Wednesday, 28 October 1998

Steven Weinberg: Dreams of a Final Theory (1992)

Dreams of a Final Theory coverEdition: Radius, 1992
Review number: 149

Steven Weinberg, winner of the Nobel prize in physics for his work on elementary particle theory, wrote this book while involved in the campaign by American physicists to obtain a grant for the Superconducting Super-Collider (SSC). This campaign colours the book, a lot of it being Weiberg's responses to the type of questions both physicists and non-physicists asked about the project and its aims, or an outcome of his own background thought as he marshalled his arguments for his testimony to the Congress committee involved.

Because of the nature of the project, however, the book goes far beyond arguments for one particular particle accelerator. For the SSC was intended to test theories of the fundamental nature of the universe in which we live, to help physicists formulate a final theory, or "theory of everything". Thus the kind of questions which are being asked include: What do physicists mean by a final theory? What indications are there that such a theory may exist? How close are we to one? What sort of things might such a theory say? How could we tell it is indeed final? What would be the role of God in a universe governed by such a theory?

The last question is the one which is always asked by non-physicists, though it is perhaps not so interesting as some of the others, from either a philosophical or scientific viewpoint. Weinberg has written this book as an attempt to answer all these questions from the point of view of a professional physicist; he doesn't pretend to a vast understanding of the academic philosophy of science, the vast majority of which is seen as of no use or interest to those involved in scientific research. Indeed, some sociological analyses of science are positively inimical to the practice of research, because they assert that accepted scientific theories are a purely human construct, with no relationship to "truth" or "reality" (whatever these terms may be taken to mean). There clearly is some cultural influence on devising and interpreting experiments, but there is no motivation for doing so if you believe that there is no other factor involved. Such sociological theories have the same problem as naively expressed logical positivism - their pre-suppositions are destroyed by their application to themselves. In other words, the idea that scientific research is a cultural phenomenon should apply to itself, assuming that sociologists believe that what they do is scientific (and I believe that they do). (The statement that has the same problem in logical positivism is the idea that only verifiable statements should be considered as true - a statement which is not verifiable.)

The fact that in the end the battle for continued funding for the SSC was lost does not mean that this is a book only of interest in the mid-nineties. In the end, the debate was more an example to be quoted in the book and a motivation for writing it than its absolute centre; the questions it raised and Weinberg's discussion are of far wider interest.

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