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The Trouble with Physics

by Rob Friesel

I first came across The Trouble with Physics after reading The Elegant Universe and receiving this comment which pointed me to this review. I had closed the covers of The Elegant Universe feeling invigorated about physics generally1 but sour on string theory specifically.

Simply put, for as elegant as string theorists claim that string theory is, something2 about it seems… not quite right. There is a “too good to be true” element to it; but beyond that, it does not seem that there is a good layman’s explanation for what they are really bringing to the table. They would tell you that what they bring to the table is a method for resolving some of physics’ Big Unanswered Questions.3 Vibrating strings as the fundament of all matter and energy? Sure — I might buy that as possible. But a half-dozen (or more) extra dimensions “curled up”4 inside the interstices of our “normal” spacetime? You’ve got some explaining to do…

Thus was I delighted to hear of Lee Smolin’s book, wherein he discusses not only string theory (i.e., “the trouble with physics”), but also the larger systemic problems with the academy and how science is funded, especially in the United States (q.v., “the trouble with physics”). It seems to me that writing this book was an act of great courage — he chose to call out not only his most powerful peers5, but also to make some deep criticisms of some of the most entrenched practices in the larger systems of science and academics. Perhaps Smolin felt comfortable writing this book because he already perceived himself as a bit of an outsider6; regardless, we should all be glad that he did.

The summary version of Smolin’s argument is this: the domain of physics is in a crisis. For the past 30-40 years, it has been stagnant — there have been some small incremental advancements in specific, perhaps even narrow aspects of the field, but there have been no big breakthroughs, no fundamental or foundational changes, and certainly no “revolutions”. There are some Big Unanswered Questions; but that is not the problem.7 No, the problem is that all attempts to reconcile those Big Unanswered Questions have come up short or else missed the mark wildly. Smolin repeatedly cites string theory as something that was supposed to change our understanding of physics in a fundamental way; it was supposed to be our Big Answer to our Big Unanswered Questions — but even string theory seems to fall flat on its face.8 But that’s not even the crisis — no, the crisis in physics is that a few charismatic leaders in the string theory community have effectively bullied their ways into the lion’s share of university professorships and grant funding, thus cornering the market on basic research in the field without producing any tangible results commensurate with that funding, nor with the considerable energy and effort that has surely gone into the research. Smolin argues that the consequence is that all dissenting opinions or alternative hypotheses (whether they yield promising early data or not) are being shut out of the discipline — which only further delays the next big revolution in the field.

Granted, Smolin admits (1) that string theory might actually still come to fruition and give us the Answer to Everything — but (2) that we won’t stay mired where we are now, though it’s likely to come from some place not string theory.

Now: a couple of items that I delighted in while reading the book:

  1. A focus on failures and blunders. Science (like the rest of life) is full of things that are tried but ultimately fail. Need we any other reminder than the fact that science is made up of experiments? But beyond this, Smolin takes the bold step of presenting (in what seems like every chapter) some theory or conjecture or equation that was perceived as elegant and widely accepted “at the time”, but then ultimately failed in the face of the experimental evidence. It’s a fascinating trip down the annals of physics history — and I feel like we learn just as much from our rejected theories9 than we do from the ones that ultimately gained acceptance.
  2. A cogent and easily comprehensible argument against string theory. Walking away from The Elegant Universe, I felt a deep sense of unease — that we had a theory… or set of theories… or a set of loose proposals for what may some day become a theory, that had gained a lot of traction among some well-groomed and well-liked and well-spoken physicists that were well-received by the lay-public because they seemed so damn sure of themselves. But (and Brian Greene even says this in his book) you shouldn’t be so certain of your hypothesis if you can’t break it down in such a way that a layperson can at least get the gist of it — and can get the gist of what the deeper implications are.10 But string theorists aren’t really able to do that; and Smolin gives us a good tear-down of why (specifically) string theory breaks down under scrutiny.11
  3. And yet string theory still gets a fair shake. But let’s be honest here, there is something sexy about string theory, and it would be nice if that oh-so-elegant theory really were the real deal, the Big Answer to Everything. And Smolin says over and over again that it might be — at least that some aspects of it might still bear fruit. And that he wouldn’t have spent several years of his career looking deeply into it if he hadn’t thought that to be the case.
  4. But ultimately we need to look elsewhere. For all the reasons we’ve already mentioned. Because it’s “too good to be true”. Because it doesn’t really hold together. Because any theory you can just infinitely modify to meet your goals isn’t helping you or anyone else — and almost certainly isn’t the true Theory of Everything.
  5. And then there’s the discussion of the systemic problems with science, more generally. The tenure system. The grant-funding system. The peer review system. All of these things which are really important to how the system of science works, and yet at the same time we can clearly see how fundamentally flawed that same system is when you start looking for answers to even the obvious questions about how to improve the situation.12

Where does that leave me at the end of all this? A little stunned. I wish I’d read The Trouble with Physics immediately after reading The Elegant Universe — while all that string theory jargon was still fresh in my mind.13 But just the same, Smolin’s book is a powerful and fascinating look at 20th century physics and at the culture and climate of academic science in the early 21st century. Anyone even remotely interested in science — be it as an insider to the disciplines or as a lay-person — really ought to get hold of a copy and read this book.

  1. Say what you will about string theory, but Brian Greene genuinely does one hell of a good job in describing the milestone achievements of his antecedents in the discipline. []
  2. Maybe everything? []
  3. You know: “a theory of everything”. []
  4. And really: “curled up”? What the hell is that supposed to mean? []
  5. Make no mistake: Smolin may go out of his way to reiterate that these are people he admires and respects, that these are people who have earned their tenured faculty positions and their grant funding, that these are among the brightest minds in the physical sciences — but he is indicting every single one of them for jumping on the string theory band-wagon without stopping to ask some fundamental questions about it. []
  6. At least, that’s the gist I get from his at-times-self-deprecating style. You can tell that Smolin is confident that he is a smart man and a capable physicist; but you can also tell that he doesn’t think he’s the smartest kid in the room. []
  7. There should always be some unanswered questions. []
  8. And the summary version of string theory’s failure (for the book’s summary version): string theory may have a lot of fancy math and look/sound impressive, but it isn’t making any new predictions and (worse) is not even falsifiable or testable by scientific experiment. And even if it were, string theorists keep changing the theory in the face of opposition and counter-arguments. []
  9. At least inasmuch as why they were rejected. []
  10. And this continues to be my biggest beef with string theory, I think. That (1) there is no agreement among string theorists about what it is and (2) not only can they not explain it to a lay-person but they deride anyone not also doing string theory and (3) there are a lot of smart and interested lay-people out there reading these theories and just throwing up their hands and saying “Well if these smart guys believe in it then I guess I do too!” And that’s just bullshit and we all deserve better than that. []
  11. And I won’t go into that here. I want to leave you some incentive to go read the book. []
  12. And this applies to all sciences, not just physics. []
  13. Not that I’ve forgotten what Calabi-Yau manifolds are. Inasmuch as I could ever claim to know what they are. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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