doesn’t seem to have much respect for the giants whose shoulders he is standing on.

I haven’t read Weinberg’s book and judging from the reviews I have seen (here and here) I will not do so in the future. In the Guardian, the book is described as a Whig history of science, that is a history presenting the past as the inexorable march of progress towards present-day theories. No wonder Weinberg is not a fan of Kuhn or Feyerabend, who could have taught him a thing or two about how simplistic this naive view is.

It keeps on amazing me, how dismissive natural scientists can be of history and philosophy. Aristotle, Plato, Bacon and Descartes were the cutting-edge researchers of their times, who did exactly what Weinberg advises in one of his golden lessons: They went right into the biggest mess they could find and tried to make as much sense of it as possible. Measuring their achievements by today’s standards is intellectually boring and smug — we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.

And in hundreds and thousands of years, if humans are still around, the achievements of today’s brightest minds, including all physics Nobel laureates, will look tedious, silly and overrated. Shouldn’t that be a reason for humility when judging past achievements? I think so.


You gotta talk to me!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s