I have watched "Contact" several times and was watching it again the other day. Carl Sagan got a lot of things right in it, including the truth that even scientists have "faith" in matters disconnected with science. But one of the key parts of the film hasn't aged well for me.
I was quite saddened to hear about the passing of Steven Weinberg, perhaps the dominant living figure from the golden age of particle physics. I was especially saddened since he seemed to be doing fine, as indicated by a lecture he gave at the Texas Science Festival this March. I think many of us thought that he was going to be around for at least a few more years.
Weinberg was one of a select few individuals who transformed our understanding of elementary particles and cemented the creation of the Standard Model (he coined the name), in his case by unifying the electromagnetic and weak forces; for this he shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Lee Glashow. His 1967 paper which heralded the unification, "A Model of Leptons", was only 3 pages long and remains one of the most highly cited articles in physics history.
But what made Weinberg special was that he was not only one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of the 20th century but also a pedagogical master with few peers. His many technical textbooks, especially his 3-volume "Quantum Theory of Fields", have educated a generation of physicists; meanwhile, his essays in the New York Times Book Review and other avenues and collections of articles published as popular books have educated the lay public about the mysteries of physics. But in his popular books Weinberg also revealed himself to be a real Renaissance Man, writing not just about physics but about religion, politics, philosophy, history including the history of science, opera and literature. He was also known for his political advocacy of science. Among scientists of his generation, only Freeman Dyson had that kind of range.
There have been some great tributes to him, and I would point especially to the ones by Scott Aaronson and Robert McNees, both of whom interacted with Weinberg as colleagues. The tribute by Scott especially shows the kind of independent streak that Weinberg had, never content to go with the mainstream and always seeking orthogonal viewpoints and original thoughts. In that he very much reminded me of Dyson; the two were in fact friends and served together on the government advisory group JASON, and my conversation with Weinberg which I describe below ended with him asking me to give my regards to Freeman, who I was meeting in a few weeks.
I had the good fortune of interacting with Steve on two occasions, both rewarding. The first time I had the opportunity to be with him on a Canadian television panel on the challenges of Big Science. You can see the discussion here:
The next time was a few years later when I contacted him about a project and asked whether he had some thoughts to share about it. Steve didn't know me personally (although he did remember the Big Science panel) and was even then very busy with writing and other projects. In addition, the project wasn't something close to his immediate interests, so I was surprised when not only did he respond right away but asked me to call him at 10 AM on a Sunday and spoke generously for more than an hour. I still have the recording.
Steve was a great physicist, a gentleman and a Renaissance Man, a true original. We are unlikely to see the likes of him for a long time.
One of the reasons I feel particularly wistful with his passing is because he was among the last of the creators of modern particle physics. He worked in an enormously fruitful time in which theory went hand in hand with experiment. This is different from the last twenty years in which fundamental physics and especially string theory have been struggling to make experimental connections. In cosmology however, there have been very exciting developments, and Weinberg who devoted his last few decades to the topic was certainly very interested in these. Hopefully fundamental physics can become as involved with the productive interplay of theory and experiment as cosmology and condensed matter physics are, and hopefully we can again resurrect the golden era of science in which Steven Weinberg played such a commanding role.