The Trouble with Physics : The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next Paperback
by Lee Smolin
"The Trouble with Physics" is a groundbreaking account of the state of modern physics: of how we got from Einstein and Relativity through quantum mechanics to the strange and bizarre predictions of string theory, full of unseen dimensions and multiple universes.
Lee Smolin not only provides a brilliant layman's overview of current research as we attempt to build a 'theory of everything', but also questions many of the assumptions that lie behind string theory.
In doing so, he describes some of the daring, outlandish ideas that will propel research in years to come.
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 416 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
- Publication Date: 28/02/2008
- Category: Popular science
- ISBN: 9780141018355
Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.
Review by ElectricRay
If only more scientists wrote for popular audiences with the humility Lee Smolin does. Whilst it occasionally gets bogged down in the detail of its own material - there are more minutiae on particle physics here than most people will care for in a bedtime read - Lee Smolin's major points are clearly made and they ring like a bell. In some ways this is a work of popular philosophy of science, not popular science itself: Smolin approaches his subject through the prism of the failings of string theory to coagulate over the last thirty years, but only in the loosest sense is this an attempt to prove string theory wrong and his own favoured research programme, quantum loop gravity, right. For one thing, he accepts from the outset that there are significant issues with his own programme. Smolin's concern is more around the practice of modern physics; how the gradual disappearance of anything resembling testable empirical evidence has given way to ever more theoretical modelling which in turn has led to hypotheses of increasingly incredible (literally, that is) implications. For any variety of string theory to work (it is more of a cluster of similar possible theories, rather than a discrete theory as such) the mathematics require something like *eleven* spatial dimensions, some of which, it is variously hypothesised, must be so small as to be conceptually unobservable (the image we are invited to consider is dimensions which curl up into little donuts smaller than an atomic particle across), or which appear to require an infinity of alternative universes - a "multiverse" if you will - into which these dimensions can be projected. (I may well have not understood or expressed this perfectly: the important point is that the theory must account for the absence of any physical evidence for the extra dimensions: solution - they're invisible, of course!) Smolin's concern is not just that these are outlandish and faintly ridiculous consequences - though they surely seem to be - but precisely that they are systematically untestable. *By definition* there is no means to measure spatial dimensions smaller than the smallest subatomic particles. *by definition* we cannot see or measure physical effects occurring outside our own universe. These are not just difficult to say with a straight face, Smolin argues, but by any commonly understood sense of the term they're altogether unscientific: logically closed, untestable, unfalsifiable, unreliant on any kind of inductively gathered argument. Precisely the sort of arguments, in other words, that give religious cosmologies a bad name: utterly verboten, you would think in the enlightened mead-hall of the physical sciences. (Yet, and without apparent irony, biologist Richard Dawkins makes favourable reference to the "multiverse" theory in his recent book The God Delusion!) Smolin argues that this uneasy development collides head-on with some uncomfortable realities about the sociological aspects of the practice of science. Again, Smolin is persuasive here (though in my case preaching to the choir) in citing favourably the late, anarchic, philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, whose general message is that for scientific methodology anything goes, and all theories have a role to play for the good of the "development of knowledge", and that determined insistence on an existing accepted theory for framing ongoing research hardens quickly and dangerously into dogma: you need the vistas that different theories offer, says Feyerabend, or they are "as useless as a medicine that heals a patient only if he is bacteria-free". For his trouble, Smolin is duly criticised for exhibiting "postmodernist" or "relativist" tendencies, and while I don't think this *is* a criticism myself, it is in any case unfairly awarded, since Smolin avowedly retains a belief in the possibility of objective truth, and promises to (but in the end doesn't really) take issue with the work of the most celebrated "postmodernist" philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. (I'm a fan of Kuhn's so I was looking forward to the challenge, and was a bit disappointed to find it didn't materialise). Practically, Smolin feels that String Theory is now a "paradigm in crisis". Certainly, the theoretical tail seems to be wagging the practical dog. It is difficult to see what practical utility a theory has which postulates invisible dimensions and which doesn't seem to point with any clarity to a possible solution at all, let alone one with the elegance of a f = ma or e = mc2. I suspect this book will annoy the hard-core science-is-truth crowd, but anyone with a more open mind will find a valuable perspective here.
Review by eihek
I have only read half of this book so far, but I can already recommend it highly. The author starts of by describing the sorry state of contemporary Physics - basically the fact that following a period of 200 years of regular ground-breaking developments, no really significant development has been made for the last 30 years - and draws lessons from history about the importance of experiment and falsifiability for scientific progress. Then he goes on to paint a rather pessimistic picture of string theory in this respect. I suppose he will present details of his preferred alternative, some variety of quantum gravity, in the second half of the book...
Review by comixminx
Hard work, especially in the middle sections where there is lots and lots of string theory, loop quantum gravity, and what-all-else. The end section on the sociology of physics and how, sociologically speaking, the business of academic science is not working very well at the moment, is very interesting though.<br/><br/>I have come out of it with only a pretty vague awareness of string theory but a rather more definite sense of what's wrong with contemporary science as it is actually practiced in the academy. Feeds interestingly into undergraduate study done years ago on philosophy of science.