Posts Tagged ‘The First Three Minutes’

I read in the news today, that Steven Weinberg, one of the great physicists to walk the earth during our times, is no more. I have a soft corner for great physicists, and I felt very sad.

Steven Weinberg won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 for making fundamental contributions to the Standard Model of Particle Physics. But for a science enthusiast and physics lover and book reader like me, my introduction to Steven Weinberg was through his book on the Big Bang Theory for the general reader, ‘The First Three Minutes‘. It is one of the great books written about the Big Bang Theory and the origin of the universe. How accessible is it? Can anyone understand it? That is a hard question to answer. I think it is easier than Roger Penrose’s books but harder than George Gamov’s, Simon Singh’s and Christophe Galfard’s. Weinberg himself says this in the preface of his book –

“I had better say for what reader this book is intended. I have written for one who is willing to puzzle through some detailed arguments, but who is not at home in either mathematics or physics. Although I must introduce some fairly complicated scientific ideas, no mathematics is used in the body of the book beyond arithmetic, and little or no knowledge of physics or astronomy is assumed in advance…However, this does not mean that I have tried to write an easy book. When a lawyer writes for the general public, he assumes that they do not know Law French or the Rule Against Perpetuities, but he does not think the worse of them for it, and he does not condescend to them. I want to return the compliment: I picture the reader as a smart old attorney who does not speak my language, but who expects nonetheless to hear some convincing arguments before he makes up his mind.”

I think Weinberg’s words describe the book perfectly. That is, if we put in the effort, while reading the book, we’ll be rewarded. I was.

One of the things I loved about Weinberg was the confidence he had as a scientist when he explained something, or made an analysis or prediction. But he also interwove that confidence with natural scientific scepticism and humility. The perfect combination of these two made his authorial voice pure music to listen to. For example, read this passage –

“In following this account of the first three minutes, the reader may feel that he can detect a note of scientific overconfidence. He might be right. However, I do not believe that scientific progress is always best advanced by keeping an altogether open mind. It is often necessary to forget one’s doubts and to follow the consequences of one’s assumptions wherever they may lead – the great thing is not to be free of theoretical prejudices, but to have the right theoretical prejudices. And always, the test of any theoretical preconception is in where it leads. The standard model of the early universe has scored some successes, and it provides a coherent theoretical framework for future experimental programs. This does not mean that it is true, but it does mean that it deserves to be taken seriously.”

The First Three Minutes‘ ends gloriously with one of the great passages that I’ve ever read in any science book, nearly elevating the book to a work of existentialist philosophy, asking all the big questions that humans have asked since the beginning of time. Here is how it goes –

“However all these problems may be resolved, and which ever cosmological model proves correct, there is not much of comfort in any of this. It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable – fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is atleast some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”

When I read the lines – “It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes” – it makes me laugh, it almost feels like dark comedy from a Coen brothers movie 😊

That last passage is one of my all-time favourite passages from any science book.

As you can tell by now, Steven Weinberg’s ‘The First Three Minutes‘ is one of my favourite books on science and physics. Did I understand it completely? Definitely not. Did I understand most of it? Yes, I did.

Steven Weinberg was one of the last great scientists from the 20th century who was around when the great exciting things happened in physics – relativity, quantum physics, particle physics. He had a front row seat when many of these great things happened, and he played an active part and contributed to some of them. Many of the great scientists who made these great advancements were well known to him or were his friends. With his passing, we have nearly reached the end of an era. My favourite Roger Penrose is still around, but I am dreading the day, when he will move on.

Steven Weinberg lived a long life, a beautiful life, extended the frontiers of his field, and enhanced our understanding of the universe. It was a privilege and an honour to be around at the same time as the great Weinberg. I am glad our times overlapped. It is sad that all beautiful things have to come to an end. It is a heartbreaking day for science lovers and physics fans.

Farewell, Professor Weinberg. Thank you for all the beautiful things you did to extend the frontiers of science. We’ll never forget you and we’ll miss you. I can only repeat what Horatio tells Hamlet when he bids him goodbye – “Farewell, sweet prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

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