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....
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.
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….
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
Wertheim, New York, October 1996
W.W Norton and
London, 1997, p. xi-xvi