Steven Weinberg (1933-2021): a personal view

Steven Weinberg sitting in front of a chalkboard covered in equations

Steven Weinberg was, perhaps, the last truly towering figure of 20th-century physics. In 1967, he wrote a 3-page paper saying in effect that as far as he could see, two of the four fundamental forces of the universe—namely, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force—had actually been the same force until a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, when a broken symmetry caused them to decouple. Strangely, he had developed the math underlying this idea for the strong nuclear force, and it didn’t work there, but it did seem to work for the weak force and electromagnetism. Steve noted that, if true, this would require the existence of two force-carrying particles that hadn’t yet been seen — the W and Z bosons — and would also require the existence of the famous Higgs boson.

By 1979, enough of this picture had been confirmed by experiment that Steve shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Sheldon Glashow—Steve’s former high-school classmate—as well as with Abdus Salam, both of whom had separately developed pieces of the same puzzle. As arguably the central architect of what we now call the Standard Model of elementary particles, Steve was in the ultra-rarefied class where, had he not won the Nobel Prize, it would’ve been a stain on the prize rather than on him.

Steve once recounted in my hearing that Richard Feynman initially heaped scorn on the electroweak proposal. Late one night, however, Steve was woken up by a phone call. It was Feynman. “I believe your theory now,” Feynman announced. “Why?” Steve asked. Feynman, being Feynman, gave some idiosyncratic reason that he’d worked out for himself.

It used to happen more often that someone would put forward a bold new proposal about the most fundamental laws of nature … and then the experimentalists would actually go out and confirm it. Besides with the Standard Model, though, there’s approximately one other time that that’s happened in the living memory of most of today’s physicists. Namely, when astronomers discovered in 1998 that the expansion of the universe was accelerating, apparently due to a dark energy that behaved like Einstein’s long-ago-rejected cosmological constant. Very few had expected such a result. There was one prominent exception, though: Steve Weinberg had written in 1987 that he saw no reason why the cosmological constant shouldn’t take a nonzero value that was still tiny enough to be consistent with galaxy formation and so forth.

In his long and illustrious career, one of the least important things Steve did, six years ago, was to play a major role in recruiting me and my wife Dana to UT Austin. The first time I met Steve, his first question to me was “have we met before? you look familiar.” It turns out that he’d met my dad, Steve Aaronson, way back in the 1970s, when my dad (then a young science writer) had interviewed Weinberg for a magazine article. I was astonished that Weinberg would remember such a thing across decades.

Steve was then gracious enough to take me, Dana, and both of my parents out to dinner in Austin as part of my and Dana’s recruiting trip.

We talked, among other things, about Telluride House at Cornell, where Steve had lived as an undergrad in the early 1950s and where I’d lived as an undergrad almost half a century later. Steve said that, while he loved the intellectual atmosphere at Telluride, he tried to have as little to do as possible with the “self-government” aspect, since he found the political squabbles that convulsed many of the humanities majors there to be a waste of time. I burst out laughing, because … well, imagine you got to have dinner with James Clerk Maxwell, and he opened up about some ridiculously specific pet peeve from his college years, and it was your ridiculously specific pet peeve from your college years.

(Steve claimed to us, not entirely convincingly, that he was a mediocre student at Cornell, more interesting in “necking” with his fellow student and future wife Louise than in studying physics.)

After Dana and I came to Austin, Steve was kind enough to invite me to the high-energy theoretical physics lunches, where I chatted with him and the other members of his group every week (or better yet, simply listened). I’d usually walk to the faculty club ten minutes early. Steve, having arrived by car, would be sitting alone in an armchair, reading a newspaper, while he waited for the other physicists to arrive by foot. No matter how scorching the Texas sun, Steve would always be wearing a suit (usually a tan one) and a necktie, his walking-cane by his side. I, typically in ratty shorts and t-shirt, would sit in the armchair next to him, and we’d talk—about the latest developments in quantum computing and information (Steve, a perpetual student, would pepper me with questions), or his recent work on nonlinear modifications of quantum mechanics, or his memories of Cambridge, MA, or climate change or the anti-Israel protests in Austin or whatever else. These conversations, brief and inconsequential as they probably were to him, were highlights of my week.

There was, of course, something a little melancholy about getting to know such a great man only in the twilight of his life. To be clear, Steve Weinberg in his mid-to-late 80s was far more cogent, articulate, and quick to understand what was said to him than just about anyone you’d ever met in their prime. But then, after a short conversation, he’d have to leave for a nap. Steve was as clear-eyed and direct about his age and impending mortality as he was about everything else. “Scott!” he once greeted me. “I just saw the announcement for your physics colloquium about quantum supremacy. I hope I’m still alive next month to attend it.”

(As it happens, the colloquium in question was on November 9, 2016, the day we learned that Trump would become president. I offered to postpone the talk, since no one could concentrate on physics on such a day. While several of the physicists agreed that that was the right call, Steve convinced me to go ahead with the following message: “I sympathize, but I do want to hear you … There is some virtue in just plowing on.”)

I sometimes felt, as well, like I was speaking with Steve across a cultural chasm even greater than the half-century that separated us in age. Steve enjoyed nothing more than to discourse at length, in his booming New-York-accented baritone, about opera, or ballet, or obscure corners of 18th-century history. It would be easy to feel like a total philistine by comparison … and I did. Steve also told me that he never reads blogs or other social media, since he’s unable believe any written work is “real” unless it’s published, ideally on paper. I could only envy such an attitude.

If you did try to judge by the social media that he never read, you might conclude that Steve would be remembered by the wider world less for any of his epochal contributions to physics than for a single viral quote of his:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

I can testify that Steve fully lived his atheism. Four years ago, I invited him (along with many other UT colleagues) to the brit milah of my newborn son Daniel. Steve said he’d be happy to come over our house another time (and I’m happy to say that he did a year later), but not to witness any body parts being cut.

Despite his hostility to Judaism—along with every other religion—Steve was a vociferous supporter of the state of Israel, almost to the point of making me look like Edward Said or Noam Chomsky. For Steve, Zionism was not in spite of his liberal, universalist Enlightenment ideals but because of them.

Anyway, there’s no need even to wonder whether Steve had any sort of deathbed conversion. He’d laugh at the thought.

In 2016, Steve published To Explain the World, a history of human progress in physics and astronomy from the ancient Greeks to Newton (when, Steve says, the scientific ethos reached the form that it still basically has today). It’s unlike any other history-of-science book that I’ve read. Of course I’d read other books about Aristarchus and Ptolemy and so forth, but I’d never read a modern writer treating them not as historical subjects, but as professional colleagues merely separated in time. Again and again, Steve would redo ancient calculations, finding errors that had escaped historical notice; he’d remark on how Eratosthenes or Kepler could’ve done better with the data available to them; he’d grade the ancients by how much of modern physics and cosmology they’d correctly anticipated.

To Explain the World was savaged in reviews by professional science historians. Apparently, Steve had committed the unforgivable sin of “Whig history”: that is, judging past natural philosophers by the standards of today. Steve clung to the naïve, debunked, scientistic notions that there’s such a thing as “actual right answers” about how the universe works; that we today are, at any rate, much closer to those right answers than the ancients were; and that we can judge the ancients by how close they got to the right answers that we now know.

As I read the sneering reviews, I kept thinking: so suppose Archimedes, Copernicus, and all the rest were brought back from the dead. Who would they rather talk to: historians seeking to explore every facet of their misconceptions, like anthropologists with a paleolithic tribe; or Steve Weinberg, who’d want to bring them up to speed as quickly as possible so they could continue the joint quest?

When it comes to the foundations of quantum mechanics, Steve took the view that no existing interpretation is satisfactory, although the Many-Worlds Interpretation is perhaps the least bad of the bunch. Steve felt that our reaction to this state of affairs should be to test quantum mechanics more precisely—for example, by looking for tiny nonlinearities in the Schrödinger equation, or other signs that QM itself is only a limit of some more all-encompassing theory. This is, to put it mildly, not a widely-held view among high-energy physicists—but it provided a fascinating glimpse into how Steve’s mind works.

Here was, empirically, the most successful theoretical physicist alive, and again and again, his response to conceptual confusion was not to ruminate more about basic principles but to ask for more data or do a more detailed calculation. He never, ever let go of a short tether to the actual testable consequences of whatever was being talked about, or future experiments that might change the situation.

(Steve worked on string theory in the early 1980s, and he remained engaged with it for the rest of his life, for example by recruiting the string theorists Jacques Distler and Willy Fischler to UT Austin. But he later soured on the prospects for getting testable consequences out of string theory within a reasonable timeframe. And he once complained to me that the papers he’d read about “It from Qubit,” AdS/CFT, and the black hole information problem had had “too many words and not enough equations.”)

Steve was, famously, about as hardcore a reductionist as has ever existed on earth. He was a reductionist not just in the usual sense that he believed there are fundamental laws of physics, from which, together with the initial conditions, everything that happens in our universe can be calculated in principle (if not in practice), at least probabilistically. He was a reductionist in the stronger sense that he thought the quest to discover the fundamental laws of the universe had a special pride of place among all human endeavors—a place not shared by the many sciences devoted to the study of complex emergent behavior, interesting and important though they might be.

This came through clearly in Steve’s critical review of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, where Steve (Weinberg, that is) articulated his views of why “free-floating” theories of complex behavior can’t take the place of a reductionistic description of our actual universe. (Of course, I was also highly critical of A New Kind of Science in my review, but for somewhat different reasons than Steve was.) Steve’s reductionism was also clearly expressed in his testimony to Congress in support of continued funding for the Superconducting Supercollider. (Famously, Phil Anderson testified against the SSC, arguing that the money would better be spent on condensed-matter physics and other sciences of emergent behavior. The result: Congress did cancel the SSC, and it redirected precisely zero of the money to other sciences. But at least Steve lived to see the LHC dramatically confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, as the SSC would have.)

I, of course, have devoted my career to theoretical computer science, which you might broadly call a “science of emergent behavior”: it tries to figure out the ultimate possibilities and limits of computation, taking the underlying laws of physics as given. Quantum computing, in particular, takes as its input a physical theory that was already known by 1926, and studies what can be done with it. So you might expect me to disagree passionately with Weinberg on reductionism versus holism.

In reality, I have a hard time pinpointing any substantive difference. Mostly I see a difference in opportunities: Steve saw a golden chance to contribute something to the millennia-old quest to discover the fundamental laws of nature, at the tail end of the heroic era of particle physics that culminated in what we now call the Standard Model. He was brilliant enough to seize that chance. I didn’t see a similar chance: possibly because it no longer existed; almost certainly because, even if it did, I wouldn’t have had the right mind for it. I found a different chance, to work at the intersection of physics and computer science that was finally kicking into high gear at the end of the 20th century. Interestingly, while I came to that intersection from the CS side, quite a few who were originally trained as high-energy physicists ended up there as well—including a star PhD student of Steve Weinberg’s named John Preskill.

Despite his reductionism, Steve was as curious and enthusiastic about quantum computation as he was about a hundred other topics beyond particle physics—he even ended his quantum mechanics textbook with a chapter about Shor’s factoring algorithm. Having said that, a central reason for his enthusiasm about QC was that he clearly saw how demanding a test it would be of quantum mechanics itself—and as I mentioned earlier, Steve was open to the possibility that quantum mechanics might not be exactly true.

It would be an understatement to call Steve “left-of-center.” He believed in higher taxes on rich people like himself to service a robust social safety net. When Trump won, Steve remarked to me that most of the disgusting and outrageous things Trump would do could be reversed in a generation or so—but not the aggressive climate change denial; that actually could matter on the scale of centuries. Steve made the news in Austin for openly defying the Texas law forcing public universities to allow concealed carry on campus: he said that, regardless of what the law said, firearms would not be welcome in his classroom. (Louise, Steve’s wife for 67 years and a professor at UT Austin’s law school, also wrote perhaps the definitive scholarly takedown of the shameful Bush vs. Gore Supreme Court decision, which installed George W. Bush as president.)

All the same, during the “science wars” of the 1990s, Steve was scathing about the academic left’s postmodernist streak and deeply sympathetic to what Alan Sokal had done with his Social Text hoax. Steve also once told me that, when he (like other UT faculty) was required to write a statement about what he would do to advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, he submitted just a single sentence: “I will seek the best candidates, without regard to race or sex.” I remarked that he might be one of the only academics who could get away with that.

I confess that, for the past five years, knowing Steve was a greater source of psychological strength for me than, from a rational standpoint, it probably should have been. Regular readers will know that I’ve spent months of my life agonizing over various nasty things people have said me about on Twitter and Reddit—that I’m a sexist white male douchebag, a clueless techbro STEMlord, a neoliberal Zionist shill, and I forget what else.

But I lately have had a secret emotional weapon that helped somewhat: namely, the certainty that Steven Weinberg had more intellectual power in a single toenail clipping than these Twitter-attackers had collectively experienced over the course of their lives. It’s like, have you heard the joke where two rabbis are arguing some point of Talmud, and then God speaks from a booming thundercloud to declare that the first rabbi is right, and then the second rabbi says “OK fine, now it’s 2 against 1?” For the W and Z bosons and Higgs boson that you predicted to turn up at the particle accelerator is not exactly God declaring from a thundercloud that the way your mind works is aligned with the way the world actually is—Steve, of course, would wince at the suggestion—but it’s about the closest thing available in this universe. My secret emotional weapon was that I knew the man who’d experienced this, arguably more than any of the 7.6 billion other living humans, and not only did that man not sneer at me, but by some freakish coincidence, he seemed to have reached roughly the same views as I had on >95% of controversial questions where we both had strong opinions.

My final conversations with Steve Weinberg were about a laptop. When covid started in March 2020, Steve and Louise, being in their late 80s, naturally didn’t want to take chances, and rigorously sheltered at home. But an issue emerged: Steve couldn’t install Zoom on his Bronze Age computer, and so couldn’t participate in the virtual meetings of his own group, nor could he do Zoom calls with his daughter and granddaughter. While as a theoretical computer scientist, I don’t normally volunteer myself as tech support staff, I decided that an exception was warranted in this case. The quickest solution was to configure one of my own old laptops with everything Steve needed and bring it over to his house.

Later, Steve emailed me to say that, while the laptop had worked great and been a lifesaver, he’d finally bought his own laptop, so I should come by to pick mine up. I delayed and delayed with that, but finally decided I should do it before leaving Austin at the beginning of this summer. So I emailed Steve to tell him I’d be coming. He replied to me asking Louise to leave the laptop on the porch — but the email was addressed only to me, not her.

At that moment, I knew something had changed: only a year before, incredibly, I’d been more senile and out-of-it as a 39-year-old than Steve had been as an 87-year-old. What I didn’t know at the time was that Steve had sent that email from the hospital when he was close to death. It was the last I heard from him.

(Once I learned what was going on, I did send a get-well note, which I hope Steve saw, saying that I hoped he appreciated that I wasn’t praying for him.)

Besides the quote about good people, bad people, and religion, the other quote of Steve’s that he never managed to live down came from the last pages of The First Three Minutes, his classic 1970s popularization of big-bang cosmology:

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

In the 1993 epilogue, Steve tempered this with some more hopeful words, nearly as famous:

The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.

It’s not my purpose here to resolve the question of whether life or the universe have a point. What I can say is that, even in his last years, Steve never for a nanosecond acted as if life was pointless. He already had all the material comforts and academic renown anyone could possibly want. He could have spent all day in his swimming pool, or listening to operas. Instead, he continued publishing textbooks—a quantum mechanics textbook in 2012, an astrophysics textbook in 2019, and a “Foundations of Modern Physics” textbook in 2021 (!). As recently as this year, he continued writing papers—and not just “great man reminiscing” papers, but hardcore technical papers. He continued writing with nearly unmatched lucidity for a general audience, in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. And I can attest that he continued peppering visiting speakers with questions about stellar evolution or whatever else they were experts on—because, more likely than not, he had redone some calculation himself and gotten a subtly different result from what was in the textbooks.

If God exists, I can’t believe He or She would find nothing more interesting to do with Steve than to torture him for his unbelief. More likely, I think, God is right now talking to Steve the same way Steve talked to Aristarchus in To Explain the World: “yes, you were close about the origin of neutrino masses, but here’s the part you were missing…” While, of course, Steve is redoing God’s calculation to be sure.

Feel free to use the comments as a place to share your own memories.

More Steven Weinberg memorial links (I’ll continue adding to this over the next few days):

Miscellaneous Steven Weinberg links

94 Responses to “Steven Weinberg (1933-2021): a personal view”

  1. Ryan Alweiss Says:

    A beautiful and long obituary. Steven Weinberg z”l.

    (Would he be OK with being remembered with z”l?)

  2. Alex K. Chen (InquilineKea) Says:

    ^and this was just several months before he died

  3. Bertie Says:

    Wonderful obituary, I’m sorry for your (and our) loss.
    Thankyou for posting this????????

  4. LK2 Says:

    An absolute giant of physics, and author of my favorite QFT book.
    This post was really great: well done Scott and lucky you getting to know personally this great man. RIP, Steve. And thanks.

  5. The Hedyot Says:

    That was a fantastic obituary. Thank you for sharing your fond memories of the great man. I’m sorry for your loss.

  6. Mike Says:

    Thank you. Fascinating

  7. Scott Aaronson remembers Steven Weinberg (1933-2021) | 3 Quarks Daily Says:

    […] More here. […]

  8. Edward M Measure Says:

    A wonderful remembrance! Thanks for sharing.

  9. A TCS person Says:

    Oh no, so sad to hear!

    Scott, not sure I agree about QC being an emergent science. Doesn’t the evolution of quantum physics actually provide more and more evidence that QC (or rather, Quantum Information Theory) is at least as fundamental as “hard physics” phenomena like “particles” or even “spacetime”? Actually, aren’t you a part of the “IT from Qubit” initiative that’s set to explore exactly this viewpoint?

  10. Jr Says:

    Read the First 3 Minutes as a kid which I thought was just a beautiful example of popular science writing.

  11. Vanessa Says:

    Rest in peace Steven Weinberg. Thank you for this beautiful obituary, Scott.

    > I, of course, have devoted my career to theoretical computer science, which you might broadly call a “science of emergent behavior”: it tries to figure out the ultimate possibilities and limits of computation, taking the underlying laws of physics as given.

    Hmm, I often think of TCS as in some ways *more* fundamental than physics. That’s because the qualitative limits on computation only depend fairly weakly on the precise laws of physics. So, TCS is more like thermodynamics than like e.g. stellar structure. Moreover, even if we discovered that physics is different than we thought, so that BQP is longer the right class for physically feasible computation, there would likely be some other well-known complexity class that captures it. Finally (and more relevant to my own work), our best efforts to formalize *metaphysics*, i.e. the most general concept of “physical theory” and the rules we use to determine which theory is correct, are in the language of TCS (building on Solomonoff induction).

  12. Brian Buchbinder Says:

    Love the joke. I think it has an additional and deeper meaning. If there is a god who created the Universe and established “The Law” or as we might see it, the laws of the Universe, having done that, he is powerless to interpret it or change it. After the creation, he’s as stuck with the initial conditions as the rest of us are, and with respect the working out of the consequences, he’s as much in the dark as the rest of us, and has no special authority of interpretation. Or looked at from the perspective of emergence, having set initial conditions, he, like everyone else, may say that the results are determined by those conditions, but not uniquely foreseeable from them.

  13. Gavin Leech Says:

    Weinberg fully repaired the overreach of his “pointless” quotation with a (sadly less famous) line in a PBS special, The Faith of Scientists:

    If there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art…

    although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we’re starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That’s not an entirely despicable role for us to play.

  14. Huseyin Gungor Says:

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write this, Scott. I feel like Steven Weinberg was about the only physicist (perhaps the only other one was Murray Gell-man) whose depth equaled his breadth in so many fields. Listening to him talk about poetry, history, national security, evolution, tragedy, comedy and meaning of life immediately confirms that he was not just a physicist, but one of the best representatives of humanity and human legacy.

    I am glad you are finding conviction in your views with Steven Weinberg’s mental support.

  15. Steven Weinberg 1933-2021 | Not Even Wrong Says:

    […] Scott Aaronson writes about Weinberg here, especially about getting to know him during the last part of his […]

  16. gentzen Says:

    Instead, he continued publishing textbooks—a quantum mechanics textbook in 2012, an astrophysics textbook in 2019.

    Weinberg published another textbook Foundations of Modern Physics in 2021. Not to be confused with his quantum mechanics textbook. (I guess that is the reason why Scott didn’t mention it, at least I first confused it when I saw it on Amazon.)

  17. Bernard Abramson Says:

    Thank you. One looks at the talent and brilliance of a Weinberg or a Feynman and can only be grateful to live in the same universe even though one can hardly grasp the magnitude of that talent.

  18. Julien Says:

    Steven was nothing short of a hero to me even if I never met him. Beyond his books on physics that are the best i.m.o., his thoughts on life, meaning, humanity were so important, like you said, if only to know that we are not alone in feeling the simultaneous beauty and tragedy of it all. I hope that he and his family know the deepest gratitude we feel to have shared that branch of the wavefunction with him. And we send his loved ones all of our warmest thoughts.

  19. David Says:

    What a loss. Thank you for writing this. Besides his work in theoretical physics Steven Weinberg was admirable in his acknowledgment of the universe’s indifference while reflecting on what a good life in such a universe might be.
    Few scientists have the guts to actually state that looking at the evidence the universe we inhabit is probably not a deistic one (let alone a theistic one). That’s what his quote about the universe being pointless means. The more we examine apparent displays of order in nature, the more we invariably discover that they emerge from the interaction of blind unconscious physical laws.
    He was firm in his conviction that this was indeed the best conclusion we could reach from modern science yet he was never dogmatic or lacking irony.
    One always felt a bit smarter listening to him and those who benefited from his knowledge , humor and empathy have now the difficult duty to prolong and pass on his teachings.

  20. Scott Says:

    A TCS person #9:

      not sure I agree about QC being an emergent science. Doesn’t the evolution of quantum physics actually provide more and more evidence that QC (or rather, Quantum Information Theory) is at least as fundamental as “hard physics” phenomena like “particles” or even “spacetime”? Actually, aren’t you a part of the “IT from Qubit” initiative that’s set to explore exactly this viewpoint?

    I’m on record strongly advocating the view that quantum computing and information provides the best language yet created with which to understand QM itself. But it wasn’t the first language. And right now, a skeptic could say that insofar we use quantum information to talk about the fundamental laws of nature rather than about emergent behavior, it’s “just a language,” and certainly not one that’s led so far to any new fundamental laws that were later confirmed by experiment.

    Steve worked on string theory himself in the 1980s, and he followed the recent progress in AdS/CFT with interest and was perfectly able to discuss it. But he once complained to me that the papers he’d read about AdS/CFT, the black hole information problem, and “It from Qubit” had had “too many words and not enough equations.”

    Having, indeed, been a part of the It from Qubit collaboration since it started, I’ve found a wealth of beautiful TCS questions and striking new ideas to work on there, but it’s clear to everyone that IfQ is extremely far from meeting the “Weinberg standard,” of making a novel prediction about the fundamental laws of nature that’s then confirmed by an experiment.

  21. Scott Says:

    Gavin Leech #13: Yes, thanks, that’s one of many things Steve later said to, as you put it, “repair the overreach” of his “pointless” quotation! 🙂

  22. Scott Says:

    gentzen #16: Thanks for the reminder!! Added that to the post.

  23. Boaz Barak Says:

    Beautiful post! Unfortunately I’ve never met Steve Weinberg but through your post I feel I now know more about him.

    As an aside, the “joke” you mention is actually not a joke but a long-standing tradition in Judaism that once God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, he can no longer interfere and all interpretations of it are due to the Rabbis and scholars.
    If they interpret the text as A and a voice comes from the sky that the answer is B, that voice is ignored since once the text has been written there is no room for “argument from authority “

  24. Pangloss Says:

    A touching eulogy

  25. Laurence Cox Says:

    I really enjoyed your review of Steven Weinberg’s life. It is good to read a personal account from someone who knew him as well as you did, even if only for the final few years.

    It seems a great pity that Steven Weinberg never met Jonathan Sacks, who died only last November. I do not know if Sacks, Chief Rabbi in Britain from 1991 to 2013, would have been able to raise doubts in Weinberg’s mind about his atheism, but the conversation would have been interesting. Sacks was the most erudite man I have met; I was able to attend some of his lectures at Kings College London after he retired; his writings fortunately are still available on his web site:

    “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning” (2011) and
    “Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” (2015) are two of his recent books, which might have caused Weinberg to temper his beliefs.

  26. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Thank you for writing this beautiful remembrance, Scott. And sorry for the loss of your friend.

  27. gentzen Says:

    Scott #22: I accidentally left the PhysicsForums tag in my link. Here is the link to the thread from where I copied it. It also contains a short review by Hendrik van Hees. I found another short review on Not Even Wrong in a comment by Mark Weitzman. Since the book appeared only recently on 22. April 2021, both reviewers only started to read it. Their most important message is that the level of the book is intermediate to advanced undergraduate, that it is less of a textbook, and that it contains interesting historical asides.

  28. Albert Gell-Feynman Says:

    Weinberg’s diversity statement is outstanding. After making amazing progress through the early 1970s fundamental physics became stuck on the standard model not so coincidentally around the time the West began promoting women, minorities, and left wing activists who were unworthy of their predecessors. Today cutting edge high energy physics looks more like and than A Model of Leptons, with no pushback whatsoever.

  29. Ellen Says:

    This is a beautiful remembrance. I had limited crossing of paths with him when a group of students and I were advocating for our friend who was a physicist imprisoned unfairly abroad. He took the time to understand, respond, and support us when some others did not. But this is what I admire about both you and him – that you are not only pushing the limits of human knowledge in fundamental ways, but that you are not afraid to stand up for what is right. It’s easy for some professors to stay cozy, safe and insulated, and unbothered by the outside world, but the best world citizens do not. He was such a great world citizen with strong principles he made known.

  30. Scott Says:

    “Albert Gell-Feynman” #28:

      …fundamental physics became stuck on the standard model not so coincidentally around the time the West began promoting women, minorities, and left wing activists who were unworthy of their predecessors.

    FWIW, I don’t find that sort of rhetoric helpful, and I don’t think Steve did either. Yes, in contemporary academia, there are ideologues who’ve latched onto the worthy goal of increasing ethnic and gender diversity, as a convenient way to denounce the people and standards they hate. In the case at hand, though, there are much more immediate explanations for why the experimentally-confirmed progress in fundamental particle physics stalled—having to do, for example, with the success of the Standard Model and with the cost of the particle accelerators that would probe beyond it outrunning the budget of our civilization. And Steve really was an “equal opportunity” friend and collaborator (see, for example, his moving writing about his friendship with Abdus Salam), and he did not believe that there was any problem with the new generation of theoretical physicists being any less talented than the old.

  31. pete Says:

    Very nice description of a great physicist.

  32. matt Says:

    So, Scott, what would happen if you wrote the same statement as Weinberg for your DEI statement? I mean, they can’t fire you for that, and I see nothing morally wrong with that as a statement. Based on how you talk on this blog, I really can’t imagine you spending time writing paragraphs of buzzwords.

  33. John Stricker Says:

    What a wonderful obituary, and picture! The parting of beloved and appreciated people cannot be but bitter-sweet; bitter for the loss, and sweet for the remembrance.

    I don´t think I ever read any book by him, probably over my head anyway; but I cherish my paperback of the 1986 Dirac Memorial Lectures that he (and Richard Feynman) gave, including an absolutely brilliant, 3 minute introduction to quantum mechanics. So brilliant in fact, that even I understood it! The rest of the lecture (titled “Towards the final laws of physics”) is more detailed, and partly technical, as well as far reaching in its presentation and conclusions. If his books are the same, they must be masterpieces one and all.

    So now he may rest… where- and however he may be resting (let´s not presume what we cannot know). His works, of course, will remain with us, as will our gratitude and our appreciation.

  34. Michael Ball Says:

    Wonderful Scott. Thanks for sharing!

  35. DR Says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. What an interesting and amazing human being, even apart from his Nobel.

    Thanks for this essay. I did not know 99% of this.

  36. Scott Says:

    matt #32: Probably nothing would happen to me—after all, I have tenure—but I wouldn’t have risked it. My style is to bend over backwards to say everything I truthfully can about the value of bringing together people from varied backgrounds, the brilliant female and trans and Black and Hispanic and trans and Muslim students who I’ve had the privilege to mentor, etc. etc., but just conspicuously omit the part I don’t believe, about how any remaining statistical disparities must be due to the inherent sinfulness (or whatever is the currently fashionable synonym) of the white and Asian male STEM nerds, going all the way back to Archimedes and Newton themselves.

  37. Andreas Tsokos Says:

    I was in the audience in 3 or 4 Weinberg seminars at Cornell. After one of them I followed him and took the courage to stop him and ask him a question on something I could not understand in cosmology. I thought it was a real puzzle. He politely answered my question in the simplest of ways just as I thought I saw an expression on his face of having being asked that same question many times before. A great physicist, perhaps the last of the truly greats.

  38. Omninonymous Says:

    but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

    The USSR seriously begs to disagree, any secular totalitarian regime does in fact. Hasn’t Hanna Arendt driven that point home with ‘the banality of evil’ ?

    Just goes to show it takes a Nobel prize for geniuses to fall prey to simpleminded demagoguery.

    Weinberg like many of us had every reason to hate on religion because it undermines fundamental critical reasoning skills and espouses a fictional ontology as being (at best) on the same footing as the physical one, but let’s not pretend that it has any monopoly on the moral corruption of otherwise virtuous people.

  39. Scott Says:

    Omninonymous #38: I never asked Steve, but he might have said (as many of us would) that Communism in its Soviet incarnation basically was a state religion. If nothing else, it shared the crucial feature with every fundamentalist religion of causing adherents to outsource their judgments of both fact and morality to an external authority—thereby freeing the adherents from the terrifying burden of reasoning things out for themselves, but also enabling unbounded atrocities.

  40. JimV Says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  41. Pierre Says:

    Why do you think you would not have had the right mind for particle physics even in its heyday?

  42. Omninonymous Says:

    Scott #39
    Is money also a state religion ? Lust ? Envy ? Ambition ? Cause those all have a great record at bringing out evil from otherwise non-evil people. In fact that’s what most religions try to tackle in between all the woo, the tithes and the ritualistic genital mutilation.
    Let’s just pretend he never said that particular quote and stay with the defensible critic of religion.

  43. Scott Says:

    Pierre #41: Mostly, because I didn’t have the right mind as an undergrad for partial differential equations, curvature tensors, Hamiltonians, Lagrangians, cross-products, div, grad, or curl, despite being exposed to all of those. I did better finding little under-studied corners of combinatorics, discrete math, probability, and algorithms to obsess about and make my own, with sprinklings of continuous math thrown in here and there—especially if there was some conceptual story to tell. And it was clear to me that, if all the world’s written records were wiped out in some catastrophe, then I could singlehandedly get civilization back up to speed on the most famous things that Cantor, Gödel, Turing, Shannon, Cook, Levin, Karp, and Deutsch had discovered, but that I couldn’t do the same even for Maxwell or Einstein to say nothing of their successors.

  44. Scott Says:

    Omninonymous #42: While Steve is no longer with us to answer any of your followup questions, speaking for myself I’d say: no, money, lust, envy, and ambition are not in any sense “religions.” They’re just nearly-universal human motivators, fine when under the control of conscience but potentially terrifying when they completely take over a person’s psyche.

    Communism (and to a lesser extent wokeism … or QAnon for that matter) are different. They’re totalizing ideologies that encourage people to understand everything in terms of a showdown between good and evil, which has to be won to create a heaven on earth. They encourage their believers to evaluate beliefs, ideas, and ethical stances not on whether they can be rationally defended to outsiders, but on whether they help the cause. In that way, they’re like fundamentalist religions in almost every respect except the God one.

  45. Michael Chanowitz Says:

    I had the pleasure of telling Steve the story of my experience purchasing The First Three Minutes at Cody’s bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I couldn’t find it and asked a Cody’s staff member for help. She told me to look in the pregnancy/new mothers section. It wasn’t there. I think they ordered one for me.

    I also experienced his kindness to junior colleagues. I was touched that he thanked me once for referencing his work (on pion-pion low energy theorems in work Mary Gaillard and I did on W boson scattering) and he was always scrupulous with his citations.

    I also lived in the Telluride House at Cornell for a couple of years. I think Steve only stayed for a single year, perhaps for the reason given in your anecdote. Thanks for a very nice post.

  46. Howie Clifford Says:

    While I have the same insatiable curiosity and desire to understand the standard model of particle physics and the standard model of cosmology as others that read this blog, I don’t have the education or experience to really understand them. However, while reading Steven Weinberg’s books or watching his lectures on video, for just that hour or two it would feel like I actually understood. I wonder if he ever really knew how deeply he touched so many people. I would have loved to have thanked him. I’m glad he had a friend like Scott who could give him the tribute he deserved. Nicely done Scott.

  47. James Gallagher Says:

    Scott, your post is just great, Weinberg was a truly a Giant of Physics.

    (I don’t think Omninonymous understands what a “good person” is if he/she thinks they can be compelled to do evil for Money, Lust, Envy, Ambition etc – these are pretty simple “bad people”, it is people acting on what they believe are good intentions that Weinberg was no doubt referring too)

  48. QWZXCH Says:

    Scott #36 – Isn’t Texas a red state? Why can’t someone ask the legislature or governor to get rid of these woke loyalty oaths and layoff whatever department of diversicrats thought they were a good idea?

  49. ultimaniacy Says:

    Scott #36:

    “just conspicuously omit the part I don’t believe, about how any remaining statistical disparities must be due to the inherent sinfulness (or whatever is the currently fashionable synonym) of the white and Asian male STEM nerds”

    Out of curiosity, what *do* you attribute the remaining statistical disparities to?

  50. a Says:

    Scott #43. How do you feel about Combinatorics of Partial Derivatives ?

  51. Elias Says:

    Vanessa #11:

    > Hmm, I often think of TCS as in some ways *more* fundamental than physics. That’s because the qualitative limits on computation only depend fairly weakly on the precise laws of physics. So, TCS is more like thermodynamics than like e.g. stellar structure. Moreover, even if we discovered that physics is different than we thought, so that BQP is longer the right class for physically feasible computation, there would likely be some other well-known complexity class that captures it.

    Hey, Steve touched this in his review of Wolfram’s A new Kind of Science. He called those abstract, interchangeable theories “free floating theories” (needs a registering a free account to read)

    I will quote him:

    > There are other examples of what I like to call free-floating theories, theories that are applicable in a wide (though not unlimited) variety of very different contexts. The theory of chaos, which has captured the public imagination, deals with systems, from the weather to the pebbles in the rings of Saturn, whose behavior exhibits an exquisite sensitivity to initial conditions. Thermodynamics, the science of heat, is a less trendy example. Concepts of thermodynamics like temperature and entropy are applicable to black holes as well as to steam boilers. A less familiar example is the theory of broken symmetry. Many very different substances, including superconductors, magnetized iron, and liquid helium, are governed by equations that have some symmetry, in the sense that the equations look the same from certain different points of view, and yet the substances exhibit phenomena that do not respect this symmetry.

    > There is a low-intensity culture war going on between scientists who specialize in free-floating theories of this sort and those (mostly particle physicists) who pursue the old reductionist dream of finding laws of nature that are not explained by anything else, but that lie at the roots of all chains of explanation. The conflict usually comes to public attention only when particle physicists are trying to get funding for a large new accelerator. Their opponents are exasperated when they hear talk about particle physicists searching for the fundamental laws of nature. They argue that the theories of heat or chaos or complexity or broken symmetry are equally fundamental, because the general principles of these theories do not depend on what kind of particles make up the systems to which they are applied. In return, particle physicists like me point out that, although these free-floating theories are interesting and important, they are not truly fundamental, because they may or may not apply to a given system; to justify applying one of these theories in a given context you have to be able to deduce the axioms of the theory in that context from the really fundamental laws of nature.

    > This debate is unfortunate, for both kinds of science are valuable, and they often have much to teach each other. My own work in elementary particle physics has benefited tremendously from the idea of broken symmetry, which originated in the study of the solid state but turned out to be the key both to understanding reactions involving particles called pi mesons at low energy and to the unification of some of the forces acting on elementary particles. The theory of complexity might also have lessons for elementary particle theory (or vice versa) but it is not likely to be fundamental in the same sense as elementary particle physics.

  52. Miquel Ramirez Says:

    Thanks very much for sharing this beautiful elegy. Makes me sad to see another great figure leave this world, but I am hopeful that his teaching, mentoring and research will sow the seeds of future greatness.

  53. 1Zer0 Says:

    Thanks for writing this, it’s insightful. Back when I was an atheist, I always appreciated Steve’s takes on religion and God.
    I hope one day I will get around to study his relativity books in greater depths. Wasn’t it him who identifies the metric tensor g_µv as the graviton field right away, implicitly assuming quantitized spacetime? It would be consistent with his reductionism.

  54. Omnynoymous Says:

    James Gallagher #47

    I Don’t think you understand just how normalized any of those can be under an entirely secular order just like slavery can be under both a secular and religious one.
    Religion is just one social framework which aims to provide a moral reference frame for the individual. The gospel of personal prosperity or might-makes-right or alternatively of social equality is really no different.

    Please explain me why somebody who outsources their moral judgement to a religious authority gets to be called “doing evil in spite of being a good person” while someone acting according to market incentives and personal opportunities is just a bad person.

  55. Robert Dosseh-Kpotogbey Says:

    In the year 2001, in June of this year, professor Steven Weinberg introduced with me a Hub with : WEINBERG@UTAPHY.PH.UTEXAS.EDU
    He has supported then my idea on black holes topology modification from Hawking radiation.


  56. Scott Says:

    ultimaniacy #49:

      Out of curiosity, what *do* you attribute the remaining statistical disparities to?

    I don’t know, and I defer to the experts to try and figure it out. The one thing that’s clear is that the problem has fully emerged by earlier in the pipeline (the K-12 level or earlier), so any solutions need to be targeted there. Top universities battling each other to snag a few URM candidates, for example, or beating themselves up when they lose them to even higher-ranked universities, does nothing to improve diversity in any “global” sense: it’s just a zero-sum game.

  57. Scott Says:

    Omnynoymous #54:

      Please explain me why somebody who outsources their moral judgement to a religious authority gets to be called “doing evil in spite of being a good person” while someone acting according to market incentives and personal opportunities is just a bad person.

    Ooooh, may I take a crack at that question?

    Greed, lust, and ambition are evolutionary imperatives that precede even the rise of civilization. The unchecked forms of these drives are condemned in almost every major moral code, and even in the stories we tell to children. For that reason, we imagine that someone who openly acts on those drives, at the expense of the people around them, must know on some level that they’ve chosen evil, that they’re even haunted by it at night at least occassionally, but that that’s the choice they made.

    But the committed ideological fanatic (or as a special case, the religious fundamentalist) is a different character entirely, and a more terrifying one. The fanatic can sleep totally peacefully at night, knowing that all the murders, all the expulsions, all the expropriations of property, etc., were in the service of the ultimate Good.

  58. ira Says:


    You have an incredibly human voice when you write. A truly beautiful tribute.

  59. aya Says:

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful remembrances with us. I still have some vague memories of his first physics colloquium at UT. He walked on the stage with a cast on one of his arms and started his talk with something like “Having moved from Boston to Austin, I decided to take up ice skating.”

  60. william e emba Says:

    I support diversity in mathematics: topology, geometry, algebra, analysis, combinatorics, set theory, logic, probability. Also applied.

  61. william e emba Says:

    Although the cancellation of SSC did not lead to massive spending on condensed matter physics, it certainly made room for funding LIGO possible. The first really big money for LIGO was approved the year after SSC was cancelled.

  62. DR Says:

    I just read his 2003 article in Nature, advising young scientists. It is so well-written. In it, he suggests learning the history of science. I have heard some scientists suggest not to do that, as it can curb your free thinking, if you learn how others before you did it. Here is the wonderful page-long article for those who haven’t read it:

  63. jay mancini Says:


    As grad students, we were in awe …..we called him “Stevie Wonder”

  64. Omnynonymous Says:

    Scott #57

    I think you overestimate the amount of sleep lost by successful secular villains, you don’t need religion to do evil in perfectly good faith – some would say it’s even a precondition for long term success in the field.

    The fanatic might not lose much sleep either, but how self-defeating do we have to be as a society in order to validate the later by declaring that not knowing any better makes them fundamentally good – that is actually a key religious doctrine as well as a great way to guarantee that the less competent villains will feel comfortable to seek shelter in ideologies.

  65. flergalwit Says:

    I always took Weinberg’s support of reductionism to be somewhat nuanced, because of the title of his essay “Two Cheers for Reductionism” rather than “three cheers”. I don’t know what reservations, if any, he had though. Maybe I need to re-read the essay carefully.

    Sean Carroll did something similar years later with String Theory instead of reductionism.

  66. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Re: String Theory.

    I recall reading (maybe 10 or 20 years ago?) that in physics about 25% of “something important” (new PhD’s? Faculty hires? Research money?) was in string theory.

    Anyone remember this? Was that ever true? Is it true now? What does anyone make of this?

  67. Stanley Klein Says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    Weinberg had a strong influence on my life in physics.
    Your article was totally awesome and I’ll be spreading it around.

    thanks again

  68. JimV Says:

    Omni-something at #47 said “Please explain me why somebody who outsources their moral judgement to a religious authority gets to be called “doing evil in spite of being a good person”.

    That strikes me as argument by defining something something in a way that supports your contention ​rather than as the other side defines it. Which may or may not be correct, but without support is just an assertion, not a compelling argument. We all, I believe, are born knowing nothing but our evolutionary instincts. If we grow up in a loving family and pleasant community who indoctrinate us with their religious beliefs, quite sincerely, why wouldn’t we believe the moon was made of green cheese (as one of my grandmothers told me, quite convincingly, long ago)? Such people consider they do use their own judgement, but based on things they learned to regard as facts. As do we all.

    Some of us later find contradictions in what we were taught and listen to other points of view. Others do not, for various reasons, including not being very intellectual. Only those who are perfect, including never telling or expecting their own children to believe what they tell them, has the standing to criticize them pejoratively for that, in my opinion.

    Like all brief sayings and analogies, Dr. Weinberg’s statement doesn’t cover all cases, but there is at least a grain of truth in it, I think. Part of what it means “to be good” is to desire a moral universe, which most religions attempt to supply. Which is not to say that every religious person is good, but some want to be.

  69. James Gallagher Says:

    Omnynoymous #54

    Please explain me why somebody who outsources their moral judgement to a religious authority gets to be called “doing evil in spite of being a good person” while someone acting according to market incentives and personal opportunities is just a bad person.

    Because “doing evil” and “being evil” aren’t the same things – I’m surprised Scott allowed your not very deep thoughts on this minor thing to be posted in this thread about Steven Weinberg’s death

  70. Omninonymous Says:

    JimV 68, James Gallagher 69

    That strikes me as argument by defining something something in a way that supports your contention ​rather than as the other side defines it. Which may or may not be correct, but without support is just an assertion, not a compelling argument.

    Well, that is the quote in question and is the reason I took issue with it as it strawmans both religion and human [im]morality and is pretty much the opposite of the depth of thought that Dr. Weinberg is rightly being remembered for.

    Ted Kaszcynsky and Charles Manson were also driven by a desire for a moral universe – mustache-twirling villains only exists in cartoons and the “doing evil” vs “being evil” performative dichotomy is a very religious doctrine – the sinner of your church can be saved, but the heathen is doomed.

  71. fred Says:

    “Steven Weinberg was, perhaps, the last truly towering figure of 20th-century physics.”

    There’s still Roger Penrose (89)!

  72. Scott Says:

    fred #71: Penrose is indeed a towering figure, albeit in a totally incomparable way to Weinberg. Even though he’s now won the Nobel Prize in Physics, Penrose has always thought and wrote like a mathematician (or maybe just an uncategorizable maverick) more than a physicist.

  73. fred Says:

    I was also surprised to find out that both Yang Chen-Ning and Tsung-Dao Lee are still alive (98 and 94).
    They both won the nobel in 1957 for “for their penetrating investigation of the so-called parity laws which has led to important discoveries regarding the elementary particles”

  74. Vijay Vazirani Says:

    Your relationship and reverence for Prof. Weinberg reminds me of my own relationship with Prof. Kenneth Arrow, a Nobelist in econ. Unlike you, I was not in the same institution, so the relationship was different in some respects, but I met him on every trip to the Bay Area, and there were many, because of your former advisor 🙂 Often he would invite me to his home. In 2013, when he was 92, he even accepted my invitation to give a Distinguished Lecture at Georgia Tech — a great honor indeed! I can say without a doubt that his was the strongest intellect I have come across on this planet! Needless to say, I miss him dearly …

  75. Scott Says:

    Vijay Vazirani #74: Thank you for sharing that. Of course I’m a big fan of both Arrow-Debreu and Arrow’s impossibility theorem, and I envy you for having known their (co-)creator.

    In retrospect, Steve was so sharp, clear, and with-it the entire time I knew him, and there was such negligible decline over that time, that no matter what the actuarial tables said, I found it impossible to believe that he wouldn’t keep going strong well into his 90s. I wish I’d known just how little time was left.

  76. Vijay Vazirani Says:

    Arrow was also with-it all the way to the end. His vast memory, intellect, and child-like enthusiasm for something new, were intact all the way into his mid-90s! So much that people half his age would utter words of envy and disbelief as to how he could still “do it”. At the dinner in Atlanta, he consumed more cholesterol than all the rest of us combined — even ordering fried Greek cheese, Kasseri, which was already dripping in cholesterol 🙂

    He was well-known to be a polymath, e.g., see last para in

  77. Vijay Vazirani Says:

    He did not see any boundaries in science. At that late age, he personally commented on and influenced my algorithmic work on market equilibria, even though he was not steeped in the modern theory of algorithms. One of the works exists today entirely because of a comment of his!

  78. Stanley Klein Says:

    These have been totally awesome insights on how Weinberg has affected us, including me. It has given us new knowledge on what humans can do. Thank you, thank you Steven.

  79. inga karliner Says:

    There was another example of discovery following theoretical prediction, in our lifetimes: the discovery of Omega-, the particle built of three strange quarks, with the spin 3/2.

  80. Scott Says:

    inga #79: Right, but that’s a very different kind of discovery, because it’s a composite particle rather than a fundamental one.

  81. Seth Says:

    Speaking as a Christian (don’t worry I will see myself out) I thought this was a wonderfully moving tribute to a departed friend and mentor. I tip my hat to all who are seeking, uncompromisingly, truth.

  82. Inga Karliner Says:

    To Scott: the importance of the discovery was not of the Omega- itself but it verified Gell Mann’s conjecture of the quark model. Even Murray wasn’t sure till then. He submitted and withdrew and resubmitted his quark model paper several times.

  83. Sid Parameswaran Says:

    He won the 1991 Madison Medal, which is awarded to Princeton graduate alumni for exceptional achievement — other physicist winners include Witten, Seitz, Bardeen, and Thorne. The list of winners and a brief (3-4 word) citation is (or at least used to be, c 2010) displayed in the Princeton Graduate College atrium. Weinberg’s citation was quite simply the best: “Unifier of Forces”.

  84. Scott Says:

    Boaz Barak #23: Thanks for that link, which I only now read! I should’ve guessed that the Talmud itself would’ve not only anticipated my little Talmud joke, but also, in true Talmudic fashion, wildly overcomplicated it. 😀

  85. Curious Mayhem Says:

    A fine tribute to one of the last greats of a century of great physicists. You’re lucky to have gotten to know him. I met him only once, at a conference in the 1980s, and spoke with him briefly. My doctoral work was based on his and Salam’s and Glashow’s theory. The story about Feynman is funny and very Feynman-esque (not believing it until he figured it out for himself).

    If there is such a god, Weinberg is undoubtedly arguing now, that it’s “one against one, so the odds are at best even (for the god).” The Talmudic story is based on the Torah being “not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12); that is, it’s here on Earth, and no one needs to ascend to heaven to fetch it.

  86. Anon Says:

    –“I can testify that Steve fully lived his atheism. Four years ago, I invited him (along with many other UT colleagues) to the brit milah of my newborn son Daniel. Steve said he’d be happy to come over our house another time (and I’m happy to say that he did a year later), but not to witness any body parts being cut.”

    Scott, please ignore this comment if this is inappropriate for this commemoration or anyway or if I’ve missed some irony beyond my ken but I nearly fell off my chair when I read this. I’d assumed you would also be a card-carrying atheist and that given

    “Brit Milah means ‘the Covenant of Circumcision ‘. Circumcision makes the boy part of the covenant with Abraham and the Jewish community. It represents a physical commitment to God and to obeying God’s laws.”

    you’d have a similar aversion (which also seems apt given other commentary about religious-inspired acts)

  87. Scott Says:

    Anon #86: I am culturally Jewish.

    I have no moral problem with circumcision—most American boys are circumcised, and it would’ve been done in the hospital if not by a mohel—and I also think it’s nice to have a party for a newborn baby. Combining the party and the circumcision is weird—no two ways about it!—but I don’t think it’s worse than weird, and it made the relative traditionalists in my and Dana’s family happy.

  88. Anon Says:

    Oh, I see, that I did not know – apparently ~80.5% prevalence. Personally I find it slightly unethical if not to the extent of being a “traumatic experience for the infant, as well as a violation of the child’s right to bodily integrity” with all the stated mitigation of health/cultural aspects. I guess this blog really does cover the gamut.

  89. Dan Carney Says:

    Bit late to this—have been putting off reading Weinberg tributes so far since it felt too close to home. We were not close personally, since I knew him when I was a grad student at UT and he was, well, Weinberg. Still, he had an outsized impact on my intellectual life during that formative period and it is still a little hard to process his passing.

    There’s this famous effect where people you idolize (band members, athletes, etc) almost always turn out to be disappointing when you actually meet them. Somehow reputations are often overblown, I guess. I think Weinberg is one of, if not the only, person I’ve known who is not just an exception to this but really an anti-example.

    I have a bunch of good memories but I have a particularly corny one I’d like to share, since you asked and I have no other platform to share something like this. Steve taught a special topics QFT course at some point ~2010 and I went to his office afterward to ask some questions, I think about the vacuum state during inflation. He was in the middle of explaining something and it suddenly started to snow. Obviously this is an anomaly in Austin, so I said “hey, it’s snowing” and he immediately dropped the technical talk, jumped up and shouted “what, really??” (to the extent that a ~77 year old person jumps) and ran over to the window to look. Something about seeing such an infamously hardcore man, especially one who lived in new england for half his life, immediately bail on a conversation about quantum mechanics at the beginning of time to go watch snow fall, has really stuck with me.

  90. John Buttles Says:

    I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about Dr. Weinberg’s passing in national press but glad I heard of it somehow that allowed access to Scott Aronson’s beautiful blog post and the wonderful exchange that is present in these comments. I read the “First 3 Minutes” and not being a physicist and yet aware of his presence at UT (I’m in Dallas), wondered about who Weinberg was. I am now at peace having the answer. Fortune is to Scott for the relationship and to all of us for Weinberg’s place in our cosmos.

  91. fred Says:

  92. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Stephen Wiesner (1942-2021) Says:

    […] have not been an auspicious few weeks for Jewish-American-born theoretical physicists named Steve who made […]

  93. James Protheroe Says:

    I’m grateful to Scott and others for sharing their stories and thoughts about Weinberg — it’s saddening to me that I often get these insights only when the person concerned has died.

    When I read Scott’s remark about Weinberg being a perpetual student, and about his eagerness to learn from the people he spoke to, I was reminded of John Preskill and Brian Greene’s similar observations in their discussion about Weinberg’s life. Greene’s full memorial is available on the World Science Festival website.

  94. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Steven Weinberg walk into an email exchange… Says:

    […] since I posted my obituary for the great Steven Weinberg three months ago, I’ve gotten a steady trickle of emails—all of which I’ve […]

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