Steven Weinberg (1933 -2021)

I just heard the news that Steven Weinberg died last week. If memory serves me, The First Three Minutes was the first book-length treatment of cosmology I ever read. I know I read it before I graduated from high school, so I would have been either a Christian or an agnostic at the time. I think I went through it fairly quickly because I was most interested in the first hundredth of a second of the universe, which he saved until last. I do remember the final thoughts of the epilogue making an impression on me. Weinberg famously wrote:

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.

I remember these words having the ring of truth, though strangely I do not remember whether I heard them as an outsider. I don’t think it would have been uncharacteristic for me to perceive a God-filled universe in one breath and in the next feel in the core of my being that Weinberg nailed it: contradictions abound in most people, and certainly never so much for me as when I was on the cusp of agnosticism.

In any case, he was right on. I hope that in the moments before he died, Weinberg was able to look back on his life and affirm the part he played in bringing some scientific grace into the human story.