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The Nobel Prize-winning physicist and bestselling author of The First Three Minutes describes the grand quest for a unifying theory of nature--one that can explain events as disparate as the cohesion ...
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist and bestselling author of The First Three Minutes describes the grand quest for a unifying theory of nature--one that can explain events as disparate as the cohesion inside the atom and the gravitational tug between the sun and Earth.
|II||On a Piece of Chalk||19|
|III||Two Cheers for Reductionism||51|
|IV||Quantum Mechanics and Its Discontents||65|
|V||Tales of Theory and Experiment||90|
|VIII||Twentieth Century Blues||191|
|IX||The Shape of a Final Theory||211|
|XI||What About God?||241|
|XII||Down in Ellis County||262|
Posted June 2, 2011
Steven Weinberg is one of twentieth century's greatest theoretical physicists. He is one of the codiscoverers of the Electroweak Theory, an important piece of the puzzle that describes all of the fundamental forces of nature. He is also a very prolific writer, with several important textbooks and a few books that aim to popularize Physics and make it accessible to the general audience. The theme of this book is the long standing problem in Physics, and that is the one of unification of all forces under a single set of laws. Weinberg is as big of an authority on this subject as they come, as he has contributed and worked on various aspects of unification throughout his professional career. In this book he tries to explain what exactly is meant by "Final Theory." He is equally critical of opponents of this approach to science who deride it as overly reductionist, as he is of those who think that the discovery of final laws will in some way be the end of science. In some sense he is staking a middle ground between these two extremes.
This book was written in the years when the prospect of building the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was still tenable. SSC was supposed to be the largest particle collider in the world, and had it became operational it would have provided new data and insights into the mysteries of fundamental Physics. Or so we believed. Weinberg was one of the most prominent scientific proponents of this project, and he testified often in US Congress in its favor. Many of those encounters with politicians are discussed in this book. They provide a valuable and fascinating insight into how "big science" gets done. For one thing, scientific viability and value of any given project is only one of the important criteria that are considered when the pricetag for a project exceeds the entire budget of a small country. In the end SSC did not get the funding, and for better or worse our search for the ultimate laws of nature has since been almost exclusively a theoretical endeavor. This may change with the advent of Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, which is supposed to start taking data any moment now.
Throughout this book Weinberg touches on many philosophical themes, which in some sense is inevitable when one discusses such a vast topic as the ultimate theory of nature. Weinberg is rather dismissive of philosophical and religious considerations. This may be respectable insofar as his intellectual honesty is concerned, and we as readers at least know where he is coming from. However, the vast majority of people hope to understand the questions of the ultimate meaning in broadly philosophical terms, and it would be useful if scientists who are the most invested in the search for the final theory would at least try to present that search in some more accessible categories. Especially if they hope to have the general public on board when it comes to funding exceptionally large scientific projects.
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Posted October 29, 2011
This work does an excellent job of describing the current state of physics and the lack of a "theory of everything" or anything even close to such a theory. Coming from Weinberg, this makes the propositions even more convincing.
Weinberg waxes poetic about the beauty of modern physics and decries the incomprehensible nature of the contemporary Standard Model. The take home message for me is that advanced physics today is a kluge of theorets instead of simple grand scheme and so the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
As a scientist not in this field, I would have preferred more technical statements, at least parenthetically or in notes. The extremely awkward million billion billion thing seems silly compared to 1e24 or some other simpler statement of zeros. When in the world will we ever get to the point where some technical symbology becomes allowed in popular science?
Weinberg takes on philosophy in a chapter that discusses reductionism and positivism in sometimes disparaging ways. This seems futile for a basically reductionist and positivist physicist. Isn't his answer obvious and in his science already?
And he discusses politics in a chapter on the Superconducting SuperCollider project. That project was summarily killed due to budget but also due to the more popular desire to fund other more promising areas of science, i.e. NIH. Once again, this discussion seems futile. Science monies are always limited and always competitive. If you lose one project, move on to another that can get funding. Decrying the politics of the process hardly seems useful.
Nevertheless, a very good read and highly recommended.
Posted April 8, 2005