Steven Weinberg died

July 24, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Reader Rick informed me of this news, summarized in the piece below from Not Even Wrong (click on screenshot):  Steven Weinberg, a physicist, writer, and popularizer of science, died yesterday at the age of 88. (In fact, his Wikipedia biography hasn’t yet been updated.) For his work on unifying two of the fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetism and the weak force in nuclei, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics along with Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam.

I’ve read several of his books (he was an excellent writer), and of course all of us know his most famous bon mot: “”With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”  He was a diehard atheist.

Click on the screenshot to read more about him:

As the obituary above gives you the relevant information about his career, I’ll tell just one story about him. In October, 2012, we were both participants in the small “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference organized by physicist Sean Carroll in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I sat next to Steve during the two days of the meeting, and watched as he worked out physics equations on a notepad during the talks. When he left the room, and his notes, I asked him if I could have them. He said, “sure”, but I included them as lagniappe in the autographed version of WEIT that he signed and we put up for auction.

Here’s a photo I took of Weinberg and the hard-core materialist Alex Rosenberg at the meeting:

And here’s Weinberg’s signature (circled) in my book, which was illuminated by Kelly Houle and auctioned off for charity for more than $10,000. I’m not sure what that diagram shows, but I am sure that one reader will tell us.

Although I had lunch with Weinberg one day, and remember that it was fun, I can’t recall what we talked about. My Weinberg story is this. At the meeting, Dan Dennett and I gave dueling presentations about free will, with Dan claiming, of course, that we had a form of it—a compatibilist one—while I argued not only that we had no libertarian free will, but also criticized compatibilism. (This led to Dan haranguing me for the entire three-hour drive back on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, which wasn’t covered with snow.)

At any rate, at some point after my talk, Weinberg asked me something like this: “Are you telling me that at any given point in time when I’m making a choice, I could not have chosen otherwise?” I said “Yes.” And he said he didn’t believe that. I was a bit taken aback that an atheist, determinist physicist of the stature of Weinberg could still accept what seems like libertarian free will. But we never got to discuss it further.

We’ve lost another great one—not just a scientist, but a writer, scholar, historian of science, and nice guy.

33 thoughts on “Steven Weinberg died

  1. A day or two ago I watched an interview with SW and was struck that here was another famous physicist who is beautifully articulate in discussing physics. I think there’s something about the mind of a great theoretical physicist that makes them verbally talented too.

    1. Sometimes. Oppenheimer and Pauli would fit very nicely with your expectation as well. But then on the other side you have P. A. M. Dirac, about whom Wikipedia reports the following:

      After he presented a lecture at a conference, one colleague raised his hand and said: “I don’t understand the equation on the top-right-hand corner of the blackboard”. After a long silence, the moderator asked Dirac if he wanted to answer the question, to which Dirac replied: “That was not a question, it was a comment.”.

      His Cambridge colleagues referred to a unit ‘the dirac’, denoting an utterance of one word per hour.

    1. The pic is too small and blurred for me to be able to read the labels on the particles. The diagram is a loop Feynman diagram, which means it tends to go to infinity if you don’t take special “pains” to tame it. Jerry, maybe you could ask Sean Carroll to elucidate it.

  2. That is extremely sad news. For as long as I’ve been aware of him, I’ve admired Steven Weinberg greatly. The electroweak unification is one of the most amazing developments in modern physics that I am aware of.

    The doodle is definitely a little Feynman diagram of two photons coming in, interacting by turning into what I would guess is an electron-positron pair, and then dissociating into two new entities. I can’t read the letters on the figures well enough though, even with magnification, to be sure. Presumably, though, given the subject of his Novel Prize winning physics, I would guess a W and/or Z boson…but I’m far from certain. I hope someone else with a better view (and greater expertise!) will correct me.

      1. Your typo–perhaps wishful thinking on your part? (Anyway, I hope your wish comes true and you do win a novel prize. 🙂🤞)

    1. I can’t really read the labels either, but the pair is labelled “t”, so a top-anti-top quark pair, not an electron-positron pair. One of the outgoing particles is labelled H (Higgs), and presumably the incoming particles are gluons?

  3. I met Steven Weinberg and his wife Louise very briefly in a NYC museum, shortly after my husband Eric and I were married on Xmas eve 1955. He was with Louise and I have no memory of the meeting.Years later I discovered a letter from Louise to me, apologizing for “disturbing” our honeymoon! Later Eric told me that Louise was his girlfriend when they were at Forest Hills High School in Queens, NY. I was also at FHHS at that time but two years behind them and though i knew them by name I never met either one.

    I had met my husband in 1954 when he was visiting another girl at Cornell and he told me he had attended FHHS….and I told him I remembered him as a Big Man on Campus, and also Louise a Big Woman on Campus, i.e. high school intellectuals of renown. Neither of us ever had any further contact with Louise or Steven, who lived in Texas. Steven was certainly one of the most brilliant scientists ever.

  4. Last year I had reread Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes, one of my favorite books, in preparation for reading the latest books by Sean Carroll and Lawrence Krauss. I mourn Weinberg’s passing.

  5. In October, 2012, we were both participants in the small “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference organized by physicist Sean Carroll in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I sat next to Steve during the two days of the meeting, and watched as he worked out physics equations on a notepad during the talks.

    There’s no gainsaying that Steven Weinberg had a great career or that he was a man of immense intelligence and accomplishment.

    That said, I’ve watched the videos of the 2012 “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference (or at least that portion of them that’s been made public), and I recall being a bit disappointed in Weinberg’s brief presentation on “morality” — a subject he’d selected for himself, but about which had hadn’t seemed to have given his customary excogitation or had much of profundity to say.

    1. Another Weinberg quote, from “The First Three Minutes” and not unconnected to his atheism is:

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

      This may have some connection with that presentation you mention.

  6. I have a copy of To Explain the World. and I have read it at least twice. A wonderful book, and I have just pulled it off my bookshelves to read again.

  7. Wow, he’ll be missed. He was a presence at Harvard when I was a physics grad student there in the 80’s. I only met and spoke with him briefly a couple of times. He was always friendly, though I was too shy to have any exchanges of consequence with him. I long ago read his essential classic The First Three Minutes, and more recently very much enjoyed his book on the history of science, To Explain the World. Both highly recommended.

  8. I am truly sad to hear that! Weinberg was one of the main contributors to effective quantum field theory, which by way of renormalization theory covers “everyday life” as Sean Carroll puts it. Weinberg was still productive last year, when at the very least he summarized his work on field theory [“On the development of effective field theory”, Steven Weinberg, Eur. Phys. J. H (2021) 46:6 , ].

    Other notable results is showing that the graviton with spin 2 has the most spin we can expect of a quantum field, or his anthropic derivation of the cosmological constant that was shortlisted this year as possible physics in the eBOSS galaxy survey 20 year cosmological summary paper. I’m sure people can come up with more examples, Weinberg was very productive.

    I see that Wikipedia lists his death now. [Since “Not Even Wrong” is fringe I don’t take its claims at face value.]

  9. Weinberg was a hero to me as well as to many here. He had a good long life. But it seems we might have had a few more of his excellent books and essays, maybe even discoveries, to look forward to. But, no, a big loss.

    I accidentally met him very briefly at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo a decade or two ago, where I’d go to the occasional lecture.

    One discovery not mentioned above was the theoretical existence of a particle now called the axion, whose name is a sort of joke, due to Frank Wilczek who independently also discovered it. Weinberg agreed to drop his naming of it as a ‘higglet’, IIRC. I understand that there is some reasonable chance that it could be observationally discovered as a (the?) particle which is dark matter. Their deduction is from the 1977 Peccei-Quinn theoretical mechanism, now part of the Standard Theory I believe.

    1. Weinberg describes some of that and his recent views in the link in my comment.

      “We now expect that there are corrections to the renormalizable Standard Model of the order of powers of E/M. How in the world are we ever going to find corrections that are suppressed by such incredibly tiny fractions? The one hope is that those corrections can violate symmetries that we once thought were inviolable, but that we now understand are simply accidents, arising from the constraint of renormalizability that we imposed on the Standard Model.

      Indeed, quite apart from the development of effective field theory, one of the great things about the Standard Model was that it explained various symmetries that could not be fundamental, because we already knew they were only partial or approximate symmetries.”

      “Now, coming back to effective field theory, there are other symmetries within the Standard Model that are accidental symmetries of the whole renormalizable theory of weak, strong and electromagnetic interactions: In particular, baryon conservation and lepton conservation are respected aside from very small non-perturbative effects (well, very small at least in laboratories, though maybe not so small cosmologically). If baryon and lepton conservations are only accidental properties of the Standard Model, maybe they are not symmetries of nature. In this case, there is no reason why baryon and lepton conservation should be respected by nonrenormalizable corrections to the Lagrangian, and so you would expect terms of O(E/M) or O((E/M)^2) or higher order as corrections to the Standard Model that violate these symmetries.

      Wilczek and Zee and I independently did a catalog of the leading terms of this type. Some of them—those involving baryon number non-conservation—give you corrections of O((E/M)^2). They have not been yet been discovered experimentally. But there are other terms that produce corrections of O(E/M) that violate lepton conservation, and they apparently have been discovered, in the form of neutrino masses.”

  10. My favorite Weinberg moment as he spoke about his colleague and Nobel co-laureate, Abdus Salam, with Richard Dawkins.
    Salam was the only Muslim-ever-to win the Nobel prize in physics. Yet when he arrived in his native Pakistan he could not give a speech and was even threatened with physical harm. Because he was from the Ahmadi sect, considered a heretic by Islamists.

  11. Sad news.

    I’m definitely not qualified to comment on his physics, but there’s no denying his intellectual contribution to the world was one of immensity. That he dedicated so much effort to promoting understanding of science in the public sphere is laudatory.

    1. As per comment #10 above, it was a James Taylor reference, which I completely missed. (Apologies if you realised that Dom, I didn’t expect Taylor’s acoustic folksy stuff would be your kind of thing.)

  12. At the Moving Naturalism Forward meeting, day 2, in the first session on morality, Weinberg came out as a hard-nosed retributivist:

    “I think people who do evil things should be punished and I’m happy if they are and it has nothing to do with deterrence or reforming them or anything else. I think Hitler should be punished because he’s evil. This comes back to the question of free will and so on. Even in a deterministic universe qualified by randomness I’d still say Hitler should be punished because he was evil, doesn’t matter why he became evil. I don’t care that maybe his father beat him.”

    Except for Weinberg, the group agreed on need for criminal justice reform to move away from retributivism. But he was very insightful in other respects about moral conflict, values, consequentialism, etc. That he was so unreflective about endorsing his retributive emotions puzzles me.

  13. “Weinberg asked me something like this: “Are you telling me that at any given point in time when I’m making a choice, I could not have chosen otherwise?” I said “Yes.” And he said he didn’t believe that.”

    I’m a physicist like Weinberg – just a tiny bit less good than him – and like him I’ve never been convinced by the die-hard free will deniers. I don’t claim I have strong arguments in favour of free will, I just say all the common arguments against free will are rather weak, and I don’t want to get rid of thousands of years of human culture and values because of some bad deductions (I do believe denying free will would have strong consequences on human society, and mostly bad ones…). I even tried to write down all my arguments, with the idea of sending them to Professor Coyne, but I gave up (too difficult for my poor english).
    Anyway, now you know that, in order to admit free will, you don’t need to be either a believer, a romantic dreamer or a lame logician: it’s enough to consider science a useful but limited tool (and no, I’m not saying revelation can overcome the limits of science).

    1. The “could have done otherwise” thing is to my mind a rhetorical trick. When we think of classic decision making from a human psychological perspective, making choices is what our brains are designed to do. That ability to choose between things on a psychological level is at the core of who we are. How our brains are wired happens to be the way that is performed.

      The difference between the compatibilitists and incompatibilists in this sense is at what level decisions are dissected – between the ordinary everyday usage of the term (compatibilist) and on a physical level where everything that happens happens because of deterministic or stochastic forces lower than a psychological level.

      So a statement like “I could have gotten the chicken but chose the fish” is coherent to us because we are talking on a psychological level, whereas the strict incompatibilist requirement would say that statement could only be true if we could replay the universe and see that given the configuration of everything whether that could be true. The latter is probably true (maybe there’s some random distribution), but it doesn’t take away from the former where our psychological realities live.

      In this sense, compatibilists and incompatibilists are arguing over how useful it is to talk about decision-making on that psychological level. Not arguing over any facts.

  14. Despite his disparaging comment to PCC, I do not find it it tenable that Weinberg could accept anything like libertarian free will. One comment by Weinberg on free will which is often quoted is the following:

    The only meaning I can give to free will is that we sometimes do things because we decide to do them. What difference does it make if those decisions can be traced to processes in the brain of which we are not conscious?

    The question is, what does he mean by this? Weinberg was famously terse. Because of his brilliance, people spend gobs of time trying to interpret him, like a Greek oracle.

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