Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Each of these essays struggles in one way or another with the necessity of facing up to the discovery that the laws of nature are impersonal, with no hint of a special status for human beings. Defending the spirit of science against its cultural adversaries, these essays express a viewpoint that is reductionist, realist, and devoutly secular. Together, they afford the general reader the unique pleasure of experiencing the superb sense, understanding, and knowledge of one of the most interesting and forceful scientific minds of our era.ease fill in marketing copy

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06640-3
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1 Science as a Liberal Art
    (pp. 1-6)

    In discussing with President Cater¹ by phone what sort of commencement talk might be appropriate here today, the idea occurred to both of us that, since Washington College is setting out on a major renovation of its science facilities, and since I am a scientist, I might speak on the place of science education in small liberal arts colleges. But as soon as I hung up the phone, my heart sank. Many of you today are saying your goodbyes to college. I am afraid that for you to have to listen to me talk about education is much like passengers...

  5. 2 Newtonianism, Reductionism, and the Art of Congressional Testimony
    (pp. 7-25)

    My talk this afternoon will be about the philosophy of science, rather than about science itself. This is somewhat uncharacteristic for me, and, I suppose, for working scientists in general. I’ve heard the remark (although I forget the source) that the philosophy of science is just about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

    However, at just this time a question has arisen in the United States that will affect the direction of physics research until well into the twenty-first century, and that I think hinges very largely on a philosophical issue. On January 30 of this year...

  6. 3 Newton’s Dream
    (pp. 26-41)

    This symposium has been organized to celebrate a great book published three hundred years ago, the Principia of Isaac Newton. In that book Newton outlined a new theory of motion and a new theory of gravity, and succeeded thereby in explaining not only the apparent motions of bodies in the solar system, but terrestrial phenomena like tides and falling fruits as well. In other work Newton developed the mathematics of the calculus.¹ Newton also performed fundamental experiments in the theory of optics and wrote books about biblical chronology. Yet with all these accomplishments Newton can be said to have contributed...

  7. 4 Confronting O’Brien
    (pp. 42-48)

    For many years I have been a cheerful philistine in philosophical matters. Still (like everyone else) I worry about the Big Questions from time to time, and the invitation to contribute to this book provides an occasion to pull my thoughts into order. I will offer some remarks about one Very Big Question: how should we decide what we ought to believe? Then I will say somewhat less about what I do believe.

    When it comes to issues of fact rather than of value, I take it as a point of honor, as a moral rather than a logical necessity,...

  8. 5 The Heritage of Galileo
    (pp. 49-56)

    Earlier this week I was attending a seminar on elementary particle physics in Austin, Texas, and found my thoughts drifting to the talk that I was to give here today in Padua. Suddenly I found myself wondering what Galileo would think if he returned to life in the middle of the physics seminar I was attending. He might be depressed by the drabness of the seminar room; he had lived his life in Florence and Pisa as well as Padua, and even under house arrest his surroundings were probably more pleasing than a typical seminar room in any modern university....

  9. 6 Nature Itself
    (pp. 57-69)

    The state of science at the end of the twentieth century is very different from its condition at the century’s beginning. It is not just that we know more now—we have come in this century to understand the very pattern of scientific knowledge. In 1900 many scientists supposed that physics, chemistry, and biology each operated under its own autonomous laws. The empire of science was believed to consist of many separate commonwealths, at peace with each other, but separately ruled. A few scientists held fast to Newton’s dream of a grand synthesis of all the sciences, but without any...

  10. 7 The Boundaries of Scientific Knowledge
    (pp. 70-82)

    In Walt Whitman’s often quoted poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” the poet tells how, being shown the astronomer’s charts and diagrams, he became tired and sick and wandered off by himself to look up “in perfect silence at the stars.” Generations of scientists have been annoyed by these lines. The sense of beauty and wonder has not atrophied through the work of science, as Whitman implies. The night sky is as beautiful as ever, to astronomers as well as to poets. And as we understand more and more about nature, the scientist’s sense of wonder has not diminished...

  11. 8 The Methods of Science … and Those by Which We Live
    (pp. 83-92)

    Standing in a bookshop in Harvard Square a decade ago, I noticed a book on the philosophy of science by a friend of mine. I opened it and found it interesting—my friend was discussing questions about scientific knowledge that I had not thought of asking. Yet, although I bought the book, I realized that it would probably be a long time before I sat down to read it, because I was busy with my research and I knew deep in my heart that this book was not going to help me in my work as a scientist.

    This was...

  12. 9 Night Thoughts of a Quantum Physicist
    (pp. 93-106)

    I think many of you will have recognized the source of this talk’s title: a lovely novel by Russell McCormmach called Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist. It’s about a fictitious physicist, Victor Jakob, who in 1918 looked back over his career, which had spanned the first two decades of the twentieth century, and described his sense of frustration and unease with what was happening to physics. Night thoughts, of course, are what you get when you wake up at three in the morning and can’t figure out how you are going to go on with your life.

    During the...

  13. 10 Reductionism Redux
    (pp. 107-122)

    It used to be traditional for college courses on the history of philosophy to begin around 600 B.C.E. with Thales of Miletus. According to later writers, Thales taught that everything is made of water. Learning about Thales, undergraduates had the healthy experience of starting their study of philosophy with a doctrine that they knew to be false.

    Though wrong, Thales and his pre-Socratic successors were not just being silly. They had somehow come upon the idea that it might he possible to explain a great many complicated things on the basis of some simple and universal principle—everything is made...

  14. 11 Physics and History
    (pp. 123-137)

    I am one of the few contributors to this issue of Daedalus who is not in any sense a historian. I work and live in the country of physics, but history is the place that I love to visit as a tourist. Here I wish to consider, from the perspective of a physicist, the uses that history has for physics and that physics has for history, and the dangers that each poses to the other.

    I should begin by observing that one of the best uses of the history of physics is to help physicists teach physics to nonphysicists. You...

  15. 12 Sokal’s Hoax
    (pp. 138-154)

    Like many other scientists, I was amused when I heard about the prank played by the NYU mathematical physicist Alan Sokal, who late in 1994 submitted a sham article to the cultural studies journal Social Text. In the article Sokal reviewed several current topics in physics and mathematics, and, tongue in cheek, drew various cultural, philosophical, and political morals that he felt would appeal to fashionable academic commentators who question the claims of science to objectivity.

    The editors of Social Text did not detect that Sokal’s article was a hoax, and they published it in the journal’s Spring/Summer 1996 issue.²...

  16. 13 Science and Sokal’s Hoax: An Exchange
    (pp. 155-161)

    I am grateful to those who sent comments on my article “Sokal’s Hoax,” including those who, by disagreeing with me, have given me this chance to take another whack at the issues it raised.

    Professors Holquist and Shulman have me dead to rights in calling my views dualistic. I think that an essential element needed in the birth of modern science was the creation of a gap between the world of physical science and the world of human culture.¹ Endless trouble has been produced throughout history by the effort to draw moral or cultural lessons from discoveries of science. The...

  17. 14 Before the Big Bang
    (pp. 162-180)

    On a summer weekend a few years ago my wife and I visited friends at their ranch in the Glass Mountains of West Texas. After dinner we sat outside on lawn chairs and looked up at the sky. Far from city lights, in clear, dry air, and with the moon down, we could see not only Altair and Vega and the other bright stars that you can see from anywhere on a cloudless summer night, but also an irregular swath of light running across the sky, the Milky Way, as I had not seen it in decades of living in...

  18. 15 Zionism and Its Adversaries
    (pp. 181-183)

    I write about Zionism as one who has no interest in the preservation of Judaism (or, I hasten to add, any other religion), but a great deal of interest in the preservation of Jews. There always were two different ways that Zionists viewed the return to Zion: as a duty for all Jews, imposed by their religion, or as an opportunity for those Jews who want or need to live in a Jewish nation. As an unreligious American Jew, I feel no desire or duty to change my nationality, and I am in no position to deplore the fact that...

  19. 16 The Red Camaro
    (pp. 184-186)

    On October 15, 1764, Edward Gibbon conceived the idea of writing the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire while he was listening to barefoot monks singing vespers in the ruins of the Roman Capitol. I wish I could say I worked in settings that glamorous. I got the idea for my best-known work while I was driving my red Camaro in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the way to my office in the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    I was feeling strung out. I had taken a leave of absence from my regular professorship at...

  20. 17 The Non-Revolution of Thomas Kuhn
    (pp. 187-206)

    I first read Thomas Kuhn’s famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions¹ a quarter-century ago, soon after the publication of the second edition. I had known Kuhn only slightly when we had been together on the faculty at Berkeley in the early 1960s, but I came to like and admire him later, when he came to MIT. His book I found exciting.

    Evidently others felt the same. Structure has had a wider influence than any other book on the history of science. Soon after Kuhn’s death in 1996, the sociologist Clifford Geertz remarked that Kuhn’s book had “opened the door...

  21. 18 T. S. Kuhn’s Non-Revolution: An Exchange
    (pp. 207-209)

    Have I misunderstood Kuhn? Of course Kuhn never claimed that science is an irrational enterprise. Nor have I said that he did. But I am glad that Professor Levine has given me another chance to comment on the topic of rationality, for it seems natural to me that Feyerabend and others should have seen Kuhn’s arguments as a defense of irrationality in science. If I agreed with Kuhn’s judgment about the progress of science, that there is no sense in which science offers a cumulative approach to some sort of truth, then the whole enterprise would seem rather irrational to...

  22. 19 The Great Reduction: Physics in the Twentieth Century
    (pp. 210-229)

    By the end of the nineteenth century scientists had achieved a fair understanding of the world of everyday experience. Sciences such as mechanics, thermodynamics, chemistry, optics, cell biology, and even electrodynamics had become part of the armamentarium of industry and agriculture. In return, industry had provided science with the apparatus, the vacuum pumps and spectroscopes and so on, that would be needed for further advances. Science had also been the beneficiary of the growing intellectual technology of mathematics. Differential and integral calculus, complex analysis, differential geometry, and group theory had become well enough developed by 1900 to satisfy the needs...

  23. 20 A Designer Universe?
    (pp. 230-242)

    I have been asked to comment on whether the universe shows signs of having been designed. I don’t see how it’s possible to talk about this without having at least some vague idea of what a designer would be like. Any possible universe could be explained as the work of some sort of designer. Even a universe that is completely chaotic, without any laws or regularities at all, could be supposed to have been designed by an idiot.

    The question that seems to me to be worth answering, and perhaps not impossible to answer, is whether the universe shows signs...

  24. 21 “A Designer Universe?”: An Exchange
    (pp. 243-246)

    I am staggered by Father Oakes’s use of the definite article in his complaint that I show a fundamental misunderstanding of the believer’s position. Surely there are many different positions taken by the many different people who assert the existence of God. Although it is not quite clear from his letter, I gather that the particular position taken by Father Oakes is that God “by definition” is the ultimate answer to any chain of “why” questions. I suppose I could have said that the laws of nature are by definition the ultimate answer to all “why” questions, but definitions can...

  25. 22 Five and a Half Utopias
    (pp. 247-263)

    I used to read a good deal of science fiction when I was a boy. Even though I knew pretty early that I was going to be a scientist, it wasn’t the science that interested me in science fiction; it was the vision of future societies that, for better or worse, would be radically different from our own. This led me on from science fiction to utopian literature, to Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and also to the literature of anti-utopias, to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. I have been more...

  26. 23 Looking for Peace in the Science Wars
    (pp. 264-270)

    “Why the devil came you between us?” said Mercutio. That is the risk that mediators have to run—like Romeo, they may only make the quarrel worse. Now the distinguished Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking is intervening in the quarrel between the academics (many of them sociologists) who talk about the “social construction” of this or that, and those others (many of them natural scientists) who deplore such talk. While he does not promise peace in our time, Hacking criticizes the way that scientists and sociologists shout at each other, and he laments talk of culture wars. I am not sure...

  27. Sources
    (pp. 273-274)
  28. Index
    (pp. 275-284)
  29. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-285)