Hitting the Books: How 20th-Century Science Overturned Newton’s Universe

Science is the reason you’re not reading this by the light of a fire sitting comfortably under a rock somewhere, however, 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 above the shell of a giant tortoise. His other revolutionary concepts include: “Hey, did animals evolve from other, earlier animals?” and “the gods are not angry, this is only thunder.”

Although Animaxander is not often cited alongside the later greats of Greek philosophy, his influence on the scientific method cannot be denied, he argues NYT Bestselling author Carlo Rovelli, in his latest book, Animaxander and the Birth of Science, out now from Riverhead Books. In Rovelli celebrates Animaxander, not necessarily for his scientific acumen, but for his radical scientific thinking—especially his talent for rejecting conventional idea to see the physical foundations of the natural world. In the excerpt below Rovelli, whom astute readers will remember from last year There are places in the world where rules are less important than kindnessshows how even the works of intellectual titans like Einstein and Heisenberg can and inevitably fall short of explaining physical phenomena—in the same way that these works decimated the collective understanding of cosmological law under 19th-century Newtonian physics.

Riverhead Books

Excerpt 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 worded. It depends on what we mean by “science”, a general 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, either with the first primate who managed to teach her offspring what she had learned, or with Eve, as in the passage that opens this chapter. Historically or symbolically, each of these moments marks humanity’s acquisition of a new, critical tool for the development of knowledge.

If by “science” we mean research based on systematic experimental activities, then it pretty much started with Galileo. If we mean a collection of quantitative observations and theoretical/mathematical models that can order those observations and give accurate predictions, then the astronomy of Hipparchus and Ptolemy is a science. To emphasize a particular starting point, as I did with Anaximander, is to focus on a particular aspect of how we acquire knowledge. It means highlighting specific features of science and thus, implicitly, reflecting on what science is, what the pursuit of knowledge is, and how it works.

What is scientific thinking? What are its limits? What is the reason for his power? What does it really teach us? What are its characteristics and how does it compare to 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 certain aspects of science itself. I will now make these remarks more clear.

The Collapse of Nineteenth-Century Illusions

A lively debate about the nature of scientific knowledge has taken place over the past century. The work of philosophers of science such as Carnap and Bachelard, Popper and Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, Quine, van Fraassen and many others have changed 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 was not only one of the smartest people in human history, but also the luckiest, because there is only one set of fundamental physical laws, and Newton had it right. good luck being the one to discover them. Today we can only smile at this idea, because it reveals a serious epistemological error on the part of nineteenth-century thinkers: the idea that good scientific theories are final and remain valid until the end of time.

The twentieth century swept away this facile illusion. High precision experiments have shown that Newton’s theory is wrong in a very precise sense. The planet Mercury, for example, does not move according to Newtonian 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 areas where Newton’s theory breaks down, such as accounting for Mercury’s orbit 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 one day Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s laws will also show their limits and 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 and Heisenberg’s theory that make it absurd to assume that we have identified the final, definitive laws of the universe. As a result, the investigation is ongoing. My own work in theoretical physics is precisely the search for laws that could combine these two theories.

Now, the essential point here is that Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s theories are not minor corrections to Newton’s. The differences go far beyond a custom equation, an arrangement, the 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 like pebbles. Einstein realizes that such supposedly empty space is actually a kind of storm-tossed sea. It can fold in on itself, curve, and even (in the case of black holes) break. No one had seriously considered this possibility before. For his part, Heisenberg understands that Newton’s “particles” are not particles at all but strange hybrids of particles and waves running through the webs of Faraday lines. In short, during the twentieth century, the world was found 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 once again fundamentally changed human society. The knowledge of Faraday and Maxwell brought radio and communications technology. The work of Einstein and Heisenberg led to computers, information technology, atomic energy, and countless other technological advances that changed our lives.

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

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission. All prices are correct at time of publication.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *