To Explain the World has been waiting for me on my shelf for a few years. The trouble with these vast, sweeping histories of science is that, as much as I love them, more acute pop science and pop history books always take priority. You want to teach me about vaccines? You want to talk to me about environmental racism? Hell yeah, I’m down. But unless you’re Bill Bryson, your hot take on the last 2000-or-so years of Western science can wait.
But still, I am trying with some small success to get through the remaining physical books I have on my to-read shelf so I can make a big, celebratory purchase of many new books. So I dove into To Explain the World, curious and eager to hear what Weinberg has to say about the “discovery” of science, as he puts it. Weinberg is refreshingly honest about the subjectivity of his opinion, as well as the limitations of his writing. As a result, he furnishes us with an interesting and serviceable history—his writing skills do not always allow him to go exactly where he wants, I think, yet overall this book is a good read.
If I sound cynical about this book and others like it, it’s only because I’ve read so many of them. There's a predictable progression of greatest hits: Thales, Aristarchus, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Aristotle … then the medieval era, then the Renaissance, then the Enlightenment. Weinberg is hardly treading any ground that hasn’t been tread before, and while I appreciate his honesty about this, that doesn’t help me work up a lot of enthusiasm for it.
So what makes To Explain the World potentially stand out from among such a saturated subgenre? A few things, actually!
First, Weinberg’s experience as a physicist rather than a science historian means he definitely has an interesting perspective on this history. At one point, he confesses he has “no idea” how Archimedes accomplished something without calculus, reminding us that we are all incredibly influenced by our upbringing. Weinberg reminds us that when we look back at the accomplishments of the ancients, we should remember that their conception of the world was incredibly different from ours. Even if you don’t remember much science from school, even if you didn’t learn much about the scientific method, chances are you learned a lot more about how the natural world works than most of these Greek philosophers knew in their time. This has nothing to do with intelligence or even with the “progression” of our society—but it does have to do with the differences in how our societies are structured, and the fact that we have developed a systematic approach to society that is far more robust. Weinberg also cautions us that this remains true well into the centuries we might be tempted to think of as closer to “modern” times. Even Isaac Newton, to whom Weinberg devotes an entire chapter and lauds as perhaps the single most significant Western scientist, was interested in alchemy and religion as much as he explored what we now silo off as “proper” scientific pursuits.
Second, Weinberg is not afraid to get into the weeds of the whys and wherefores. To his credit, he hides most of showing his work in a Technical Notes appendix (which I admit, to my eternal mathematician shame, I only skimmed most of them). Even so, the main body of the book contains perhaps a little more math and science than you might be used to in a pop science book coming from a science communicator or historian. This is obviously a super subjective thing, so no shade if it’s not for you. But it is a nice departure from the trend to obscure the technicalities of science behind anecdotes and quips. Every author must calibrate their explanations to find their chosen balance between accuracy and comprehensibility. Weinberg leans towards the accurate, and this at least differentiates To Explain the World from the rest of the crowd.
Then we have Weinberg’s thesis. It is perhaps here that he is at his most ambitious. He cites Kuhn a few times (and even casually drops the fact he met Kuhn once, oooooh). Weinberg, as he hints at when he explains the choice of “discovered” rather than “invented” in the subtitle, believes that it isn’t really accidental that we developed science the way we did. He believes that there is an order to nature that made the development of the scientific method much more likely than not. To be clear, he is not suggesting a supernatural demiurge at work. Indeed, while Weinberg remains carefully diplomatic on the science versus religion divide, he suggests that our willingness to remove the supernatural from the explanatory playing field was a key step in the development of modern science. But really, what he is most proud of as a scientist is the fact that modern science now comprises robust theories that do not belong to any one individual, no matter how many giants’ shoulders that individual belongs to. Modern physics, his own field, is so complex an undertaking these days that we really can’t prop up the fallacious Great Man theory any longer.
I want to conclude with a critique not so much of this book but rather of this subgenre. Weinberg admits in his introduction that this book focuses on Western science, i.e., ancient Greece -> the Arab world -> medieval/Renaissance/Enlightenment Europe. He graciously name-checks China for developing sophisticated science and technology in isolation, for the most part, from the West; he also shouts out to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. So at least Weinberg isn’t inadvertently presenting science as a uniquely European discovery.
But here’s my critique and my question: why do we keep letting old white dudes write these things (all love to Bill Bryson, but the question stands)? Deep down, I think I avoided this book—and am somewhat exhausted by such books—because it really is, as I noted earlier, a predictable progression of greatest hits. I really should be seeking out books written by Chinese historians about science and technology in China. Or Indigenous authors writing about the Americas, or about Africa, or Australia. I know these books exist, but if we can have yet more books about the history of European science from white guys, publishers can also print more of the alternatives as well. Because at the end of the day, even if my viewpoint of the world is radically different from that of “everything is water” Thales, Weinberg’s point is that we can trace a line from there to here. I am more curious about the cultures and ways of knowing in whose traditions I was not raised, and I would like to see more of those voices represented in our scientific histories and texts.
Like I said, that’s not on Weinberg. He’s doing his best to write what he is qualified to write, and he does a good job at it. To Explain the World is a book I would recommend, if this is what you want: a detailed, methodical survey of the discovery of Western science, predictable if you’ve seen it before yet still enjoyably unique in some ways.