Physics: Revelations of fundamental science

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
544,
Page:
34
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/544034a
Published online

Robert P. Crease wonders at a physics history with more than a hint of the biblical.

The Greatest Story Ever Told ... So Far

Lawrence M. Krauss Simon & Schuster: 2017. ISBN: 978-1476777610

Buy this book: US UK Japan

Forget the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Bible — the story of modern fundamental physics, Lawrence Krauss argues, is greater than all of these. What could live up to such a billing?

The tale has been told before, in outline and detail. Krauss's retelling is fast (four centuries in 300 pages) and aimed at nonscientists. Its best parts are its explanations of difficult concepts. Its worst are where Krauss, a theoretical physicist, apparently feels competitive with the Bible and the humanities.

Illustrations by Matt Saunders

With considerable chutzpah, Krauss breaks his book into 'Genesis', 'Exodus' and 'Revelation'. 'Genesis' opens with Isaac Newton, who used geometry and calculus to understand nature. By the end of the nineteenth century, the tribe of scientists — now including Thomas Young, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell — had gained key tools with the discovery of light interference, fields and electromagnetic waves.

Krauss's accounts of early scientific struggles are certainly easy to follow. “The Church was the National Science Foundation of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries,” he remarks. Of Faraday's discovery that magnets produce electricity, he writes: “Voilà, Niagara Falls, hydroelectricity, and the modern world!” Twentieth-century developments are more difficult, but Krauss provides catchy anecdotes. He explains relativity by referring to a time when he was struck by his child's projectile vomit in the car, and the different trajectories the vomit took as perceived by himself and someone outside the vehicle.

'Genesis' ends in the mid-1930s, with the discovery of the neutrino and short-range weak force. It is silly for Krauss to analogize this period to the part of the Bible in which the Jews are enslaved in Egypt, but that's the flavour of this book. Many physicists see the 1950s to 1970s as a golden age, with soaring budgets and huge machines unearthing hordes of particles. Their prestige was at a peak. New heroes, including Murray Gell-Mann and Yoichiro Nambu, led further discoveries: Yang–Mills theory, parity violation, Bose–Einstein condensates, quarks and the Higgs particle.

'Revelation' comes with the development in the 1970s of the standard model of particle physics, which describes all known particles and three of the four known forces. Krauss dubs it “perhaps the greatest theoretical edifice yet created by human minds”. He calls what came next the attaining of the “Promised Land” (mixing the biblical structure). Krauss also likens the discovery of the model to the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic, in which humans are captivated by shadows and illusions, but philosophers can become aware of the 'forms' underlying existence. For Krauss, it is scientists who go “outside our cave of shadows to glimpse the otherwise hidden reality beneath the surface”.

Krauss clearly covets the cachet of the humanities. He likens Albert Einstein's creativity to Vincent van Gogh's, and compares particle accelerators to Gothic cathedrals. He says his story “contains every bit as much drama, human tragedy, and exaltation” as the Aeneid, and is motivated, like that work, to parse humanity's origins and nature. These are sloppy analogies. Although we've achieved 'Revelation', for instance, Krauss says that what we now know may be almost “ephemeral” because future experimental results may change everything. The reader may be reminded less of the Aeneid than of the myth of Sisyphus, whose story never ends.

In Krauss's oversimplified take, there are two answers to the question, 'why are we here?'. The biblical one is to say that humans have a special status and that the Universe was made just for us. The other is to realize that the laws of nature are independent of us and that we are “the result of an accident in the history of the universe”. He opts for the latter.

And in his invocations of the cave analogy, he omits two key features. One is that, for Plato, the forms outside the cave are unchanging, like laws of logic that cannot be disproved and are at work in all human activity, including science. Science is therefore an inner-cave activity, and those who claim it uncovers ultimate reality are priest-like pretenders. Second, the Republic is not about matter, but about justice and the Good. The central cave image helps to show what motivates the person who sees the forms to return to the cave and try to reorganize communal life, despite its difficulties. Krauss's protagonists seek only the structure of matter, and their moral message to the cave-dwellers is: “We're accidents!”

Krauss clearly thinks that his story deserves to displace the classics of the humanities. His book reveals why it can't.

Comments

  1. Report this comment #69627

    Neville Woolf said:

    Use of a religious text for understanding science puts development on its head. Instead, the discovery of order prompted the imagination of early religious writers. In contrast to the idea that
    the universe started off formless, tohu bohu, it seems to have had symmetries from the start, and the des cription of the history of the universe is one of structured states. First of particles and later of condensations.
    As to the role of humans, yes we are locally special, but whether we are cosmically special is currently unknown. We seem to be a transition species between Darwinian Evolution, and Post Biological Order. We seem to have the potential to produce intelligent survival propagating into the universe, but whether we can get the human act together to do it seems doubtful. Most likely we are a wasted opportunity.

  2. Report this comment #69629

    Torbjörn Larsson said:

    I did not find the review very helpful since it was mainly protesting that humanities and philosophy was not sufficiently important in retelling science and its history. Without having read the book I had to look up the Amazon review to find that the book indeed was not bowing to philosophy but "a tour of science and the brilliant personalities who shaped it, often against political and religious indoctrination, enduring persecution and ostracism." [ https://www.amazon.com/Greatest-Story-Ever-Told-Far/dp/1471158373 ] It is somewhat of an irony if now Krauss is persecuted for pointing out that religion, and so theology and philosophy, has seen better days and are observably outmoded and ultimately failed attempts to explain the world!

  3. Report this comment #69631

    Xinhang Shen said:

    "Although we've achieved 'Revelation', for instance, Krauss says that what we now know may be almost ?ephemeral? because future experimental results may change everything."

    Although modern physics theories are beautiful, many of them are really ephemeral. Now we have known that Einstein's relativity theory is wrong, and thus all relativistic spacetime based theories such as the standard model of particles and big bang theory are wrong. Time is still one dimensional and absolute, and space is 3D Euclidean. See "Challenge to the special relativity" March 1, 2016, Physics Essays for more details.

    Therefore, Krauss should revise his book to tell readers that most theories of the modern physics are no longer regarded as valid theories. We human beings have to work hard to develop totally new theories because we have really quite understood electromagnetism, particles and the universe.

  4. Report this comment #69635

    Gatot Soedarto said:

    Need to know more basic level of astronomy and logic, in order to know a lot of logical fallacies carried out by Einstein in his special and general theory of relativity.

  5. Report this comment #69637

    Gatot Soedarto said:

    Need to know more basic level of astronomy and logic, in order to know a lot of logical fallacies carried out by Einstein in his special and general theory of relativity.

  6. Report this comment #69641

    William Anderson said:

    Is this review yet another unhelpful obfuscatory intervention funded by Templeton?

  7. Report this comment #69643

    Nicholas Beale said:

    A little humility from scientists would be a very good idea. There is a reason why the best literature has lasted for thousands of years. By contrast, science is always eventually out of date. When I was at Cambridge we still believed that the universe was largely composed of protons, neutrons, electrons, photons and neutrinos. Now we think that's about 3%, and we have no real knowledge of what the rest is made of.

    And outside of physics, a vast proportion of the scientific results reported in the literature are irreproducable and probably wrong even in the absence of fundamental scientific advances.

  8. Report this comment #69647

    Pentcho Valev said:

    In science there are principles as obviously false as 2+2=5, and yet scientists worship them:

    George Orwell: "In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?"

    Two examples of principles as obviously false as 2+2=5:

    1. The second law of thermodynamics.

    2. Einstein's constant-speed-of-light postulate.

    See more explanations here:

    Suicidal Principles in Science

    Pencho Valev

  9. Report this comment #69649

    Thomas Elifritz said:

    This entire screed reads like it was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

    The editors of Nature seem particularly swayed by the John Templeton Foundation worldview lately.

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