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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book Review: The Trouble With Physics


BookThe Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of Science, and What Comes Next, by Lee Smolin (2006). (Amazon link here).

Overview: The author presents a critique of physics and the modern scientific establishment vis-a-vis  the adoption and prevalence of string theory, while providing a history of the rise of string theory, and some ideas as to future developments in quantum physics.

Impression: While the book is, to a certain extent, a book about string theory and quantum physics, providing a brief history of string theory and an overview of the current status, it is really more of a criticism of how scientists, universities, and large funding organizations select and promote some science over others. Thus, it as much a book of the sociology and culture of science, as much as a book about science. In that regard, it stands out from the "run of the mill" layman's book on science. The author makes good points, but seems to stop just short of actually admitting that science has been politicized. It is a good read, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the process of how scientists decide what is valid or "settled" science (and thus, receive funding) and what is not; as well as to anyone interested in a criticism of string theory.

Notable Points: The purpose of the book is not to bash string theory. Rather, the purpose of the book is to explore why, for over three decades, there has been little or no actual advances on answering fundamental questions of physics. In exploring why this was so, the author comes to the conclusion that science--at least particle and theoretical physics--has become politicized and dogmatic, but many cannot see or acknowledge this fact. While social scientists have argued that physical science is subject to the same foibles as any other human endeavor, the physical scientists have demurred, arguing:
... that our community [is] different because we governed ourselves according to high standards--standards that prevented us from embracing any theory until it had been proved, by means of published calculations and experimental data, beyond the doubt of a competent profession.
However, at least as to string theory, it has not. The author spends a great deal of the first half of the book describing problems with string theory, from its almost infinite number of "flavors," to its inability to incorporate and fit into the general theory of relativity, and lack of experimental proof. The author notes that "[d]espite the absence of experimental support and precise formulation, the theory is believed by some of its adherents with a certainty that seems emotional rather than rational." As the author goes on to explain this observation, what emerges is a society of "scientists" to which string theory has become a religion or dogma, and are intolerant of dissent.

To make matters worse, string theory has metastasized. The author notes that almost all university professorships in particle physics have gone to adherents of string theory. He notes:
String theory now has such a dominant position in the academy that it is practically career suicide for young theoretical physicists not to join the field. Even in areas where string theory makes no predictions, like cosmology and particle phenomenology, it is common for researchers to begin talks and papers by asserting a belief that their work will be derivable from string theory in the future.
And as the author describes how careers are made, and grants tendered, it becomes clear why. Having achieved preeminence in the hierarchy, string theorists have power over who is hired, and who received funding. And they will not hire non-string theorists, or approve funding for competing theories. Thus, the problem with string theory is not that the theory is necessarily wrong (although it probably is not correct in its current vague form), but that it has won out over competing ideas not on the merits but through superior politicking. 

The other issue the author explores is why there are no ground breaking thinkers like Einstein and Bohr. The answer, he asserts, is that there are two different types of scientists--normal scientists (the day-to-day technicians) and the visionaries (who may not actually be as technically proficients as their colleagues) but that the current system only rewards and encourages the "normal scientists," while it actively discourages the visionaries.

The author does paint some hope by advancements being made outside theoretical physics, and in particular, quantum computing. Because quantum computing requires actual progress, there is more support for outside ideas. 

My belief is that this is a problem for many areas outside of theoretical and particle physics. It reminds me of the years of hostility directed at archeologists that dared publish results of early human settlement in South America. It reminds me, also, of global warming, where the popular, fashionable idea (global warming) has attempted to crush all opposition, even to the extent of censoring what scientists and topics are published, to faking evidence.

On even a broader scale, however, how tolerant and open can scholars be when they are so discriminatory and exclusionary when it comes to politics. (See also here).

(Note: I don't receive anything for endorsing this book; nor for reference to Amazon.com. The link is for your convenience only).

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