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The book listens like a series of lectures given to undergraduates (or maybe even graduates) in the liberal arts who want to understand how science developed and how we finally got to Newton. Newton changes everything, and the author will explain why the greatest book ever about the physical world is Newton's Principia ("Principles of Natural Philosophy"). The author outlines the steps that it took for the world to create a Newton. But just like in a college course you have to learn a lot of difficult things (which you'll quickly forget after the class) in order to understand the big picture.
In the process of getting there the author will describe in detail the theories of the early thinkers. To get to that understanding the author steps the listener through the Early Greeks, the Hellenic Period, the great Islamic thinkers (and they were great!), and through Thomas Aquinas, and to the start of Modern Science.
I now know in excruciatingly detail the wrong theories from the history of bad science such as the Ptolemaic system, the Aristotelian theory of motion, and Galileo's erroneous theory of tides. That's sort of a problem with this book. It's hard enough to keep today's less false theories about the world straight than it is to try to learn the fine points about the previously more false theories from the past.
The biggest crack in the armor of superstitious thinking and absolute knowledge comes with Thomas Aquinas. He takes the theology of his time and uses the logical principles of Aristotle to support his faith. At first the Pope forbids that approach but then the next Pope commends the approach. Allowing the logic and the reason that Aristotle represents (but not quite allowing for empiricism), allows the West to create a Newton.
The real theme of the book is along these lines: Plato is silly with his complete reliance on absolute knowledge; Aristotle puts science on the right path by categorizing the real world, but mars it with his final causes; Bacon's empiricism is still not relevant since he is striving for absolute knowledge by divorcing the individual from the world; Descartes's methods of thought leads no where, but his science (and math) are quite impressive; Galileo makes incredible strides but still doesn't realize the universe is not made up of mathematics, math is just a tool for understanding. Newton takes Kepler's empirically derived laws, idealizes them and derives them from first principles and shows how they can explain as well as describe.
Science needs to be understood as studying the particular, contingent and probable, and it never proves anything it just makes statements less false and this book helps one understand how we finally got to this point and out of Plato's Cave.
15 of 16 people found this review helpful
I wanted to like this book. I have an interest in science, and it's also clear that Steven Weinberg really knows his stuff. I expected that this book would be similar to Carl Sagan's "Cosmos". But, unlike "Cosmos", I found "To Explain the World" to be overly long and tedious.
This book had a "cast of thousands" approach to the history of science. For example, Weinberg mentioned many different Greek thinkers, most of whom are not exactly household names. It became hard to keep track of who did what.
Also, Weinberg spent a great deal of time talking about various different theories of the solar system, and how those theories evolved over time. I understand that this subject was very much relevant to the topic of the book, but I still found the details to be tiresome. I suspect that I might have felt different if I read the book in print, rather than listening to it in the car, while driving.
I can definitely say, though, that if you are someone who has a strong interest in the history of science, this book would be right up your alley.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful