A vivid and captivating narrative about how modern science broke free of ancient philosophy, and how theoretical physics is returning to its unscientific roots
In the early seventeenth century Galileo broke free from the hold of ancient Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. He drastically changed the framework through which we view the natural world when he asserted that we should base our theory of reality on what we can observe rather than pure thought. In the process, he invented what we would come to call science. This set the stage for all the breakthroughs that followed--from Kepler to Newton to Einstein. But in the early twentieth century when quantum physics, with its deeply complex mathematics, entered into the picture, something began to change. Many physicists began looking to the equations first and physical reality second. As we investigate realms further and further from what we can see and what we can test, we must look to elegant, aesthetically pleasing equations to develop our conception of what reality is. As a result, much of theoretical physics today is something more akin to the philosophy of Plato than the science to which the physicists are heirs. In The Dream Universe, Lindley asks what is science when it becomes completely untethered from measurable phenomena?
Astrophysicist Lindley (Uncertainty) argues that modern physics has drifted too far from its roots in reality, into increasingly complex and abstract theory, in this eye-opening treatise. Setting the stage, he observes that at the start of the Renaissance, scientists placed more weight on orthodox, Church-sanctioned theory, derived from Aristotle, than on empirical evidence. That changed with Galileo, who relied on his own astronomical observations to investigate the laws of motion and the configuration of the universe. Galileo used math as a tool, Lindley writes, to make sense of his data, an approach that served many other scientists, from Isaac Newton onward, until the birth of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century. With scientific inquiry increasingly pushing into the subatomic realm, theoreticians began to use mathematical formulas, rather than experimentation, to infer the existence of elusive or unobservable phenomena. When a field of science depends on logically rigorous but untestable formulas, Lindley provocatively asks, does it still constitute science? He sees physics reverting to the classical world's model, when empirically and logically based knowledge were strictly separated, and the latter was prized over the former. Lindley's probing work raises important questions about what science should be, and how it should be approached.