The Podcast Guest I’ll Never Get: An Elegy for Steven Weinberg

This episode is sort of a ‘fan fiction’ conversation with a dead man who will cast a shadow over physics, philosophy, and theology for decades to come: Steven Weinberg, co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize.

Long before audio books and podcasts were a thing, in 1992 I took a Night train from Cleveland to Buffalo to Binghamton to meet my girlfriend. To while away the hours, I brought with me Weinberg’s epochal popular science book: “The First Three Minutes”. A few months later, as a graduation present I received from Lawrence Krauss, CWRU’s incoming physics department chairman, Dreams of a Final Theory.

“Weinberg” is the most mentioned name in my The INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast notebook where I keep thoughts on possible/upcoming guests. I never got to host him on my show. I did try, most recently in February 2021. For a long time I held off, insecure in my ability to bring anything new to the table.

Weinberg was a brilliant scientist but as I show, had overly simplistic thoughts on religion and practitioners. Often he claimed science, at its best, SHOULD make religion less plausible. That is, above the purpose of achieving knowledge.

Using quotes drawn from his many interviews and lectures, including one in his own voice, I bring you this slightly combative interview with a very complex individual.

For the record, Stephen Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for his work on Electroweak Symmetry Breaking or the, so-called, ‘Standard Model for particle physics’. He also made many contributions to both particle physics and cosmology. With respect to the latter, the the question addressed is whether or why our universe is fine-tuned for our existence. Past guest, Lenny Susskind explained that Weinberg calculated that if the cosmological constant was just a little different, our universe would cease to exist. This paper is behind a paywall, but see a public lecture (with advanced math): https://ned.ipac.caltech.edu/level5/Weinberg/Weinberg3.html.

Weinberg believed the Anthropic Principle may be appropriated by cosmologists committed to nontheism, and refers to that Principle as a “turning point” in modern science because applying it to the string landscape “may explain how the constants of nature that we observe can take values suitable for life without being fine-tuned by a benevolent creator”. The anthropic principle is by no means accepted or even provable.

I cover some of Steven’s ‘greatest hits’ including:

“I can hope that this long sad story, this progression of priests and ministers and rabbis and ulamas and imams and bonzes and bodhisattvas, will come to an end. I hope this is something to which science can contribute … it may be the most important contribution that we can make.”

“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

“In our universe we are tuned into the frequency that corresponds to physical reality. But there are an infinite number of parallel realities coexisting with us in the same room, although we cannot tune into them.”

And my personal ‘favorite’:”It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?”

So, let me know what you think of this episode. Should I do more solo episodes like this, or make this my one and only 😀?

Resources:

Stephen C. Meyer “Weinberg and the Twilight of the Godless Universe”:

https://www.jpost.com/opinion/steven-weinberg-and-the-twilight-of-the-godless-universe-676705

Dan Falk: “Learning to Live in Weinberg’s ‘Pointless Universe’ “: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/learning-to-live-in-steven-weinbergs-pointless-universe/

Find more quotes from Weinberg here: https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/8122-steven-weinberg https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/nobel-laureate-steven-weinberg-still-dreams-of-final-theory/

Weinberg’s Books mentioned: The First Three Minutes, Dreams of a Final Theory

Other books mentioned: The Inflationary Universe (Guth), A Brief History of Time (Hawking)

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“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
Steven Weinberg

“One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment.”
Steven Weinberg

“Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion, should be done and may, in fact, in the end, be our greatest contribution to civilization.”
Steven Weinberg

“If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers.”
Steven Weinberg

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
Steven Weinberg

“I’m offended by the kind of smarmy religiosity that’s all around us, perhaps more in America than in Europe, and not really that harmful because it’s not really that intense or even that serious, but just… you know after a while you get tired of hearing clergymen giving the invocation at various public celebrations and you feel, haven’t we outgrown all this? Do we have to listen to this?”
Steven Weinberg

“I don’t need to argue here that the evil in the world proves that the universe is not designed, but only that there are no signs of benevolence that might have shown the hand of a designer.”
Steven Weinberg

“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.”
Steven Weinberg

“[C]reationists [and] other religious enthusiasts [are], in many parts of the world …, the most dangerous adversaries of science.”
Steven Weinberg

“How strange it would be if the final theory were to be discovered in our lifetimes! The discovery of the final laws of nature will mark a discontinuity in human intellectual history, the sharpest that has occurred since the beginning of modern science in the seventeenth century. Can we now imagine what that would be like?”
Steven Weinberg

“Premature as the question may be, it is hardly possible not to wonder whether we will find any answer to our deepest questions, any signs of the workings of an interested God, in a final theory. I think that we will not.”
Steven Weinberg

“It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?”
Steven Weinberg

[Science] is corrosive of religious belief, and it’s a good thing too.”

Steven Weinberg

“There is now a feeling that the pieces of physics are falling into place, not because of any single revolutionary idea or because of the efforts of any one physicist, but because of a flowering of many seeds of theory, most of them planted long ago.”
Steven Weinberg

“Nothing in physics seems so hopeful to as the idea that it is possible for a theory to have a high degree of symmetry was hidden from us in everyday life. The physicist’s task is to find this deeper symmetry.”
Steven Weinberg

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Brian Keating

Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor at UC San Diego. Host of The INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast Author of Losing the Nobel Prize. https://BrianKeating.com