Letter from the Chair

Science is Not Simply a Matter of Faith

By Bill Evenson, Forum Chair

A few days after Thanksgiving, Paul Davies, physicist and writer on science and religion, published an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, “Taking Science on Faith.” His thesis was that, at its base, “science has its own faith-based belief system.” Davies argues that science is built on “an unexplained set of physical laws” and draws a parallel to religion’s faith in “an unexplained God.”

The central issue here is that all human knowledge is uncertain and incomplete. Without certainty, some would say, every enterprise is founded on faith of some kind. However, I have three caveats relevant to history of physics. First, not all uncertainty is created equal; there are degrees of certainty, depending on the strength of reasonable grounds for our beliefs. (Rational degrees of certainty or belief were starting points for the probability theories of Laplace, R. T. Cox, E. T. Jaynes, and others.) Second, science has widely accepted strategies for producing and evaluating evidence that provides firm grounds for scientific beliefs. Finally, science works; it produces reliable knowledge with demonstrable effects.

History of physics works to clarify all these issues: the grounds for our scientific beliefs, the strategies that produce reliable (even though not certain) knowledge, and the extent of the reliable knowledge produced by science. The insights of historians of physics have illuminated the methods, foundations, and products of science. They have shown where the greatest uncertainties remain, and how interesting and complex questions have been resolved. While I recognize both the power and comfort religious faith brings to humanity, I reject the parallels between religious faith and scientific beliefs in the context of uncertainty— parallels that are espoused by Davies and many hopeful believers. Both the nature and degree of the “faith” that lies at the foundation of these approaches to understanding the world are qualitatively different for religion and science. Anyone who takes comfort in characterizing science as “only” a matter of faith should read physics history more deeply, and the perspective provided by this history should be an essential part of science education.

The Forum supports a strong role for the history of physics in the physics community. It will continue to encourage physics historians, provide a venue for discussing their work, and involve practicing physicists in that discussion.

I wish to congratulate the Forum Program Committee on plans for history programs at the March (New Orleans) and April (St. Louis) APS Meetings. Chair-Elect David Cassidy and Vice Chair Gloria Lubkin and their committees have organized these fine programs. Elsewhere in this newsletter (on p. 3), you will find specifics of the excellent sessions planned for these meetings. In addition to the invited symposia organized by the Forum, we continue to have stimulating contributed sessions at both meetings. I hope you can attend one or both of these meetings.

Quick Reminders: Please consider making a donation in honor of a significant colleague who has passed on. Such donations can either support students presenting contributed history talks or sponsor an invited lecture at one of the APS meetings. The donors can choose who (among deceased physicists) is to be honored, and the Forum Program Committee will select the speaker. Contact me or any other Forum officer if you wish to make such a donation.

The Forum Executive Committee is currently seeking an Associate Editor for the History of Physics Newsletter, to be appointed in time to work with the current Editor, Michael Riordan, and take over as Editor for the Fall issue 2009. Please contact me at bill@evenson.ch if you are interested in this possibility or wish to suggest a colleague.

Remember to send a short record of the work of retiring scientists (yourself or colleagues) to the Center for History of Physics, as explained by Virginia Trimble in the February 2007 issue of this newsletter. Likewise, continue to send department histories to the Center for History of Physics and JDJackson@lbl.gov.

Finally, please nominate your deserving colleagues with accomplishments in history of physics for APS Fellowship (more details on p. 4).

Final Remarks: My greatest pleasure during my term as Forum Chair has been working with physicists and historians to put together the history symposia that have come to play such an important role at the national APS meetings. Working to organize the large and non-standard-format session that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity at the 2007 March Meeting was both challenging and satisfying.

I am proud of having helped improve the structure of our future Program Committees, which should further strengthen the history symposia offered each year. The physics community, including physics history, is like no other for me, giving both social and intellectual satisfactions.