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on 7 September 2015
I could hardly stop reading it. A layman's guide to some key underlying questions of physics, it explains how the structure of the scientific establishment is hindering discovery, because of groupthink.
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on 26 April 2009
This is a brave observation of the sad state that physics has got itself into. It is enlightening to have a theoretical physicist (ie a mathematician) admitting that something went wrong.

When I was a physics undergraduate in the late sixties I was horrified at the way the subject had been hijacked by the mathematicians - I quickly deduced that this hijacking started after Einstein in the 1940s. I knew then that the subject was wandering further and further into the realm of the cloud cuckoo - so I gave it up and went into nuclear engineering. The fact is: if you put theory before reality then you are stuffed - and this is exactly what has happened.

This is an important book. However, it would have benefitted from more clarity and much more brevity. Mr Smolin waffles a bit - he could have made his case in 200 rather than 350 pages.
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on 4 December 2016
A good historical background. I did not enjoy the last few chapters that deal with sociology of theoretical physics and the status of becoming a physicist.
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VINE VOICEon 10 May 2007
Do you know what a Higgs Boson is? Do you have a thorough grounding in Gauge Theory? Me neither. I have to admit, here and now, that I'm not clever enough to understand 60% of this book.

Now maybe I'm a fool for buying a book which is unashamedly about theoretical physics and then complaining that it contains a lot of complicated things about physics, but the problem is that I think I should be able to enjoy a read like this. To give you some background I have a physics A-level (circa 1991), I read Biological Sciences at University and I have several 'pop' science titles on my bookshelves. If a book like this is to have any mass market appeal then someone like me should be able to find it accessible. Instead, I couldn't recommend this book to you unless you have a very good and current knowledge of at least degree level physics. In fact, I'd guess that the number of people world wide who could truly grasp the entirety of this book wouldn't be more than a few thousand. I also think there is a severe case of 'the emporer's new clothes' going on with all the folk who have given this book rave reviews.

If Lee Smolin really wanted to write a popular science book that would bring his thoughts on this arcane subject to a wider audience then I think he should have employed a science author/journalist to ghost write for him. The results of Smolin's efforts feel more like a long open letter to his colleagues working at the cutting edge of his field rather than a proper attempt at writing for the layman. In fact, the whole precept of this book, namely that anyone not working in academia should or does care that the string theory boffins have been wasting their time for 3 decades, is a bit odd. It might engender a nice feeling of schadenfreude from us thickies, but to suggest that it is important in a 'wider world' context is plainly wrong.

When the book moves away from the theories Smolin proves himself to be an interesting and confident writer. Stories of hubris amongst members of the scientific community never fail to amuse and there are a few anecdotes thrown in too. However, this isn't reason enough to hand over your cash.

I'll now precis the main points of the book. Please either stop reading this review or send me ten pounds which is part of the money you will save by no longer having to buy this book.

For the last 30 years theoretical physicists have postulated little that can be verified by experiment. To make their equations work they have had to invent extra dimensions that are so small their existence cannot be proved (or disproved). While the theorists have been busy contriving models that cannot be tested, the experimentalists and astronomers have been discovering plenty of phenomena that cannot be explained by the current theories. The theorist's solution? To keep extending the theories so they are even less predictive and then use disingenuous logic arguments that rely on the existence of a vast numbers of other universes (even though we only have experience of one) to make them seem probable.

Consequently what the theorists have come up with could be a profound understanding of the nature of our world or it could just be a way to ensure they all retain their jobs as well paid professors. Theories about our existence that can be neither proved or disproved have been around for millennia, they're called religion. And clever well paid people who pretend to give the rest of us a route to this sacred knowledge have been around just as long, we call them high priests. Or theoretical physicists.
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on 27 February 2007
The interactions between Lee Smolin and mainstream physicists are interesting. Lee often visits us. We smile at each other and Lee is being politely explained why his newest theories can't really work. Lee says that he understands these arguments. Then he returns to a conference or a journalist and repeats that all of his theories have been perfectly proven, while offering even more unusual theories. The newest theory says that the neutrinos are octopi swimming in the spin network. Believe me, we like him but it is not always easy to take him seriously.

A few months ago, I had to promise Lee that I would read the whole book before saying anything about it. So I did so. It was tough because the concentration of irrational statements and anti-scientific sentiments has exceeded my expectations. The book is primarily filled with the suicidal and absurd sentiment that all of modern physics of the last 30 years - the era of Lee's career - is a failure. The first part of the book tries to focus on technical aspects of string theory. The second part of the book offers a postmodern view on the scientific community and some radical proposals how to fix the "problems" that the author has identified.

As far as I can say, everything that tries to go beyond the existing popular books is unreasonable with one possible exception, namely some of Lee's general ideas about the anthropic principle.

What are the problems with Lee's appraisal of physics? First of all, Lee reveals his intense hostility against all of modern physics, not just string theory. He believes that quantum mechanics must be wrong at some fundamental level and many people should try to prove it. He also believes that the attempts to falsify the theory of relativity are among the most important topics to work on. In the context of string theory, he literally floods the pages of his book with undefendable speculations about some basic results of string theory. Because these statements are of mathematical nature, we are sure that Lee is wrong even in the absence of any experiments.

For example, he dedicates dozens of pages to speculations about the divergent amplitudes at finite orders of the perturbation theory - amplitudes that have been proven to be finite. He also proposes that the AdS/CFT correspondence and various other dualities are wrong. In doing so, he ignores thousands of papers that lead to the opposite conclusion. Instead, he applies the methods of creationists and invents a "strong" and "weak" version of Maldacena's equivalence. There are also frequently repeated speculations that string theory and M-theory don't exist and many other similar "ideas", together with the most popular myth that string theory can't be experimentally tested. Neither of these things is supported by any results in the scientific literature, not even Lee's own results, and most of them contradict what we know. I am afraid that it is fair to say that Lee is trying to sell things that could never be bought by the experts because he knows that his lay readers won't be able to tell the difference between a result and a nonsense.

More generally, Lee proposes a truly radical thesis that it is wrong for mathematics to play a crucial role in theoretical physics. This meme is repeated at many places and it is later used as a criterion to hire physicists. He also blames the "failures" on the culture of particle physics that has already existed before string theory. For example, we learn that when Lee Smolin studied at Harvard, he was disappointed by Coleman, Glashow, and Weinberg who were "nothing like his heroes". Wow. The reason why they were nothing like his heroes was that they preferred calculations over philosophical speculations. Needless to say, Smolin would be disappointed by Einstein and Bohr, too, because they couldn't stand scientifically unjustifiable philosophical speculations either. No real physicist can.

Two decades ago or so, Lee was also disappointed by his peers who were excited by calculations in supergravity. He also denies the difference between renormalizable field theories and the rest, and so forth.

In the sociological part of this book, Smolin complains that no one takes him seriously and tries to paint the mainstream physics community as a group of evil people. Also, he proposes "cures" for the things that he views as "problems". This includes new ethical standards of the science community. For example, one of his rules says that the conclusions must be accepted by everyone if their author is a person of good faith. Another rule, apparently applied to the other theories of the "infidels", says that they must first present a full rigorous proof.

These and other proposals are clearly meant to transform the scientific community to a dogmatic, non-mathematical, and irrational institution with double standards that is similar to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. He realizes that what he has defined is a church or a sect, so he tries to correct this problem by enumerating a few features in which science and religion are supposed to differ. In my opinion, neither of these things has anything to do with the main differences between science and religion.

The main difference between religion and science is that science will never accept Smolin's ideas about the scientific method. Science will never introduce Lee's proposal of affirmative action for those who are not able to fully learn the current picture of reality as painted by physics - people whom Lee Smolin misleadingly and automaticaly promotes as "original thinkers", without any rational arguments. In reality, gaps in mathematics are something very different from originality; in fact, these two things are negatively correlated, not positively. Lee doesn't want to see the difference.

Also, science will never give up the principle that falsified conjectures (even those from the people of good faith) must be abandoned - a principle that also strikingly contradicts Smolin's thoughts about the democracy of ideas. Science will never abandon solid and quantitative arguments and it will never replace them by vague linguistic games that Lee Smolin prefers. And it will never accept Lee's recommendation that the scientists' opinion should be manipulated by the ideological goals such as Lee's "diversity of ideas" by which he really means the narrow-mindedness of those who lack the imagination to learn the diverse insights offered by string theory.

The postmodern attack against science has had many forms. Evelyn Fox Keller, a professional feminist critic of science and the key supporter of this book, was at the beginning. If you want to see how serious threats the very basic principles of science will probably have to face from within, read this strange book that I rated by 2 stars because of its unquestionable ability to make you angry (and make young science fans frustrated). Unless science is going to be destroyed, it will continue to ignore Smolin's hints, despite the alternating good years and bad years. It will build on results that work and not on those that don't work, hire people who know what they're doing and not those who don't, and allow them to reach their own conclusions instead of telling them which opinions are sufficiently "diverse". Also, the role of mathematics and string theory is bound to increase, regardless whether Lee Smolin will convince his readers otherwise.
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on 3 December 2015
Very technical and I don't understand much of what I'm reading, but maybe the beak is one level beyond me
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on 27 March 2016
A good read, and written for people like myself with limited mathematical understanding.
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Possibly the best popular science book i have read.
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on 29 April 2015
Fascinating give one great food for thought
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on 5 March 2016
As described, would use seller again
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