The Guardian has a nice book review; Tim Radford takes a look at “Dreams of a Final Theory” by the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg. This is a book that is all about the Search for The Fundamental Laws of Nature. Now, here comes the big surprise, the book was written almost 20 years ago, yet even in the very fast moving field of high-energy physics, it still stands, and is still very readable …
Since first publication, physicists have demonstrated quantum entanglement and experiments in teleportation; they have built the once-theoretical fifth state of matter, the Bose-Einstein condensate; they have used such technology to slow a beam of light first to bicycle speed, and then to a standstill; they have stopped talking about cosmic string and introduced branes instead; they have extended the idea of a multiverse; and they have identified an entirely new feature called dark energy, that accounts for three quarters of the whole detectable cosmos. So why is his book still a great read?
There are three reasons. One is that Weinberg writes with clarity and an old-fashioned feeling for a good sentence (in the preface, he rather casually drops the names of Tacitus, Edward Gibbon and Samuel Eliot Morison as historians that he reads for pleasure). The second is that he is restating a question that has been on papyrus or in print for at least three thousand years: why is the world as it is and who or what made it that way? Universal and timeless questions have universal and timeless appeal. The third is obvious: the book is still entirely up-to-date because 20 years on, nobody has got anywhere near the discovery of a Final Theory.
OK, so having found the book review, I’m reminded that Steven is also famous within the atheist community for the following quote:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion. “
That comes from his address at the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C. in April 1999.
I can’t resist, and since I’m on a quote roll, then here are a couple of quotes from the book, “Dreams of a Final Theory” …
Religious people have grappled for millennia with the theodicy, the problem posed by the existence of suffering in a world that is supposed to be ruled by a good God. They have found ingenious solutions in terms of various supposed divine plans. I will not try to argue with these solutions, much less to add one of my own. Remembrance of the Holocaust leaves me unsympathetic to attempts to justify the ways of God to man. If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers.
Premature as the question may be, it is hardly possible not to wonder whether we will find any answer to our deepest questions, any signs of the workings of an interested God, in a final theory. I think that we will not.
Ah yes, he is indeed very quotable, so here are four more great quotes from him to finish with … enjoy.
- I can hope that this long sad story, this progression of priests and ministers and rabbis and ulamas and imams and bonzes and bodhisattvas, will come to an end. I hope this is something to which science can contribute … it may be the most important contribution that we can make – Freethought Today, April, 2000
- This is one of the great social functions of science — to free people from superstition. – Freethought Today, April, 2000
- Science should be taught not in order to support religion and not in order to destroy religion. Science should be taught simply ignoring religion. – Freethought Today, April, 2000
- I don’t need to argue here that the evil in the world proves that the universe is not designed, but only that there are no signs of benevolence that might have shown the hand of a designer. But in fact the perception that God cannot be benevolent is very old. Plays by Aeschylus and Euripides make a quite explicit statement that the gods are selfish and cruel, though they expect better behavior from humans. God in the Old Testament tells us to bash the heads of infidels and demands of us that we be willing to sacrifice our children’s lives at His orders, and the God of traditional Christianity and Islam damns us for eternity if we do not worship him in the right manner. Is this a nice way to behave? I know, I know, we are not supposed to judge God according to human standards, but you see the problem here: If we are not yet convinced of His existence, and are looking for signs of His benevolence, then what other standards can we use? – A Designer Universe