20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 16 December 2008
Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin notes, "One question that has bedeviled the [quantum] theory from the beginning is the question of the relationship between reality and the formalism", that is, between the real material world and our ideas about it. Smolin backs materialism against idealism, writing, "It cannot be that reality depends on our existence."
He attacks the idea that it is 'as though the universe had been designed to accommodate us'. The universe has evolved in a way that has produced the conditions that make our lives possible. This does not mean that it was designed, still less that it was designed for us.
Smolin tells the story of how the American physicist Freeman Dyson in 1947 read Einstein's efforts to construct a unified-field theory and decided that they were junk. Unfortunately he didn't have the nerve to tell Einstein this - but he should have done, because it might have helped Einstein to do better.
Currently, string theory is the leading paradigm in physics. But its research programme has found no grounding in experimental results or mathematical formulation. As one of its pioneers, Daniel Friedan, later wrote, "String theory cannot give any definite explanations of existing knowledge of the real world and cannot make any definite predictions. The reliability of string theory cannot be evaluated, much less established. String theory has no credibility as a candidate theory of physics." Smolin writes, "the existence of a population of other universes is a hypothesis that cannot be confirmed by direct observation; hence, it cannot be used in an explanatory fashion."
Fortunately, there are approaches other than string theory, new theoretical and experimental developments, like doubly special relativity, which claims that in the early universe the speed of light was faster.
Smolin argues that there was continual progress in physics between 1780 and 1980, but none since. University physics departments have become dominated by conventional research programmes, threatening both academic freedom and progress. Original minds are dismissed as 'too intellectually independent'.
He argues that physics needs a revolution questioning the basic assumptions of relativity, quantum theory and the foundations of space and time. He ends by urging young people never to let others do their thinking for them.
104 of 107 people found the following review helpful
on 28 February 2007
Lee Smolin is one of those rare physicists who writes a good story about his subject. He is also unusual because he works in an unfashionable area of physics, dauntingly known as "loop quantum gravity," and has avoided jumping on the string bandwagon. Most physicists today think that string theory is the ultimate "theory of everything," and Smolin claims that it is hard to get taken seriously if you don't ride this bandwagon. But he also thinks it is being ridden up a dead end, and that physics has made a fundamental wrong turning.
There's no sour grapes in any of this. He just wants people to be more open minded anbd look at other possibilities, not necessarily loop quantum gravity. And he does a brilliant job of explaining string theory itself. I particularly like his discussion of how there are an infinite number of solutions to the single theory of general relativity, and the infinite number of string "theories" ought really to be regarded as solutions to a single underlying theory we have not yet discovered.
But there's as much sociology as science in the book, and Smolin gloomily confesses that he can't see any reason why "an intellectually ambitious young person with an original and impatient mind" would want to be "limited to working in any of the current research programmes." If anything can inspire such people and get their imagination working "outside the box" this is the book to do it.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 28 June 2011
Smolin's effort is outstanding. He managed to write an excellent book. Contemporary physics is explained in a simple but brilliant way. I also read Brian Greene's books and I think that Smolin has the same capacity of making difficult concepts clear to the large audience, but in contrast to that, Smolin also tackles the much more challenging task of understanding what's wrong with today's science. I totally disagree with the comments of people who didn't enjoy the final part, I actually think it's what makes this book so good, deep and unique. Smolin makes a genuine, non ideological effort to understand why science today is not making any significant progress, he gives a very interesting epistemological definition of what science is and how it should work, and makes a brilliant analysis of the world of academics, whose mechanism can be better explained with sociology than in any other way. Smolin also helps the reader to understand what happened historically, how the transition took place from Einstein's rigorous style of doing physics, till to the contemporary transformation of science into a dogmatic, religious community. The world of academics resembles more and more to a clan in the hands of powerful, established professors, and therefore any attempt to bring innovation is made much more difficult than what it should be. Science has become a matter of power, fashion, economical survival, so can we still call it science? Shouldn't we be worried of what's going on? The critic towards string theory take a significant part of the book but fits within this frame rather than being a critic to the theory itself. I think Smolin couldn't be more objective on that, and he certainly masters the topic like nobody else. A long-awaited-for book, absolutely a must for those who care about the future of science.
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on 8 May 2008
I am a eighteen year old about to embark (hopefully!) on a degree in theoretical physics. I found this book very refreshing as it addresses the fact that it is becoming impossible to distingush the legimately scientific and the plain crazy in scientific journals today. Smolin addresses some key issues that I have been having trouble with since embarking on my wider reading around the subject.
This book is articulate and the arguements are compelling, it is definitely worth reading for anyone with even a mild interest in physics.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I have been acquainted with Lee Smolin's work primarily through his contribution to the research in loop quantum gravity. This is a less well known approach to quantum gravity, and the most serious rival to string theory, the primary subject matter of "The Trouble with Physics". Even though I am not a big fan of String Theory, to say the least, I am also rather sceptical about all the other current approaches to the problem of quantum gravity, so I was a bit reluctant to read this book as I was not sure of how much valuable critique wasSmolin able to provide. My unfortunate prejudice was quickly put to rest, and this book proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises in the genre of popular advanced physics in a long while.Smolin is a great writer, both in terms of style and content, and he is able to engage the reader even thorough some of the more arcane topics in the modern theoretical physics. He does not waste too much time on the history of the subject, and one may want to find a more throughout introduction somewhere else. However, he gives an exciting first-person view of the developments in high-energy theoretical physics over the last few decades, and even those of us who are rather familiar with most of the major events and players are will findSmolin's account of interesting and fresh. Smolin's critique of the String Theory comes across as eminently well-founded and fair, especially when one takes into the account the fact that he's published numerous scientific articles in this field. Even though the title and the general tenor of this book is negative, the books overflows with optimism and excitement about Physics, and one can only hope that all the trouble that Physics has found itself lately in will be over before too long. In the meantime, we need more books and articles like "The Trouble with Physics".
Although many of the topics in the book are rather advanced, the approach is fairly accessible and anyone with some basic knowledge of Modern Physics would benefit from reading this book. I would particularly recommend this book to people who are interested in pursuing high energy theoretical physics as their career, since it provides some sobering statistics about academic and funding prospects.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 4 June 2008
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.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 26 August 2008
This is a book of two parts. The first, and thankfully larger, part deals with an examination of the scientific discipline of physics and its ultimate goal of unification. Smolin gives a well constructed overview of the workings of science and particularly that of physics over the centuries, but pays particular regard to that which has happened since Einstein's phenomenal contribution, through to 21st century theories of quantum gravity.
The main focus of this book is in arguing that physics (in particular, but perhaps science in general) has, to an extent lost its way in recent decades; he does this by comparing the rapid advancement of early 20th century physics with its important discoveries of relativity, spacetime, wave-particle duality, quantum mechanics and the Big Bang, against the relative hiatus of the last 30 years. He argues that science throughout the ages has matched theory to experiment but that with the advent of string theory the experimental evidence has not been forthcoming. What is more of an issue is that, even given the fact that string theory has not made a single new testable prediction, it has nevertheless attracted a substantial proportion of new scientists and university research budgets. Although this issue is addressed throughout the book the latter few chapters is devoted almost entirely to it, and whilst these are somewhat interesting, unless you're a university employed scientist involved in (or the recipient of) research budgets you may find these chapters a little tedious. Also Smolin works in the US and mainly talks about the US string theory press gangs, whilst this is obviously an issue globally I'm not in academia and so I'm not sure to what extent this is replicated in universities around the world.
On the whole this is an informative read highlighting upto date and alternative (to string theory) theories of quantum gravity; each chapter is accompanied by a comprehensive reference section of related material much of which makes very interesting additional reading. If you're an undergraduate physics student (especially one hoping to go into ToE/quantum gravity research) then this is definitely worth a read, at the very least it might encourage you to have the courage to go against the string theory grain.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 4 June 2008
Don't be put off - this book is definitely worth reading as a review of modern physics, whether or not you are a proponent of string theory, and is well written, and easy to read. It assumes some knowledge of physics on the part of the reader.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 9 April 2009
Let me admit first to being a layman. Scientifically trained (biochemistry), yet not, by any stretch of the imagination, a physicist. Yet such is my interest in the subject I have read, as best I can, a fair few popular books on modern physics and cosmology. But the more I read, the more disquiet I feel.
Being neither a physicist nor a mathematician I cannot critique the scientific substance of Smolin's account of the state of modern physics, but it does have a resonance with me. Smolin confirms my suspicions at a gut rather than an intellectual level. Perhaps that's why I warm to his thesis.
Let me put my own perceptions in plain english. I am constantly reading that the "final solution", the key to everything, a Grand Unified Theory, is just around the corner. We creep ever closer to it! We are on the verge of understanding the very nature of reality ... yet the drums keep rolling and the star of the show fails to materialise. Ah, but physics is stranger than we thought, we are told. Fine, I get that, but it keeps getting stranger and stranger! (Perhaps, I am even left wondering, it is so unimaginably strange that homo sapiens simply does not have the intellectual span to grasp it all?)
The central snag about this 'on the verge of a new understanding' claim, it seems from my perspective as an interested onlooker, is that every time 'we' (by which I mean 'physicists') turn a corner, come up with a new theory to explain 'reality', we then need a plethora of sub-theories hanging on their coat tails to make it all hang together. In turn, each of those sub-theories fails to work unless we introduce, in turn, yet more mind-bending mathematical kludges and patches to hold them together. (Ah, but that only works if there are 11 dimensions, or that only works if we introduce some mysterious force that no-one has ever actually observed, or that only holds true if we postulate an in-out-in-out-shake-it-all-about quark with nine spinning virtual lepton partners one of which comprises anti-matter and the rest quasi-antimatter). The whole cosmological show is starting to feel like a bizarre opera with an ever increasing, not decreasing, cast of wierd characters. I find myself thinking we are a long way from the bottom of things (and If I beleived in God I might also believe he was having a laugh at our expense).
Yes, the mathematics behind these theories has an astonishing elegance (or so I'm told). But so what! My scientific background compels me to wonder where's the physical evidence that this really is 'reality'? Without that evidence, and I don't expect much will emerge from our present or future hadron colliders, even after they're mended, most of what we have is conjecture. Convincing(?), compelling and endowed with a strange beauty, yet conjecture just the same.
Before Smolin, I had read 'Parallel Worlds: The Science of Alternative Universes and Our Future in the Cosmos' by Michio Kaku. To be frank, I enjoyed the book. Not because I found it compelling, but because it made me smile. The humour arose from the fact that as the book progressed I found myself thinking, surely he can't be serious. Any moment now, I thought, he'll admit he's just larking around. Yet he continued to write in a way that implied he believed what he was saying. He was, after all, deadly serious. That made me smile. It was as though I was listening to some nutty professor, immensely likeable, but barking mad. He started with his feet on the ground, seemed normal, and then, unable to help himself, went wandering off into intellectual hyperspace, totally uanaware of his surroundings. Gesturing wildly, he began conjecturing purple spinning leprechauns held in space by golden threads woven by massive turtles (or so the mathematics predicted).
Was I simply unable to enter Kaku's hallowed realms because my knowledge of maths was so paltry, or had he become, I began to strongly suspect, so immersed in the paradigms of theoretical physics, so hypnotised by those mathematical syrens dancing before his eyes, so institutionalised by his membership of the physics academic community, that reality, even sanity, was actually eluding him.
I think, obviously in a less florid way, and with a good deal more in the way of intellectual credibility, this is fundamentally what Smolin is also suspecting (not specifically about Michio Kaku, I would hasten to add, but about the physics community in general). For that reason I liked his book.
Though seasoned physicists may well criticise Smolin's stance, his motives and even his credibility, I can't help admiring iconoclasts like Smolin who point out what I also feel at a gut level; that the emperor may have no clothes, or, if he does, they are not 'real' in the sense that most of us would understand, but notional clothes woven from a mathematical thread that none but a tiny fraction of humanity is capable of 'seeing', fewer still of understanding, and for which very little empirical evidence exists.
Yep, I liked this book!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 10 November 2010
This is a fascinating insight into the world of theoretical physics from an acknowledged authority. The majority of the book is a thoroughly enjoyable tour of ideas that occupy the minds of theoretical physicists. The book is very well written and the author draws the non-specialist into his world such that the concepts can be appreciated without the mathematical skill required for a deep understooding. The narrative is frequently punctuated with humour and I found the anecdote recorded near the bottom of page 245 hilarious. The concluding part of the book focuses on the politics of science. The author argues that new post-docs are faced with a stark choice of securing a tenured position in mainstream theoretical physics (String Theory) or risk financial hardship pursuing something new. From these pages the author emerges as a man of integrity and considerable courage. Highly recommended.