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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Seems fair to me, 9 April 2009
This review is from: The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science and What Comes Next (Paperback)
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!
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Location: Cumbria, United Kingdom

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