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


The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next Cover

ISBN13: 9780618918683
ISBN10: 061891868x
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Publisher Comments:

In this illuminating book, the renowned theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that fundamental physics (the search for the laws of nature) losing its way. Ambitious ideas about extra dimensions, exotic particles, multiple universes, and strings have captured the public's imagination, and the imagination of experts. But these ideas have not been tested experimentally, and some, like string theory, seem to offer no possibility of being tested. Yet these speculations dominate the field, attracting the best talent and much of the funding and creating a climate in which emerging physicists are often penalized for pursuing other avenues. As Smolin points out, the situation threatens to impede the very progress of science. With clarity, passion, and authority, Smolin offers an unblinking assessment of the troubles that face modern physics, and an encouraging view of where the search for the next big idea may lead.


With clarity, passion, and authority, renowned theoretical physicist Smolin charts the rise and fall of string theory and takes a fascinating look at what will replace it.

About the Author

Lee Smolin earned his PhD in physics at Harvard, then went on to teach at Yale and Pennsylvania State before helping to found the innovative Perimeter Institute. He is the author of The Life of the Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity.

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elizabeth.farquhar, January 23, 2008 (view all comments by elizabeth.farquhar)
Also known as "OW! My brain!"

I don't remember where I saw this title, but it sounded interesting, so I reserved it at the library, picked it up, sat down in a comfy chair at home, opened it up, and said "huh?" It has been a long while since I paid much attention to physics - I was really into string theory for a while, inasmuch as "really into" means "reading magazine articles and watching NOVA specials about." Anyway, I thought I had a decent enough grasp on quantum theory and string theory to deal with this book. That theory was quickly disproven.

Actually, I was doing pretty well through the first few chapters, which are a summary of discoveries from Galileo (and before) through Einstein - light as particle and wave, magnetic fields, acceleration = gravity, relativity. Then the discussion moved into the search for a unified-field theory, and quantum theory, and the attempt to unite relativity and quantum theory and gravity, and I started having to deliberately slow down my normally fast/skimming reading pace, even re-reading paragraphs and whole pages several times. Symmetry, gauge forces, Higgs bosons, quantum chromodynamics, and many uses of the phrase "I won't go into detail here, but ..." Here's a quote:

"Here's a simplified version of what the Stanford group did. They started with a much-studied kind of string theory - a flat four-dimensional spacetime with a small six-dimensional geometry over each point ... Then they wrapped large numbers of electric and magnetic fluxes around the six-dimensional spaces over each point."

Simplified? I cannot even beging to warp my mind around ten dimensions, much less imagine wrapping fluxes (whatever they are) around them. At this point I just decided to plow through the book, understanding what I could and hoping that something I could comprehend would be at the finish. That went on for approximately three weeks and ten chapters, basically all the discussion about string theory and other completely imaginary (i.e. nontestable in the real world for the most part) creations of mathematicians and physicists who are trying to explain all that is currently unexplainable about the world - universe speeding up, lack of photon decay, dark matter, black holes and horizons, etc. - and relate it back to what is generally understood to be true, like the fact that gravity works and 1+1=2. What I did learn is that string theory is presented as a viable, working theory, when it's actually only held up by a mutual agreement by string theorists that they're right. Even though they can't prove it, and every new discovery pokes more holes in it.

Smolin spent a decade or more in string theory before deciding it had more myth than matter, and that the prevalence of ST in modern science underlines a major problem: that we are training and promoting hard science mavens, with lots of technique and complicated equations, rather than philosophers like Einstein who contemplate the nature of reality and try to figure out what it is they don't know, rather than trying to make what they don't know fit what they think they know. He decries the peer review process and says that making PhD candidates, prospective professors, and grant seekers have to prove that they will bring in money for the institution with their studies, or bring in prestige, or both, means that the easiest way to get tenure and funding is to study the theory that's in vogue, which is now and has been for thirty years string theory. Smolin describes some few iconoclasts out there, proposing things like "there is no space" or "space and time are nothing but a system of relationships" and "Einstein was wrong about relativity." He briefly mentions quantum computers but I have no idea what those are.

To solve these problems - both the issues around trying to reconcile quantum theory with relativity/gravity, and the issues relating to how hard it is to get funding to study something completely new and out there - he suggests that "young scientists should be hired and promoted based only on their ability, creativity, and independence, without regard to whether they contribute to string theory or any other established research program ... People should be penalized for doing superficial work that ignores hard problems and rewarded for attacking the long-standing open conjectures, even if progress takes many years."

My progress in even beginning to get the merest hint of comprehension about all of this will take many years. And I probably won't be too serious about it. But I'm interested enough, again, to look for more information on what's happening in the world of math and physics. Maybe I can borrow a "Discover Kids" magazine from my niece.

Conclusion: Recommended. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning to talk about the book. We're all cosmologic accidents anyway.
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Product Details

Smolin, Lee
Mariner Books
String models
Physics -- Methodology -- History.
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
September 2007
Grade Level:
30 b/w line drawings
8.24x6.33x1.06 in. .96 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Science and Mathematics » Physics » General
Science and Mathematics » Physics » General History and Philosophy
Science and Mathematics » Physics » Grand Unified Theory
Science and Mathematics » Physics » Popular

The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next New Trade Paper
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Product details 416 pages Mariner Books - English 9780618918683 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , With clarity, passion, and authority, renowned theoretical physicist Smolin charts the rise and fall of string theory and takes a fascinating look at what will replace it.
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