Gleiser (Natural Philosophy, Physics and Astronomy/Dartmouth Coll.; A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe, 2010, etc.) seeks an answer to the question, “Can we make sense of the world without belief?”
The author suggests that even scientific giants like Newton and Einstein depended on “intuition and personal prejudice” to extend their knowledge, knowing full well the limitations of their theories. Scientific knowledge has advanced since their groundbreaking discoveries, but so, too, has our understanding of its inherent limitations. Gleiser contends that although we can extend our understanding of how the universe works, our efforts to penetrate reality will always include an element of unsubstantiated belief. The author traces the history of science, including Aristotle's Earth-centered model of the heavens, which was upended by Copernicus and his successors. This led to the achievements of classical physicists such as Newton and James Maxwell in understanding gravity and electromagnetism and culminated with Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Then, Gleiser tackles current cosmological theories—e.g., the Big Bang, the expanding universe and the possibilities that it is only one of infinitely many other universes. For readers unfamiliar with the material, this will be a lot to comprehend, even though the author uses descriptive metaphors to make it more accessible. Gleiser also examines the anomalies of quantum physics, such as the odd behaviors of electrons or photons that appear to be particles in some experiments and waves in others, and he gives examples of electrons that appear to communicate instantaneously, a step back to Newton that Einstein criticized “as spooky action at-a-distance.” Gleiser ends with an examination of information theory.
Readers may find this to be an overly ambitious attempt to provide a historical perspective to the scientific enterprise that is more confusing than illuminating.