This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

Share this

Free weekly newswire

Sign up to receive all our latest news direct to your inbox.

Physics on film

100 Second Science Your scientific questions answered simply by specialists in less than 100 seconds.

Watch now

Bright Recruits

At all stages of your career – whether you're an undergraduate, graduate, researcher or industry professional – can help find the job for you.

Find your perfect job

Physics connect

Are you looking for a supplier? Physics Connect lists thousands of scientific companies, businesses, non-profit organizations, institutions and experts worldwide.

Start your search today


Steven Weinberg defends his ‘Whig’ view of history

Photograph of Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg in full flow discussing his view of the history of physics.

By Matin Durrani in Baltimore, Maryland, US

I wasn’t planning on blogging about the talk that the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg gave yesterday afternoon here at the APS March meeting. He’d been speaking about his recent book To Explain the World: the Discovery of Modern Science, which examines the history of physics from the ancient Greeks to the present day.

The book ruffled a fair few feathers when it was published last year, with historians and philosophers annoyed at Weinberg’s approach to history, which basically involves judging the past from the standpoint of the present. It’s known as the “Whig interpretation” of history and sees past events as a march towards enlightenment, ignoring dead-ends and blind alleys. It’s the history of winners, if you like.

I have probably mis-stated the criticisms of Weinberg book – I’m no historian – and that’s my point. I felt the arguments against his approach were too subtle and nuanced to fit in a blog. But I changed my mind this morning about covering the session Weinberg appeared in. Not only because the room where Weinberg gave his talk was full to bursting, with about 500 people present, but also because some of the things he said, which I Tweeted yesterday, were proving popular on Twitter. Clearly, people want to hear what Weinberg says – he’s a master of the soundbite – so here, for posterity, are a few of his thoughts.

Weinberg on whether he knew his book would prove controversial: “I knew from the start I was being naughty.”

Weinberg on his basic approach to the history of science: “We should avoid imagining the past is like the present.”

Weinberg on why the Whig interpretation is worthwhile: “If we don’t use the things we have learned, the story we tell has no point.”

Weinberg on what we should investigate as researchers: “The point of science is not to solve the science that happens to be fashionable in the day. It’s to find out about the world.”

Weinberg on whether aesthetics or ethics has a role in deciding which theories in physics one should pursue: “I don’t think ethics plays much of a role in physical science.”

Weinberg on the importance of absorbing new scientific knowledge even if it conflicts with what you believed before: “Finding out you are wrong is a refreshing experience that everyone should have.”

Aged 82, Weinberg has lost none of his showmanship or intellect, with the above being just a sprinkling of his many penetrating insights. He was invited to respond to each of the other speakers at the session in turn – historians David Wootton, Jamil Ragep and William Thomas, and science writer Jennifer Ouellette – and had pithy retorts and remarks to them all.

“I enjoyed very much the first half of your talk,” he told Wootton, for example – the unspoken implication being that the second half was complete rot (even if he didn’t say so).

Ouellette raised the fascinating question of what a Whig historian in 500 years’ time would make of science today? They might, she pointed out, follow the full story of how dark energy was discovered, but wouldn’t understand other questions like why certain projects, rather than others, were funded or supported.

What was clear from yesterday’s session is that Weinberg – one of the giant minds of physics – still, it seems, retains his curiosity, appetite and love of of the subject. And it was great to see him in full flow, even for those who disagree with him.

This entry was posted in APS March Meeting 2016 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile


  1. J. D. Martin

    A small but important clarification: Weinberg’s comment to Wootton was “I enjoyed very much the first half of your TALK.” The first half of Wootton’s talk outlined the places where he agreed with Weinberg; the second half highlighted areas of disagreement and he set out this structure at the beginning, so the audience was well primed for such a comment. As such, Weinberg’s comment did not reflect his judgment of Wootton’s scholarship, but was rather a crack based on the structure of his presentation.

  2. Matin Durrani

    Thanks – I’d spotted the error too and have corrected it.
    Matin Durrani

  3. M. Asghar

    The amount of knowledge(science) as a function of time is additive in nature(called the human heritage), and, at any “present time”, one has to deal with this sum-total. Does this mean that the enlightenment of ethics where “justice” is a fundamental element, progress universally? In the case Prof. Weinberg, this cannot not be the case, because here he has been and is darkly partial and his being a Whigist makes the things even worse.

  4. History passes judgments on people and events. The Whigish approach make sense for the latter, but not for the former. The quality of a (historical) individuum depends on the knowledge she herself had about a relevant past. It need not coincide with the knowledge we have about the same historical facts now and “wrong decisions” would not testify somebody’s incompetence, misjudgments or even misanthropy.

    In fact, Whigish outlook is a part of a more general “anthropic principle”, but I would not dwell on it here.

    • M. Asghar

      The scientific anthropic principle implies that “man” and his appearance does have an intrinsic influence in the unfolding of events in Nature, but the things are the other way around: he had to pass through and be moulded by the Darwinian evolution to the present status. As to the Whig interpretation of history, it is a nice armchair palabre.

      • There are, at least, two variants of the Anthropic principle (AP). (i) Strong AP, which asserts that the course of Evolution (including Cosmos) is such that it inevitably produces homo sapiense (teleological interpretation) and (ii) The same course can not be appreciated unless we take into account the fact that we exist (weak AP). Whigish outlook corresponds to WAP, but taken in reverse in historical time – we can understand a historical event (E) by accounting the sequence of events between E and the present. With such a requirement a particular E changes in the historiographic time, for it depends on the subsequent events, which are, by definition, out of control of E. It is for this reason the famous Michelson-Morley experiment, for instance, influences Einstein from time to time, and occasionally not.

  5. Emmanuel

    “The point of science is not to solve the science that happens to be fashionable in the day. It’s to find out about the world.” — it is also for the Editors of Phys Journals

  6. Luiz V. Seize

    “Finding out you are wrong is a refreshing experience that everyone should have”.
    It is a strong attitude that Dr. Weinberg is proposing; GSW theory is not certainly totally right, once neutrinos have mass.

  7. Emmanuel

    In fact, Anthropic Principle implies that Darwinian evolution leading to human consciousness is possible indeed. Without that the directed Anthropic selection would be a miracle.


  • Comments should be relevant to the article and not be used to promote your own work, products or services.
  • Please keep your comments brief (we recommend a maximum of 250 words).
  • We reserve the right to remove excessively long, inappropriate or offensive entries.

Show/hide formatting guidelines

Tag Description Example Output
<a> Hyperlink <a href="">google</a> google
<abbr> Abbreviation <abbr title="World Health Organisation" >WHO</abbr> WHO
<acronym> Acronym <acronym title="as soon as possible">ASAP</acronym> ASAP
<b> Bold <b>Some text</b> Some text
<blockquote> Quoted from another source <blockquote cite="">IOP</blockquote>
<cite> Cite <cite>Diagram 1</cite> Diagram 1
<del> Deleted text From this line<del datetime="2012-12-17"> this text was deleted</del> From this line this text was deleted
<em> Emphasized text In this line<em> this text was emphasised</em> In this line this text was emphasised
<i> Italic <i>Some text</i> Some text
<q> Quotation WWF goal is to build a future <q cite="">
where people live in harmony with nature and animals</q>
WWF goal is to build a future
where people live in harmony with nature and animals
<strike> Strike text <strike>Some text</strike> Some text
<strong> Stronger emphasis of text <strong>Some text</strong> Some text