This is a guest post by the historian and science writer Philip Ball, who draws on the discussion around physicist Steven Weinberg’s new history of science To Explain the World, and his list of best popular science books,to explore what it means to think historically, and why many scientists who attempt to write histories of their subjects fall short. A version of this essay was first published on Philip’s blog Homunculus. My thanks to Philip for allowing me to publish this on Pandaemonium. And do check out also his new book on invisibility.
In a recent short review in Prospect of Steven Weinberg’s book To Explain the World, I took exception to his narrow and presentist view of the history of science. That perspective remains unchanged in Weinberg’s recent article in the Guardian, in which he gives us his take on both the history of science and popular science writing. In both respects his remarks are useful, insofar as they encapsulate the worst of what drives me to despair when some (most definitely not all) scientists talk about these things.
Weinberg’s view of the history of science is not down to ignorance. It’s important to say this because that’s what it looks like. But Weinberg does not write Whiggish history because he doesn’t know what historians of science do these days, but specifically because he does know and disapproves of it. Yes, this theoretical physicist believes that historians don’t really know how to write history. It is hard to know why he nonetheless expresses ‘enormous respect for professional historians of science, from whom I have learned so much’ – unless he means (as I suspect) that he is grateful to them for having dug all the facts out of the archives, but that he doesn’t believe they can be trusted to know what to do with them. Because Weinberg seems to have learned nothing from historians of science about how to be a historian.
If your view is that science was just blundering around and dragging its feet until Newton’s Principia, then it’s perhaps not surprising if you conclude that the use of mathematics in science by ancients such as Plato and the Pythagoreans was ‘childish’. Again we have to understand that, while a remark like this coming from an undergraduate would simply indicate ignorance, from Weinberg it connotes something else. I am quite sure that he knows how incendiary such a claim is. But I fear that, in making it, he comes across like James Watson, evidently thinking that by saying the ‘outrageous’ he is revealing himself as a bold and outspoken thinker, whereas in fact he just sounds silly.
Talking of which… listen to this remark about science commentators and popularizers: ‘Ironically, as writers they were so much more popular than professional scientists that in many cases it is their comments on scientific research rather than reports of the research itself that were copies and recopied’. When you realise Weinberg is here writing about ‘the ancient world’, you see how anachronistic his whole perspective is. Those guys were kind of like, well, like Steven Weinberg, only in togas and sandals and doing really crappy maths.
His book is full of this sort of stuff. The generally uncritical reception it has got – with the splendid exception of Steven Shapin’s review in the Wall Street Journal – has left me rather depressed about how little general understanding there seems to be of what the history of science is about. So I can only imagine how professionals must feel; as one has said to me, ‘it’s shocking that this sort of thing gets published by a major house’.
If Weinberg genuinely believes that pretty much the entire discipline has got things wrong, you’d think he would make the effort to explain why. But all he does in his book is shrug and say ‘I don’t buy it’. Yet he totally misunderstands what the historians are up to. Weinberg seems totally hung up on the idea that they are a nest of arch-relativists, convinced that the science we have today is no more valid than that of Aristotle or Roger Bacon, just a different story for different times. This says more about Weinberg than it does about the history of science. I think you’d have to look very hard to find a historian who truly believes that the theory of general relativity is no advance on Newtonian gravity (and presumably therefore that it’s up to us whether or not to adjust our GPS satellite systems to take Einstein’s theory into account). As Weinberg puts it in his article (and now things really do get childish), ‘I argue with those historians who try to judge each era’s scientific work according to the standards of that era rather than of our own, as if science were not cumulative and progressive, as if its history could be written like the history of fashion’.
In other words, he is not really interested in understanding why people once thought the way they did, but just whether they were ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. A study of phlogiston theory would hold no interest for him, because it was wrong. Why think about wrong ideas? Well, as a scientist, he certainly has the luxury of not doing so. But then please, please don’t try to write history. The reason – one reason – to be interested in such things is that it illuminates the history of ideas. To try to understand someone’s theories within the context of their times is not to say that theirs was an equally valid way to view the world; it is to recognize that they were not simply being dense, perverse or obscure when they reached different conclusions from those we hold today, but were working in a different conceptual framework, with different priorities, prejudices and perceptions. Weinberg shows no curiosity about ideas that can’t be directly connected to ones we deem to be valid today. His dismissal of Plato, Francis Bacon and Descartes (for example) is woefully naïve. Which perhaps would not matter so much for someone working solely in theoretical physics, but so narrow an outlook is going to constrain him to conveying only a very limited picture of science (not just its history) to the general public.
Which brings me to science communication. Given Weinberg’s dismissive attitude to professional historians, I suppose it should come as no great surprise to discover his view of professional science writers. Like Richard Dawkins selecting The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, he only has eyes for fellow scientists who try to popularize what they do. It is essential that such people exist, and the best of them (like Dawkins and E O Wilson) have produced much of the best science writing. But the fact that, in an article on writing about science for the general public, Weinberg fails even to acknowledge the existence of people who do this professionally gives us a pretty fair picture of what he thinks about science communication. We have to assume that, like history, this is not something that need be done by specialists – it is best left to scientists themselves, since only they really understand science. They can, you know, just ‘take time off from their own research’ to knock it out.
Like Weinberg? Well, The First Three Minutes is deservedly a classic. But it is helpful that Weinberg starts his Guardian piece on popular science writing by saying that ‘It is mathematics above all that present an obstacle to communication between professional scientist and the general public’, because it tells us from the outset that we needn’t take too seriously his thoughts on science communication. I am quite sure I am not alone when I say that, having written about science (particularly physical science) for more than 20 years, I have almost never found myself frustrated, in wishing to convey an idea or concept, by the fact that I cannot tell it in maths. Indeed, a wish to do so is almost invariably a good sign that the underlying ideas are not properly understood by the author. If scientists cannot communicate a concept without falling back on maths, they don’t truly grasp what it is they are trying to talk about. It is a failure of the communicator, not of the audience.
But even putting that aside, Weinberg’s insistent refrain about the role of maths in science betrays his extreme parochialism. This is reflected in To Explain the World, which is not about the history of science but about the history of physics, particularly celestial and terrestrial mechanics. He still takes the view, popular a century ago but long discarded by historians of science, that no science has really grown up until it becomes thoroughly mathematical. I’m not even sure that there are many physicists who still cling to this absurd notion. It reveals a total lack of understanding of chemistry, materials science, evolutionary biology and cell biology, to name just a few areas. Of course, mathematical and quantitative models are important in all these areas. But they don’t define them in the same way as they do most of physics. Weinberg’s is the kind of thinking that says chemistry only became a proper science (and at the same time, an obsolete one) when quantum theory explained the structure of the atom and the nature of the chemical bond. And that, to use a popular physics slogan, is not even wrong.
This sort of parochialism is reflected in Weinberg’s list of ’13 best science books for the general reader’. Only one of them is by a professional science writer (Timothy Ferris, who certainly deserves that place), and nine of them are about physics – and cosmological, nuclear or fundamental physics at that. No chemistry; no surprise. The shortage of women in Weinberg’s list is not because, as he tells us, ‘women were not welcome in science through most of its history’, but because he does not seem interested in the work of the many excellent science writers who happen to be female. Because they aren’t real scientists, you see. And so there is no room for the likes of Georgina Ferry, Elizabeth Kolbert, Margaret Wertheim, Dava Sobel, Deborah Blum, Gabrielle Walker… Instead, we get Lisa Randall – not, I suspect, because she is a particularly gifted communicator of science (sadly she is not), but because she works in theoretical physics. (If he’d wanted to limit himself to that, he could at least have chosen Janna Levin, who really can write well.)
The great thing about writing books, Weinberg says, is that it has given him ‘the opportunity of leaving for a while the ivory tower of theoretical physics research, and making contact with the world outside’. He should do it more often.
The paintings are, from top down, William Blake’s ‘Newton’; Galileo displaying his telescope to Leonardo Donato (artist unknown); Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’; and Joseph Wright’s ‘An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump’.
Thanks, Kenan, for re-posting this. I really don’t understand people like Weinberg who disparage knowledge of history as unnecessary. The dangerous narrowness of the perspective is obvious.
I’ve seen that print of Galileo and Donato before, but for some reason this time I was compelled to track it down! Although it appears everywhere on the web as a 1754 “painting” by H.J. Detouche, that particular Detouche was born in 1854… so it may actually be the work of Laurent Didier Detouche, who appears to have exhibited a painting of Galileo and Donato around 1857-1859. (At least according to an 1878 national biography compiled by Ernest Glaeser, here: https://books.google.com/books?id=KhA_AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA185&lpg=PA185&dq=%22detouche%22+and+donato&source=bl&ots=kwee4xmLje&sig=yFFz6uDJ517f79i_AiLIifc30as&hl=en&sa=X&ei=y3MlVYv3GbWZsQSP5YCwDw&ved=0CEQQ6AEwCDgK#v=onepage&q=%22detouche%22%20and%20donato&f=false). So many sites have repeated the first attribution uncritically, I was pleased to see you chose not to.
Enjoyed this guest post!
Thank you for this. As someone who teaches history and philosophy (with a side interest in physics), I find Weinberg’s dismissive attitude towards historians and popular science writers obnoxious. And I agree about Lisa Randall. I have trouble getting through her books, not because they’re too difficult but because they are poorly written.
I’m guessing that Weinberg is not a big Thomas Kuhn fan.
What precisely is wrong with the book? The article is largely saying “Weinberg does it differently to us, therefore he is wrong”. Why is his approach not just an alternative way of looking at things?
Philip Ball’s point is that to understand ideas from a historical perspective one has to look upon them in context. From the perspective of a cosmologist, it is sufficient to say that the Ptolemaic system was wrong, and the heliocentric system right. But what a historian wants to know is how the Ptolemaic system emerged and developed, why it endured, and how it related to other aspects of the ancient and medieval world – how, for instance, it fitted into the social, intellectual, religious and institutional frameworks of the time. Not to do so is not to think historically. One does not always have to think historically, of course. But if you aim to write a history of science, then it helps to do so. To write a history of science and not to think historically is certainly ‘an alternative way of looking at things’. But it is not a particularly useful way.
I believe that Weinberg first started writing about the history of science during the “science wars” of the 90s. I was paying pretty close attention to the whole kerfluffle, and there really was a fair bit of sloppy Kuhn-on-steroids style thinking floating around. Not so much from History of Science proper, but around the Cultural Studies fringes.
I think to some extent, “still fighting the battles of 1997” explains Weinberg’s aggressive presentism.
Weinberg’s approach to the history of science seems to really miss out on what it means to write about the history of ideas.
It sounds that he wants a book on the history of science to be almost the same as a text book on physics, picking out only the ideas that worked. And only seeing value in the correct ideas. This is of course understandable if one is interested in the physics (which might be expected from a physicist), but not so, if one wants to understand the origins of the ideas.
The interesting parts in the history of science are questions like: Why did an idea surface at the time it did? What was the influences and background for a particular line of thought? Why was it so hard to come up with some idea, that in retrospect seems so obvious? And so on.
Focusing only on correct ideas will not answer this type of questions. It will only result in a toy history suitable as intro to a course book on physics, not history.
I might buy the book anyway.
Yes, narrowness of perspective continues to be a real danger in so many walks of life. Thanks for exposing such a supercilious example of the writing of the history of science and defending a more scientific perspective. I suggest Weinberg read Bourdieu on science and reflexivity.