Steven Weinberg is dead, at the age of 88. He was a leading intellectual leader in physics during the second half of the 20th century, and remained a leading voice, active collaborator and teacher during the first two decades of the 21st century.
In the lists of the greats of his time he was always mentioned along with Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann and… well, just Feynman and Gell-Mann. Among his colleagues, Weinberg was one of the figures more respected than all physics or perhaps all science.
He exuded intelligence and dignity. When news of his death spread on Twitter, other physicists expressed their remorse for the loss: “One of the most skilled scientists of our time”, they commented, “A particularly eloquent spokesperson for the scientific world view”. It’s still: “One of the best physicists we’ve had, one of the best thinkers of any kind.”
The Weinberg Nobel Prize, awarded in 1979, it was for his role in developing a theory that would combine electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. That was an essential contribution to what became known as the standard model of physics, a masterpiece of explanation of phenomena rooted in mathematics which describe subatomic particles and forces.
It is so effective in explaining the experimental results that physicists have long pursued every opportunity to find the slightest deviation, hoping to identify a “new” physics that further deepens human understanding of nature.
Steven Weinberg has also done important technical work in other areas of physics and has written several authoritative textbooks on topics such as general relativity, cosmology and quantum field theory. He was an early supporter of the superstring theory as a promising path in the ongoing quest to complete the standard model by unifying it with general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity.
At first, Weinberg also realized the desire to communicate more broadly. His popular book The First Three Minutes, published in 1977, introduced a generation of physicists and physics enthusiasts at the Big Bang, the birth of the universe and the fundamental science behind that metaphor.
He later wrote deeply insightful examinations on the nature of science and its intersection with society. And he’s been a longtime contributor to thoughtful essays in places like the New York Review of Books.