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Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology [Hardcover]

Helge Kragh
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Book Description

6 Jan 2011
Throughout history, people have tried to construct 'theories of everything': highly ambitious attempts to understand nature in its totality. This account presents these theories in their historical contexts, from little known hypotheses from the past to modern developments such as the theory of superstrings, the anthropic principle and ideas of many universes, and uses them to problematize the limits of scientific knowledge. Do claims to theories of everything belong to science at all? Which are the epistemic standards on which an alleged scientific theory of the universe - or the multiverse - is to be judged? Such questions are currently being discussed by physicists and cosmologists, but rarely within a historical perspective. This book argues that these questions have a history and that knowledge of the historical development of 'higher speculations' may inform and qualify the current debate of the nature and limits of scientific explanation.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (6 Jan 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199599882
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199599882
  • Product Dimensions: 2.8 x 17.1 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,217,868 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


Helge Kragh is one of our best historians of physics, and the author of several outstanding books. The idea of a history of highly speculative theories in physics is excellent. Although there are popular accounts of recent cosmological and grand-unifying theories, no historian has so far attempted to bring together old and new cases of such theories. The result makes fascinating reading and induces thought-provoking comparisons. (Olivier Darrigol, CNRS: Sphere/Rehseis)

About the Author

After graduation from the University of Copenhagen in Physics and Chemistry, and a period as teacher in gymnasium schools, Helge Kragh became Associate Professor at Cornell University, Departments of History and Physics. Later, he took positions as Curator at the Steno Museum for Science and Medicine and Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oslo, Norway. Since 1997, he has been Professor of the History of Science and Technology, University of Aarhus, Denmark. He is a Member of the Royal Danish Academy of Science, the International Academy for the History of Science, and of the European Academy of Science. He was President of the European Society for the History of Science (2008-2010).

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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Proponents of CAGW should read this 29 Feb 2012
If only catastrophic anthropogenic global warming fans and assorted $cientist$ read this before they started spending billions trying to destroy western civilisation as we know it.
Mannian maths and Gleick ethic classes aside..this is an excellent book and really worth the time to be read carefully.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous philosophy of physics book 23 Sep 2011
By J. Jenkins - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'm shocked no one else has reviewed this book. I believe I heard of it through P. Woit's blog about particle physics, he wrote the infamous anti-string tome 'Not Even Wrong'. The book is written by a philosopher but the understanding and lucidity of his analysis is extremely rewarding to any scientifically educated individual. Each chapter discusses a possible 'theory of everything' starting with the 19th century and moving forward, dealing mostly with 20th century potential grand unified theorems. In this respect most of the book reads as a (recent) history of physics work. For ex. he discusses the 'bootstrap' idea of the 60s for unifying the nuclear forces, which fell through when the quark theory gained ground, from the point of view of the time when it appeared: to those scientists working on it at the time, it could very well have turned to be the 'correct' unifying theory, unfortunately now with hindsight it obviously wasn't meant to be. What are some of the characteristics of these failed theories? The tendency for the people working on it to consider one simple idea the basis for an entire universe-view, the quasi-religious fervour they bring to their theories, the divorce from actual evidence and experiment. So the lesson for our current theories, e.g. strings, loop quantum physics, is obvious. Some of the older theories which were abandoned had just as intense a following as string theory does today. Is it even possible to arrive at a 'universal theory' which explains everything from particle physics to cosmology? Despite the faith of physicists, most people who are non-physicists are very very doubtful. It seems rather to be a peculiarity of the human mind that one wishes to oversimplify and reduce all of reality into a simple (or at least all-encompassing) idea. Note that the author does not get very deeply into the actual philosophical issue of whether it is even possible to reduce the universe into one theory (other books such as 'the limits of science' or Barrow's Impossibility deal with this very well). With regards to this he seems to be unconvinced one way or another though the historical lesson adds up very clearly to an answer in the negative.

This is a book I will definitely have to read again soon, within the year, since it is so dense with ideas and facts of interest to any scientifically educated individual or philosophically minded one.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a thorough survey 25 Oct 2011
By Gary R. Miller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is a remarkable amount of documentation here. The material is not overly popularized (dumbed-down). We get glimpses of the author's opinion but the tone is quite fair, almost objective. This is a survey which actually teaches and clarifies.
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