Hitting the Books: How 20th Century Science Left Newton’s Universe Uncreated

Science is the reason you’re not reading this by a campfire cozying up under a rock somewhere, but its practice significantly predates its formalization by Galileo in the 16th century. Among its earliest proponents—even before Aristotle’s pioneering efforts—was Animaxander, the Greek philosopher credited with first arguing that the Earth exists in a vacuum, not atop a giant tortoise shell. His other revolutionary notions include, “hey, maybe animals evolved from other, earlier animals?” and “the gods are not angry, it is just thunder.”

While Animaxander is not often mentioned alongside the later greats of Greek philosophy, his influence on the scientific method cannot be denied, claiming NOW bestselling author, Carlo Rovelli, in his latest book, Animaxander and the Birth of Science, out now from Riverhead Books. In it, Rovelli celebrates Animaxander, not necessarily for his scientific acumen, but for his radical scientific thinking—specifically, his talent for shrugging off conventional ideas to glimpse the physical underpinnings of the natural world. In the excerpt below Rovelli, who astute readers will remember from last year There are places in the world where rules are less important than kindnessillustrates how even the works of intellectual titans like Einstein and Heisenberg can and inevitably fall short in their explanation of natural phenomena—in exactly the same way that those works themselves decimated the collective understanding of cosmological law under 19th-century Newtonian physics.

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Extracts from Animaxander and the Birth of Science. Copyright © 2023 by Carlo Rovelli. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this extract may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher.

Did science begin with Anaximander? The question is poorly posed. It depends on what we mean by “science”, a generic term. Depending on whether we give it a broad or a narrow meaning, we can say that science began with Newton, Galileo, Archimedes, Hipparchus, Hippocrates, Pythagoras or Anaximander – or with an astronomer in Babylonia whose name we do not know, or with the first primate who managed to teach her offspring what she had learned herself, or with Eve, as in the quote that opens this chapter. Historically or symbolically, each of these moments marks humanity’s acquisition of a new, crucial tool for the growth of knowledge.

If by “science” we mean research based on systematic experimental activities, then it more or less began with Galileo. If we mean a collection of quantitative observations and theoretical/mathematical models that can order these observations and make accurate predictions, then the astronomy of Hipparchus and Ptolemy is science. To emphasize one particular point of departure, as I have done with Anaximander, means to focus on a specific aspect of the way we acquire knowledge. This means highlighting specific characteristics of science and thus implicitly reflecting on what science is, what the search for knowledge is, and how it works.

What is scientific thinking? What are its limits? What is the reason for its strength? What does it really teach us? What are its characteristics and how does it compare with other forms of knowledge?

These questions shaped my reflections on Anaximander in the preceding chapters. In discussing how Anaximander paved the way for scientific knowledge, I highlighted a certain number of aspects of science itself. Now I want to make these remarks more explicit.

The crumbling of nineteenth century illusions

A lively debate about the nature of scientific knowledge has taken place over the last century. The work of philosophers of science such as Carnap and Bachelard, Popper and Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, Quine, van Fraassen and many others has transformed our understanding of what constitutes scientific activity. To some extent, this reflection was a reaction to a shock: the unexpected collapse of Newtonian physics at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the nineteenth century, a common joke was that Isaac Newton had been not only one of the most intelligent men in human history, but also the luckiest, because there is only one set of fundamental laws of nature, and Newton had had it good. lucky to be the one to discover them. Today we can’t help but smile at this notion because it reveals a serious epistemological error of nineteenth-century thinkers: the idea that good scientific theories are definitive and will remain valid until the end of time.

The twentieth century swept away this easy illusion. Very accurate experiments showed that Newton’s theory is wrong in a very precise sense. The planet Mercury, for example, does not move according to Newton’s laws. Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and their colleagues discovered a new set of fundamental laws – general relativity and quantum mechanics – that replace Newton’s laws and work well in the areas where Newton’s theory breaks down, such as explaining the orbit of Mercury or the behavior of electrons in atoms.

Once burned, twice shy: few people today believe that we now possess definitive scientific laws. It is generally expected that Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s laws will one day also show their limits and will be replaced by better ones. In fact, the limits of Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s theories are already emerging. There are subtle incompatibilities between Einstein’s theory and Heisenberg’s, making it unreasonable to assume that we have identified the final, definitive laws of the universe. As a result, research continues. My own work in theoretical physics is precisely the search for laws that could combine these two theories.

Now the essential thing here is that Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s theories are not minor corrections to Newton’s. The differences go far beyond an adjusted equation, a clean-up, addition or replacement of a formula. Rather, these new theories constitute a radical rethinking of the world. Newton saw the world as a vast empty space where “particles” move around like pebbles. Einstein understands that such supposedly empty space is actually a kind of stormy sea. It can fold in on itself, curve and even (in the case of black holes) crush. No one had seriously considered this option before. For his part, Heisenberg understands that Newton’s “particles” are not particles at all, but bizarre hybrids of particles and waves running across the grid of Faraday lines. In short, during the twentieth century the world turned out to be profoundly different from the way Newton imagined it.

On the one hand, these discoveries confirmed the cognitive power of science. Like Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories in their day, these discoveries quickly led to an astonishing development of new technologies that in turn radically changed human society. Faraday’s and Maxwell’s insights created radio and communication technology. The Einsteins and Heisenbergs led to computers, information technology, nuclear energy, and countless other technological advances that have changed our lives.

But on the other hand, the realization that Newton’s picture of the world was false is unsettling. After Newton, we thought we had once and for all understood the basic structure and function of the physical world. We were wrong. Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s theories will probably one day be proven false. Does this mean that the understanding of the world offered by science cannot be trusted, not even for our best science? So what do we really know about the world? What does science teach us about the world?

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