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Steven Weinberg Glimpses the Promised Land 

David Kordahl

The sage of physics takes on politics and philosophy — and dreams of science’s last day

At eighty-five, Steven Weinberg knows that he has lived an enviable life. “I married my college sweetheart,” he tells us at one point in Third Thoughts, his latest collection of essays. During his remarks after accepting an honorary doctorate, he talks about the city where he has spent the past three decades. “As you probably can guess, I like living in Austin.” He has also witnessed great scientific progress. “I recall both cosmology and elementary particle physics in the early 1960s as cacophonies of competing conjectures,” he writes. “Now in each case we have a widely accepted theory, known as a ‘standard model.’” Here he tactfully omits that he was one of the main architects of the standard model for elementary particles — for which he won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Now Weinberg stands as the grand old man of physics, as much a fixture at the New York Review of Books as he is at the Physical Review. In the preface to Third Thoughts he hopes this book will not be his last, despite “actuarial realities.”

By his standards, this is a genial collection, though Weinberg still isn’t the sort of man who makes you guess after his opinions. The book has three separate pieces touching on why human space exploration is a waste of money. By the last one, “Against Manned Space Flight,” Weinberg begins with a note on how he has tried to avoid “seeming to beat a dead horse.”

The topics Weinberg circles in the book have occupied him for decades. He remains one of science’s staunchest proponents of “reductionism,” believing that beneath the world of appearances, a single theory explains all of nature’s plans — if only we could find it. He vigorously opposes those who suggest that science is anything other than a noble and cumulative encounter with reality, a stance that has led him to spar with many philosophers and historians. Weinberg’s previous book, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science (2015), contended that the pre-scientific era can show us just how badly things go if we ask the wrong sorts of questions, but argued that we’ve kept basically on track since Newton, building models, doing experiments, getting to the heart of the matter.

This pedal point sounds throughout Third Thoughts — in the preface, Weinberg describes his point of view as “rationalist, realist, reductionist, and devoutly secular” — but longtime listeners will hear new dissonances in the counter-melodies....

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David Kordahl is a graduate student in physics at Arizona State University.

David Kordahl, "Steven Weinberg Glimpses the Promised Land," The New Atlantis, Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 120-128.