Such Matters as the Soul

Dmitri Levitin

  • The Invention of Science: a New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton
    Penguin, 784 pp, £12.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 14 104083 7

On 11 February, David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) in the US, announced that his team of almost a thousand scientists had detected evidence of gravitational waves emanating from a pair of black holes 1.3 billion light years from Earth. It was empirical confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The observation required astonishing technical precision: the 4 km-long arms of each of the two branches of Ligo, three thousand miles apart in Louisiana and Washington, were altered by just one ten-thousandth of the width of a proton, proportionally equivalent to changing the distance to our nearest star by a hair’s width. The announcement was greeted with a sense of wonder at human ingenuity, even by those who neither understood the physics involved, nor why the result was so important.

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[1] There is an excellent overview of such developments in La Technologie gréco-romaine, edited by Philippe Fleury, Catherine Jacquemard and Sophie Madeleine (Caen, 2015).

[2] Wootton has previously dismissed all pre-19th century medicine as pseudo-knowledge because it failed in its central aim of curing people. Steven Shapin reviewed Wootton’s Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates in the LRB of 30 November 2006.