Lake Views: This World and the Universe

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Lake Views: This World and the Universe
Steven Weinberg
First published 25 July 2011

Thin and complacent

“I do not think we have to worry that giving up religion will lead to a moral decline,” opines physicist Steven Weinberg on the penultimate page of this collection of essays. “There are plenty of people without religious faith who live exemplary moral lives (as for example, me).”

Even if you do say so yourself.

Steven Weinberg at once sums up his attitude to the subjects he canvasses and identifies why few (other than the already-persuaded) will find much of interest in this mediocre book: Weinberg believes his arguments go without saying, and only the dim or mendacious would quarrel with them.

Which rather makes you wonder whom he thinks is his target audience.

Essay collections are often lacklustre affairs: disjointed, disconnected, duplicative and lazy: little editorial, let alone authorial, work is needed to compile material that’s already been published, after all.

This collection is especially so. The subjects are eclectic, but clumped: the quest for a final theory in elementary physics gets about four airings; why missile defence is a bad idea gets three; why manned space flight is an inferior use of public money than a particle accelerator (now fancy hearing a particle physicist say that!) gets a couple, and the collection is rounded out with a couple on Judaism and Israel, and a couple about the non-existence of God. (Yes, quite: I thought that jarred a bit, too).

The collection’s organising principle is no more inspiring than that they were all written in Weinberg’s home study, overlooking a lake. Except, he tells us, it isn’t actually a lake.

Weinberg has an unshakeable conviction in the rectitude of his own research programme. This informs his view of the topics he canvasses and affords him licence to gloss over the many objections to his point of view. I had trouble with all that glossing. For example, it wasn’t obvious why it was a good use of tax money to sink US$10 billion into a particle accelerator (supercooling 25 kilometres of electromagnets to absolute zero can’t be cheap) in the hope of credentialising a theory which, as stated by Weinberg, is unfalsifiable and plainly in crisis.

On the other hand, putting a man on Mars would at least give David Bowie [Gawd rest him. — Ed] an excuse to re-release his back catalogue (not, of course, that he needs one).

Lest you think I’m being flippant, I’m not: the standard model of modern particle physics fails to account for gravity unless there are 11 space-time dimensions, seven of which are so tiny as to be undetectable (they need to be this small because there is utterly, butterly, no evidence of any kind for them), and/or a “Multiverse": an infinite realm of other universes which we cannot (by definition) see or experience (also so required because there’s no evidence for them).

Similarly, modern cosmology fails unless vacuum space contains undetected, unseen anti-gravitational forces by dint of which the universe can continue not just to expand, but to expand at an accelerating rate.

These are not trivial problems. They’re barnstormers. Modern physics, that is to say, has many of the hallmarks of a research programme deeply in crisis: astrophysicists such as Peter Woit and Lee Smolin have published compelling books on the topic in the last decade.

So it is an odd chair from which to find a practitioner making lofty declarations. Even Weinberg concedes that the outlook for convergence to one final theory is considerably less certain now than it was when he wrote the article. Kind of makes you wonder why he didn’t trouble to update (or just omit) the offending article.

All this hubris could be forgiven if there were insightful content elsewhere, but there isn’t much. Weinberg includes an essay about the history of military technology (intended as yet another assault on the missile defence issue). This is about as close as Weinberg gets to having anything new to say. But even this (largely concerned with whether the stirrup — which permitted a horseman to charge with a “couched” lance — really was the game-changer its proponents claimed) seems to me to fail badly for selection bias. “Because the stirrup was an exaggerated innovation, ergo so is (in this case) missile defence”.

Now Weinberg is persuasive that missile defence is a waste of money (which isn’t exactly hard), but this argument about stirrups doesn’t help him. For every stirrup, there’s a horse, rifle, canon or nuke, which really was a game changer. (There will, of course, be countless “stirrups” which have faded from history’s pages for precisely the same reasons of selection bias, of course: rather like extra dimensions curling tinily into unseen universes).

And so it goes on. Many of the essays are cursory, and most are infused with an exasperating certitude. We hear an impassioned plea for the restoration and defence of the Jewish state, book-ended with a vigorous piece of atheism. Again, a dissonance there: This might be naivety on my part but I had understood the Jewish connection to Israel to be a religious one (and as such I have no particular quarrel with it). But for an atheist? If there's no God, what is the special attraction of a land where people are lobbing missiles over your back fence all the time?

Anyhow - a touchy subject which I only raise to point out the internal dissonance.

I didn’t get much from this collection, other than the reinforcement of my hunch that modern particle physics has disappeared down a conceptual rabbit-hole (a worm-hole into another universe perhaps?) from which it is unlikely to re-emerge.

In the meantime there are some splendid, challenging and batty books written by leading scientists, which provide enlightenment and unexpected entertainment. This isn’t one of them.

See also