Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Trouble with Physics

Lee Smolin is a well known and well regarded theoretical physicist who, like all his colleagues, lives in the shadow of the great advances in physics made during the first half of the twentieth century. His latest book, The Trouble with Physics, received very high praise from Bryan Appleyard and I thought it would be a good partner to Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos because Greene is string theory’s most vocal advocate and Smolin its most celebrated critic.

The Trouble with Physics is that there has been no substantial step forward since the standard model of particle physics was completed in the mid-seventies. I’m not quite sure I agree with this because inflationary cosmology has surely made substantial progress in explaining the evolution of the universe, but Smolin does not consider that inflation has quite been proved.

His real problem is with string theory, which has taken up entire careers for very little return. There is no doubt now that string theory does not do what it is supposed to do and exactly what, if anything, it does achieve remains a mystery. Smolin is very concerned that all the physicists wasting their time with string theory could have been more profitably engaged elsewhere while radical thinkers (he calls them sages) who might have provided the necessary new directions have decided that physics is not for them.

As a primer on fundamental science, The Trouble with Physics is an easier read than The Fabric of the Cosmos. As a result, it is simple not as good as Greene’s book, since it is an iron law of popular science that the harder titles are invariably the best ones. Smolin’s final section, where he analyses what is wrong with science and what we can do about it, is a typical piece of na├»ve and well-meaning journalism. It never occurs to him that the modern sociology of science is an inevitable result of massive government funding and of lots of scientists who can have very comfortable careers without actually producing anything meaningful. It is unfortunate that there is probably no viable alternative given the money involved nowadays. The best chapter of the book sets out some intriguing experimental results from cosmic rays and the Pioneer spacecraft that appear to cast doubt on special relativity. I would have enjoyed more on this but Smolin just scratches the surface, his only intention being to show that there is life beyond string theory.

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