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Steven Weinberg: the passing of science’s most intellectual spokesman

As important as his Nobel Prize-winning technical accomplishments was his ability to communicate to the public.

Credit: Larry Murphy / University of Texas at Austin

Physicist Steven Weinberg, January 28, 2008.
Key Takeaways
  • Theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23.
  • Due to his heavyweight intellect and unparalleled ability to communicate, he was science's most effective spokesman.
  • His passing leaves a void in the world of science communication.

I recently read two Big Think articles (here and here) memorializing Steven Weinberg, who passed away last month. These articles were written by Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist, and they concern Weinberg’s place in that field and its meaningfulness to a practitioner. Weinberg’s role in creating the Standard Model and its candidate successor string theory rank him as possibly the greatest theorist of the last 60 years. He was also a giant in another field.

Weinberg was a science communicator — a writer, a speaker, a steady scientific advisor to decades of governments. In other words, he was a rare, true public intellectual. Beyond his Nobel Prize-winning technical accomplishments, he played a big part outside of his specialty: an exceptional spokesman for science.

Weinberg the spokesman

As a PhD student in his physics department — but more interested in science communication than in mathematical theory — I periodically encountered not the towering physicist but the spokesman. Walking along the theory floor I would occasionally see his door open. Men of Weinberg’s stature have assistants, regulating the flow of visitors and maintaining a careful schedule. One time, his entire office was open and his assistant had stepped away, so I stuck my nose in. The rows of packed bookshelves were largely obscured. On that random day, a set of silvered umbrellas and stage lights were arranged about, preparing for the filming of some television show.

On film, Weinberg spoke for scientists on many matters: religion, philosophy, history, the meaning of mathematics, the story of everything. Many of these videos are freely available on the internet. These were not scripts for computer-generated movies of black holes. They were interviews and discussions. He professed himself to be “an unreconstructed believer in the importance of the word” despite “the ascendency of the culture of the image.”

His book, The First Three Minutes — well before A Brief History of Time or The Elegant Universe — was one of the first books on cosmology written for the layman. Weinberg penned elegant essays on a wide array of topics outside of his research for publications such as The New York Times Book Review and Physics Today. These span astronauts to educated Texans and debates on Whig history to Israel. They have been published in a series of books over the past two decades, forming a style guide for a particular sort of popular science writing — not flashy but careful, intelligent, and clear of thought.

While Weinberg’s fame was not as great as other science popularizers of recent decades, his gravitas outweighed them. Weinberg was widely read, carefully considered, and respectful of those with whom he disagreed.

Weinberg the statesman

His spokesmanship extended to government leadership and secret programs. Weinberg was an early member of the JASON advisory group. This body sought to recruit a panel of geniuses to advise U.S. government decision-makers on important matters. JASON’s assessments included tactical nuclear weapons, magnetic gun fusion, the SDI (“Star Wars”) program, the direction of the U.S. National Laboratories, and laser spacecraft propulsion. Much of this work is still classified.

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Weinberg as an elder statesman carried an aura. His deep authoritative speaking silenced the room. (When Weinberg came to a talk, the speaker was given a mark of importance and might be visibly intimidated.) We badly need voices like Weinberg’s — carefully considered and polymathic — speaking up in our public debates and advising our leadership. His death leaves a void in that world.

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