8.5/10 Another enjoyable read from Rovelli, who although at times writes quite abstractly and fancifully, always delivers a well thought out story that doesn’t draw strict conclusions and let’s the reader think for themselves. I enjoyed the first part learning about Anaximander and the development of the Greek scientific scene. I am not a big history buff so all of it was pretty much new information for me. However, the second part of the book is where I really got immersed. It’s inspiring to read how much understanding of the world the scientific revolution brought about and how despite the uncertainty of scientific theories, it is the best tool we have for truly grasping the nature’s inner gears. Also the discussion on science vs. religion was a thought-provoking read, especially the fact that there seems to be a cyclic nature to the prevailing view about the nature of our existence - periods of scientific flourishing, followed by periods of religious belief.
The first half of the book introduces Anaximander, a 600 BCE scholar, who is the first known thinker that doesn’t attribute natural phenomena to gods but rather to circular natural processes. E.g. the rain is not brought upon us be Zeus but is rather a consequence of evaporation and winds. Although not all his hypotheses are correct, he brings about a shift in how we think about nature and essentially jumpstarts the slow process of scientific discovery that continues to this day. The second part of the book shifts its focus on the consequences of Anaximander’s leap in thinking on what science is and what science isn’t. The discussion revolves around inherent uncertainty of scientific theories and why, despite that, science is the best tool we have for understanding the work. The closing chapters look at the clash of science and religion and how 2600 years after Anaximander the majority of the world still explains the world around them through one deity or another.
- “Science, I believe, is a passionate search for always newer ways to conceive the world. Its strength lies not in certainties it reaches but in radical awareness of the vastness of our ignorance.” (p. xii) - this is so beautiful put, freaking love it! Science is discovering not what we know, but we yet don’t know. Over and over again.
- “Antiscientism feeds on the disillusionment over science’s inability to deliver definitive visions of the world - on the fear of accepting ignorance. False certainties are preferred to a lack of certainty” (p. xvi) - believing (religious) stories vs. accepting statistical uncertainty and making conclusions based on available data and evidence
- “One often reads of the extraordinary development of ancient Babylonian mathematics. This is correct, but it must be interpreted properly: it means that the Babylonians developed the concepts that, in our time, are studied by seven-year-olds.” (p. 5) - funny :))
- “Novelty only appears at the outer edges of our understanding - though such outer edges are sometimes at the root of our beliefs.” (p. 116) - reminds me of two things: illustrated guide to what a Ph.D. degree is about and Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake precisely because his scientific ideas were challenging the root beliefs of the Inquisition
- “Science’s leaps forward are most often not the solutions to well-established problems. They come from discovering that the problem was ill posed.” (p. 120) - good questions matter more than good answers. Good answers obviously matter, but well-stated questions are what leads to progress
- “Science then never progresses by starting over from scratch. It moves forward by partial steps. But the small steps may shake its foundations. The mainmast and even the rib can be replaced, but the ship itself is never discarded and rebuilt. We go on patching up the only ship that we have, the ship of our thought about the world - the only instrument with which we can chart a course through the infinity of reality.” (p. 122) - I need a poster like this!
- “If you keep these ideas well in mind, You will easily see that Nature is free: Liberated from her superb masters, She can do all things by herself Without any need of Gods,- Lucretius, De rerum natura 2” (p. 143)
- On why religion and science are doomed to crash with one another: “On a more superficial level, there is the fact that the border between the divine and scientific spheres of competence is always up for debate. But there is a deeper reason mythic-religious thought relies on the acceptance of absolute truths that must not be questioned, while the very nature of scientific thinking demands that truths, particularly those accepted uncritically, be questioned.” (p. 153)
- “The essential point, I think, is that we do not know how and why we think what we think. We do not understand the complexity of the processes that give rise to our thoughts and emotions. […] We do not think: thoughts pass through us. Asking how we manage to think a given thought may be analogous to asking how a stone in a river manages to raise a wave above it on the water surface.” - reminds me of the idea that ideas and thoughts are permeating their own world and we are just vessels through which they express themselves.
- “… Anaximander founds the critical tradition that forms the basis of today’s scientific thinking: he follows his master’s path while at the same time searching for his master’s mistakes.”