Steven Weinberg was a world-renown Nobel Laureate in particle physics. No, I had never heard of him either, but that was a deficiency on my part because he was a giant. The details of what he accomplished are described in the obituary from The New York Times on July 26, but the point of this blog is not to recapitulate what he alone can adequately describe about his seminal work.
There are a couple of points about him that are worthy of some lengthy consideration.
First, he finished his career (he never retired) at the University of Texas in Austin where he built the high-level theoretical physics research group. This is now a leading place for such research. The university gets high marks for this decision.
Second, he wrote a book about the birth of the universe called The First Three Minutes. He had described those minutes after the Big Bang and things “cooled down enough for atomic nuclei to bond together” as the interesting part. “After that,” he said, “nothing of any interest could happen in the history of the universe.” That’s a rather unique perspective.
In his book he also made the observation that “anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.” Weinberg really opposed the concept of religion, which in its essence is the belief in the unknowable and unprovable, something a theoretical physicist would have no interest in.
He said of the statement about religion, “there is no point to be discovered in nature itself; there is no cosmic plan for us.”
When you think about who said these things, they cannot be dismissed or taken lightly. This was a man who understood the nature of stuff as few have ever done before him. If after spending a lifetime exploring the nature of matter and the universe, a gifted man came to the conclusion that religion espoused an illusion and that nature was not there to service man, he had to be listened to. It is fine to disagree with his conclusions, but it is not fine to say they have no validity.
Weinberg said, “it is not an entirely happy view of human life. I think it is a tragic view, but that is not new to physicists. A tragic view of life has been expressed by so many poets—that we are here without purpose, trying to identify something that we care about.” This latter view is cynical. Dispelling religion and saying nature is not in service of man only means that we need to imbue our lives with whatever meaning we choose to give it. That is not tragic. On the contrary, that is the ultimate triumph of self-determination and free will.
It’s fine to not find God in the details of particle physics. If you choose not to believe in God, that is an individual decision. That God may not demonstrably intervene in our lives is also fine to believe. But life is not tragic. It is what we make it as Jodie Foster points out in Contact.
Steven Weinberg was a great physicist, but I have to disagree with him on the meaning of nature. It’s what we make of it.