A view From the Bridge

A book that changed my mind: The First Three Minutes

Posted on behalf of Ann Finkbeiner

Science writer Ann Finkbeiner

Science writer Ann Finkbeiner.

The young me thought science was something you did if you didn’t have the imagination to be an artist. I wanted to write fiction. But somehow I didn’t: I didn’t have any stories I thought were worth writing. The first clue about what might be wrong with me came when I read Steven Weinberg’s 1977 The First Three Minutes.

It’s about the beginnings of the Universe. I remember the beautiful storyline that started with the infant Universe expanding, hotter than hot, with matter and light as aspects of one thing, all forces being one force; and then ticked on through expansion’s consequences, the slow cooling, matter separating from light, and the four forces falling out of equilbrium, one by one. I’d never read a story that had such precision and inevitability, the logic like tipping dominoes. Does science have more stories like that? I thought. Had I been wrong about science all along?

It certainly does and I had. For instance: quantum theory, created step by painstaking step to explain the Universe’s most elementary and surest foundation, ended up with each step instead building to a cosmos built on fundamental uncertainty. Another instance: the tectonic plates, the continents and ocean floor, move laterally along the Earth’s surface. Until, that is, they reach the edge of the convection cell that cools and falls, and they fall with it, back into the mantle to warm, melt and rise again.

Science turns out to have the storylines every bit as compelling as those in myths and classical Greek plays. Those stories are worth writing, I thought, and maybe if I learned about science, I could write them; so I did, and I’ve been doing it ever since. But I didn’t remember until I recently looked at Weinberg’s book again that he was not just telling a good story. He was also explaining how and why to be a science writer.

 Here are three lovely examples. 

1.  “I cannot deny a feeling of unreality in writing about the first three minutes as if we really know what we’re talking about.”  

Other physicists/astrophysicists in this field, cosmology, say the same thing, and it’s more complicated than it sounds. The basis of the field is physics, about as non-waffly as science can be. But the subject is all-but-unobservable, or observable only indirectly and with large error bars. The message for the science writer is, the Universe operates on physics so you can believe these physicists know what they’re talking about. But believe what they say the way they believe it: not permanently, only for now and knowing it’ll change. 

2.  “I picture the reader as a smart old attorney who does not speak my language but who expects nonetheless to hear some convincing arguments before he makes up his mind.”  

All professions have their own jargon – journalism’s is especially annoying – but jargon is just a shortcut for the ideas. Write the ideas without the jargon and with a clear argument, Weinberg says, because the science writer’s audience is, whatever its education, fully capable of understanding the science and – importantly in a democracy – of making up its own mind. 

3. “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”  

That sentence is famous. In his 1990 Origins, science writer Alan Lightman asked cosmologists about it. Some said they didn’t see the need for the Universe to have a point. Some said what Weinberg went on to say: that scientists build instruments of detection and analysis, observe and experiment, create theories, all in hopes of comprehending the Universe because the Universe is beautiful and the comprehension itself has meaning. “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce,” Weinberg writes, “and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” As a science writer I can’t help but feel a part of that. And what better story could you ask for? 

Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1977.

Ann Finkbeiner is a science writer based in Baltimore, Maryland, specializing primarily in physics. Her books include The Jasons (2006) and A Grand and Bold Thing (2010). Her blog is The Last Word on Nothing http://www.lastwordonnothing.com. 

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