the emerald ash borer's mom

I really enjoyed this review of Steven Weinberg's book.
Philip Ball's was a little less positive.

The 1st link comes via Lee's comment on another blog. Full disclosure: I did not read the book.


Lee said...

So now I almost feel like I want to read Weinberg's book just to see what he actually did say.

PS. I'm not clever enough to understand the title to this post.

wolfgang said...

the reviewer wrote about literature search: "... before you start making scientific pronouncements about the emerald ash borer you should know as much about the emerald ash borer as anyone in the world, including the emerald ash borer’s mom."

Lee said...

Thanks. Now I can appreciate the humor of your title. I guess I was sufficiently annoyed with the review that by the time I got to the reviewer's definitive explanation of the "scientific method" that I wasn't paying much attention to its details.

The reviewer quotes Weinberg writing, “We learn how to do science, not by making rules about how to do science, but from the experience of doing science.” I suspect that was one of the main points that Weinberg was trying to make and which was completely lost on the reviewer. For some reason I found that annoying.

In Ball's review he says,"If your view is that science was just kind of blundering around and dragging its feet until Newton’s Principia, then it’s perhaps not surprising if you conclude that the use of mathematics in science by ancients such as Plato and the Pythagoreans was 'childish'." Of course to a large extend people were just blundering around in the expansion of knowledge before the Principia and to a somewhat lesser extent still are. That's how a lot of the science that allows us to make progress is done. I wonder if that was another point Weinberg was trying to make but was lost on Ball.

I guess my only option now is to read Weinberg's book and see how my brain interprets what he wrote.

wolfgang said...

I did not read Weinberg's book and I am not a historian of science, but I think Ball's remarks touch on something that I think is important:

In the typical pop.sci. 'history of science' the success story begins with Galileo and ends with Einstein, Feynman etc.
It usually leaves out the struggle with wrong ideas, failed experiments, errors etc.

So it usually mentions everything that happened before Galileo only briefly, but it also leaves out what science is really like for active scientists.

I once read when science goes wrong and it was a breath of fresh air - not because it was written so well, but because it told the stories science likes to forget quickly.

Lee said...

>> It usually leaves out the struggle with wrong ideas, failed experiments, errors etc.

I'm sure Weinberg understands very well that a lot of current and historical science is a struggle with wrong ideas, failed experiments, errors, etc., and that they are a significant and necessary component of how science makes progress. I don't know if that was one of the points he was trying to make in his book, because I haven't read the book either. But, it wouldn't surprise me if it was.

Ball quotes Weinberg as saying,“I argue with those historians who try to judge each era’s scientific work according to the standards of that era rather than of our own, as if science were not cumulative and progressive, as if its history could be written like the history of fashion.” Ball interprets Weinberg's meaning by saying, "In other words, he is not really interested in understanding why people once thought the way they did, but just whether they were “right” or “wrong”. I think it's a real stretch to interpret what Weinberg said in the way Ball does.

I kind of think Weinberg is as interested as most historians of science as to why people once thought the way they did and realizes that all ideas have a historical context. To me he's just saying that some historical ideas have proven to be useful and others not in allowing us to find what appear to be better explanations of nature. I think he's saying that from our perspective in the future we can see which historical ideas were the good ones and that were later built upon to give
better explanations of nature, and which ones weren't. We should use our vantage point from the future to judge the actual progress of science to this point. I don't think he's saying that the bad ideas, bad experiments, blind alleys, etc. aren't all necessary parts of doing science historically and in the present but I suppose I'll have to read the book to find out.

Lee said...

>> but it also leaves out what science is really like for active scientists.

I can only think of a couple of authors that I've read that come close to describing what life is like for active scientists.

I think Abraham Pais did a good job in "Inward Bound" of describing the mess of ideas and confusion there is at the cutting edge of science. Leonid Ponomarev also did a pretty good job in "The Quantum Dice."

I think that after reading either one of those authors, especially Pais, the reader gets an idea of how hard making progress in science really is, and that if a working scientist comes up with even one really good idea in their career, they are very lucky.