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Ability is of little account without opportunity. - Napoleon
Foreword from Pythagoras' Trousers
Most cultures articulate their world picture through mythology or religion, but since the seventeenth century the Western world picture has been articulated through science, above all by physics. For better or worse, this is the discipline through which our culture describes "reality". In traditional societies children learn their world picture as they grow up hearing mythological and religious stories that are part of the core knowledge of their people. Yet modern science has always been the domain of specialists and most of us receive little introduction to its "stories" either as children or adults. While it is true that other cultures also have their specialists and elite spheres of knowledge, in the "age of science" this trend has been elevated to unprecedented heights.
A clear understanding of your culture's world picture is surely a basic human need; for at its most essential, this is nothing less than the knowledge to know how you stand in the cosmological scheme. Indeed, I suggest, knowledge of a society's world picture is essential for psychological integrity within that society. Without such understanding an individual becomes, in a profound way, an outsider. As long as our culture continues to refract reality through the lens of science there is an obligation to make the science accessible to everyone. What is at stake here is not just individual sanity, but ultimately social cohesion. By binding people into the same cosmological framework, a shared world picture becomes one of the primary glues that holds communities together.
Most people today have no clear sense of the scientific world picture. Despite the fact that we are living through an explosion of science publishing, there is little about physics that is accessible to people with no background in the field…
I came to believe that one of the major obstacles here is that most writing about physics focuses only on the answers. People cannot make sense of answers if they do not first understand the questions. Solutions only have meaning if one has a firm grasp of the problems being addressed, and of why these problems matter.
Why, for instance, does it matter if the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth? In most physics books, and in most classrooms, this is presented as a problem in celestial geometry: Is it the blue dot or the yellow one at the center? With virtually no sense of context we are told that Copernicus finally "solved" this problem by placing the yellow dot in the central position. To most students the whole exercise appears little more than an abstract mathematical game.
Yet the issue matters greatly. The question of whether the sun or the earth is at the center of the cosmic system is not just a matter of celestial geometry (though it is that as well), it is a profound question about human culture. The choice between the geocentric cosmology of the Middle Ages and the heliocentric cosmology of the late seventeenth century was a choice between two fundamentally different perceptions of mankind's place in the universal scheme. Were we to see ourselves at the center of an angel-filled cosmos with everything connected to God, or were we to see ourselves as the inhabitants of a large rock purposelessly revolving in a vast Euclidian void? The shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism was not simply a triumph of empirical astronomy, but a turning point in Western cultural history.
In order to comprehend the answers of modern physics (its theories and its laws), we must turn our attention first to the problems being addressed. Only if we understand what is at stake can we care about scientific questions. The key to understanding science, I believe, is to see how scientific theories emerge within the context of our culture at large. Science should be presented not as an isolated activity taking place away from the rest of society, but as a profoundly human and culturally contingent pursuit....
Along the way however, something unexpected happened. After two and a half years of reading widely across the history of physics, from Pythagoras to Stephen Hawking, I began to notice a pattern that nothing in my physics education had led me to expect. I saw that in every era historians of science had documented, the issue of God and religion kept raising his head. I began to realize that the outpouring of "theological" musings by physicists today – all the talk about "the mind of God" and so on – was not something new, but the latest manifestation of an age-old tradition. Physics, I came to see, had always been a quasi-religious activity.
This revelation shocked me, for like most people today I had been taught to believe that science and religion were enemies. Isn't that what the Galileo case demonstrated? Hadn't religious faith always been an impediment to scientific reason? Hadn't it always been so? On the contrary, physics must be seen as a "priestly" science, a discipline that throughout history has been informed as much by theological as by scientific inspiration….
The priestly culture of physics is not only a matter of concern for women, but for all those who care about science. In a time when so many physicists are talking about God, and when quasi-religious arguments are increasingly being brought to bear in discussions about the funding of expensive physics projects, such as particle accelerators and deep-space telescopes, there is a pressing need for some clarity about the relationship between physics and religion. The public discourse on this subject has largely been dominated by physicists themselves, who generally have little understanding of religion and often little knowledge of the history of science. In presenting a coherent account of the historical relationship between physics and religion I hope to contribute to a firmer foundation on which we may understand and critique the "theologizing" in physics today.
Wertheim, New York, October 1996