February 2007

John Clark


The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin

The Trouble With Physics by Lee Smolin is an excellent example of why not to judge a book by its cover. I thought it was going to be about people who claim to predict the future, however I quickly realized I had misread the title. Even so, I heartily recommend this book for everyone -- everyone who first gets a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from a good university. You will likely need it to fully grasp this tome. If you don’t have time for that, pick up a copy of The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonnick. Kidding aside, don’t let the science genera scare you away due to a lack of scientific interest or talent. If you work in any field of academia, read on and see if this book might be a hidden gem.

I fall into the category of people with scientific interest exceeding their talent. Despite my long-time subscription to Scientific American and having read many of the major sciencetainment books in recent years, most of the technical concepts in Smolin’s new book flew over my head like cruise missiles late for a date with Osama bin Laden. That doesn’t mean I didn’t get anything out of it. I will remember The Trouble with Physics as the first whistle-blower book I have read on string theory and theoretical physics.  

I’m over-simplifying, but in Tarantino flashback style, Smolin starts with the conclusion: something has gone terribly wrong in science and it’s string theory. Shot through and bloody, it refuses to die. Smolin then takes us back in time and tells the story. He eventually works his way through the dirty laundry hiding in string theory’s closet hamper before telling us how we might discover the clean stuff. There’s even a plot twist. The real villain is not string theory -- but I’m getting ahead of the story.

I’ve always known there were skeletons literally hanging in the closets of scientists, but I never thought about the figurative ones hanging alongside. More accurately, theoretical physicists don’t hide their figurative skeletons in closets; they hide them in higher dimensions and unseen supersymmetric particles too large for any atom smasher to likely “see” in our professional lifetimes. Oh, your theory doesn’t work in three dimensions plus time? No worries. Simply predict that there are one-dimensional energy strings wiggling in nine dimensions and that’s why the sun rises every morning.

Not into wiggling strings? Fair enough. Predict instead that every known particle in the standard particle model has a supersymmetric partner successfully eluding us somewhere in the universe (and that’s why the sun rises every morning). But beware! If the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) coming online in Geneva fails to see your predicted supersymmetric particles next year, you must quickly tweak your theory so that the unseen particles are even more massive than you originally thought. This way you can stay on tenure track and continue getting grant money for research during the next twenty years it will take to build an even bigger atom smasher capable of finding your long-lost fat particle partner. According to the author, “This kind of theoretical success is far too easy. To invent a whole new world of the unknown and then make it a theory with many parameters… is not very impressive… It is the kind of theorizing that can’t fail, because any disagreement with the present data can be eliminated by tweaking some constants.”  

This is seat-of-the-pants intrigue for anyone with a Steven Hawking poster hanging in his or her bedroom. Even if you don’t have a Men/Women of Physics 2007 desk calendar, Smolin lays out an interesting and easy to understand criteria for the next great theory. Such a theory would resolve at least one of the five “great problems in theoretical physics.” I won’t give away all five, but here is number one: “Combine general relativity and quantum theory into a single theory that can claim to be the complete theory of nature.” Now, if you already have an answer to this problem, please email Lee Smolin at the Perimeter Institute. Type “quantum gravity” on the subject line. (If you can’t find Dr. Smolin’s email on “The Google,” then I doubt you will be solving any of the big problems in our universe.)

For the student considering a Ph.D. in physics (or a postdoc considering career options), your homework is to understand what the heck Professor Smolin is talking about in Parts II and III of The Trouble With Physics. If you don’t understand, then some extracurricular study may be wise before making any academic or career choices. For the rest of us the key word is “skim.” Lee Smolin may be brilliant at seeing and explaining the big picture about what really goes on in science, but he is not as good as Steven Hawking or Brian Greene at explaining complex physics in ways understandable to a reader with passing interest in science. I would have liked a simpler explanation of the theory Smolin is working on called “loop quantum gravity.

Had I realized how excellent and freestanding Part IV would be, “Learning From Experience,” I would not have struggled so hard to understand the prior 137 pages. Those pages recount the roots of string theory and surrounding unification theories. I spent over a month on Parts II and III reading and rereading. Forget that; get through the middle of the book picking up the gist of the subject matter and move on to gain the insights provided in the final five chapters. Within scientific communities, I see Parts II and III being important prerequisites for credibility, and for making this a rigorous study of why “since the end of the 1970s there has not been a single genuine breakthrough in our understanding of elementary-particle physics.”

It turns out the real villain is not string theory; it’s academia. I give away the ending only because without knowing that, many people working in academia may not see the topicality of this “science book.” This book is relevant to anyone making a living educating our brightest young minds. The Trouble with Physics will set heads privately nodding about the dark side of academia -- the side that curtails independent thought and action in favor of that which is mainstream or fashionable. Smolin doesn’t stop there. He includes racial and gender bias in physics -- a profession dominated by older white males. I suspect many people in academia will be saying, “yes, YES!” to themselves as Dr. Smolin waxes politically incorrect (and convincingly) in his chapter, “How Science is Really Done.”

Smolin never says it directly, but throughout the book, by his comparisons and contrasts, the reader learns that string theory is becoming more religion than science. This is a danger in any community that claims, “possession of the absolute truth” and then demands profession of faith prior to advancement and success within the community. This is not ethical or imaginative science according to the author. His response seems extraordinarily reasonable: “string theory needs to be developed in an open atmosphere, in which it is considered one idea among several, without any presuppositions as to its ultimate success or failure. What the new spirit of physics cannot tolerate is a presumption that one idea has to succeed, whatever the evidence.”

Do not read The Trouble With Physics to learn about string theory or any other theory. Read it to discover what is good science and how that differs from what is going on today. Read it to get ideas on what must happen to foster revolutionary scientific thinking for the future. My hope is that Smolin’s sounding off on state of theoretical physics will echo in other academic fields as well.

The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 0618551050
416 Pages