Convergence: The Idea at the Heart of Science
By Peter Watson
Simon & Schuster, 491 pp., $35.00
February 21, 2017
Around the year 1850, James Joule would build on the work of previous scientists and publish a paper arguing for the equivalence of work and heat, that is mechanical energy can become heat, but the total energy of the system never changes. Not long after that, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and completely changed the world.
Peter Watson argues, in Convergence, that these discoveries fundamentally altered the nature of science and initiated scientists into an era where discoveries increasingly unified various scientific disciplines. Although the law of conservation of energy is primarily a concept found in physics, it does bring together thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and mechanics as well as being an important tool in chemistry. Evolution relied upon biology, zoology, and geology to make its case. As the years passed, more and more scientific theories crossed the lines dividing disciplines. Later, Neils Bohr relied on physics to develop an early model of the atom, but the periodic table of elements which resulted became enormously important to chemists. The examples go on and on. Currently, physicists are trying to unify the various theories governing forces in the universe.
Watson gets it right that that knowledge converges together in a reinforcing lattice. But, that is hardly an incredible insight. Life itself is synthesis. We use models to approximate real life in making predictions. The more abstract, the more phenomena that can be explained, and the more useful the model. Watson himself is a journalist and historian, not a scientist. So, in some ways, he can be forgiven for using misleading or even inaccurate language. As an example, Watson writes, “If you increase your speed in a car from 20 mph to 80 mph you quadruple the speed, but it will take you sixteen times as long to stop. So far as momentum is concerned, the ‘square’ value is central.” Except it’s not. Classical momentum is mass multiplied by velocity and relativistic momentum is also proportional to velocity, not the square of it. What Watson is actually describing is work, or a change in kinetic energy, being proportional to the square of velocity.
It may be an overly critical commentary on the book, but a little more assistance from an academic scientist could have tightened passages like this and made the book more palatable for professional and academic scientists.
As it is, Watson is correct in his basic take on the synthesis of the sciences and for most people looking for an entertaining overview of modern science, they will find the book a good read.