Three Roads to Quantum Gravity

( 4 )


The Holy Grail of modern physics is a theory of the universe that unites two seemingly opposing pillars of modern science: Einstein's theory of general relativity, which deals with large-scale phenomena (planets, solar systems and galaxies), and quantum theory, which deals with the world of the very small (molecules, atoms, electrons). In Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, Lee Smolin provides the first concise and accessible overview of current attempts to reconcile these two theories in a final "theory of ...

See more details below
Paperback (Reprint)
$13.25 price
(Save 22%)$16.99 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (45) from $1.99   
  • New (11) from $2.67   
  • Used (34) from $1.99   
Three Roads To Quantum Gravity

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$10.49 price
(Save 38%)$16.99 List Price


The Holy Grail of modern physics is a theory of the universe that unites two seemingly opposing pillars of modern science: Einstein's theory of general relativity, which deals with large-scale phenomena (planets, solar systems and galaxies), and quantum theory, which deals with the world of the very small (molecules, atoms, electrons). In Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, Lee Smolin provides the first concise and accessible overview of current attempts to reconcile these two theories in a final "theory of everything." This is the closest anyone has ever come to devising a completely new theory of space, time and the universe to replace the Newtonian ideas that were the foundation of all science until the beginning of the twentieth century. Lee Smolin, who has spent his career at the forefront of these new discoveries, presents for the first time the main ideas behind the new developments that have brought a quantum theory of gravity in sight. He explains in simple terms what scientists are talking about when they say the world is made from exotic entities such as loops, strings, and black holes. As he does so, he tells the fascinating stories behind these discoveries: the rivalries, epiphanies, and intrigues he witnessed firsthand.Science Masters Series

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
A detached reporter of science could have provided no more balanced account of the competing theories on quantum gravity than does Lee Smolin, a practicing scientist. His own inclinations are clear, of course, but the reader is left with a sense that the real contribution of this young physicist is not so much the content of the still-nascent theory he puts forth to unite relativity theory with quantum theory -- his contribution is reorienting our expectations of what a "right" theory will be. He informs us that there will be no final theory, no single winning formula. Rather, all three of the approaches now in the running will offer necessary windows of understanding.

Several years ago I was enticed to read Smolin's first book, The Life of the Cosmos, because of the way he imported a biological concept to explain the great mystery in astrophysics: why the substance and dynamics of the universe are tuned just so to allow galaxies and stars -- and, hence, life -- to emerge. The principle of natural selection that Smolin offered focused on possible universes born from black holes. A universe in which black holes can exist is necessarily a universe in which galaxies, stars, and life can exist. It is no surprise that this book is also a superb introduction to the most abstract of cosmological questions. The real wonder is that Smolin conveys the fundamental principles and the cutting-edge debates in ways that left this reader feeling awe for my own capacity to understand and deeply appreciate a topic I had feared might be beyond my reach. (Connie Barlow)

Writing for a general audience, Smolin (physics, Pennsylvania State U.) offers an account of recent scientific progress toward a theory of quantum gravity. He explains recent developments, and tells the stories behind the discoveries of loops, strings, and black holes. As he does, he provides a glimpse at the lives of the scientists involved, disclosing their influences, rivalries, and triumphs. He also describes the current frontiers of the discipline, and the questions that remain unsolved. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465078363
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 397,322
  • Product dimensions: 5.46 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Lee Smolin, author of The Life of the Cosmos, is Professor of Physics at the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Pennsylvania State University and a leading contributor to the search for a unification of quantum theory, cosmology. and relativity. He lives in London.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


We humans are the species that makes things. So when wefind something that appears to be beautifully and intricatelystructured, our almost instinctive response is to ask, `Whomade that?' The most important lesson to be learned if weare to prepare ourselves to approach the universe scientificallyis that this is not the right question to ask. It is truethat the universe is as beautiful as it is intricately structured.But it cannot have been made by anything that existsoutside it, for by definition the universe is all there is, andthere can be nothing outside it. And, by definition, neithercan there have been anything before the universe thatcaused it, for if anything existed it must have been part ofthe universe. So the first principle of cosmology must be`There is nothing outside the universe'.

    This is not to exclude religion or mysticism, for there isalways room for those sources of inspiration for those whoseek them. But if it is knowledge we desire, if we wish tounderstand what the universe is and how it came to bethat way, we need to seek answers to questions about thethings we see when we look around us. And the answerscan involve only things that exist in the universe.

    This first principle means that we take the universe to be,by definition, a closed system. It means that the explanationfor anything in the universe can involve only other things thatalso exist in the universe. This has very important consequences,each of which will be reflected many times in thepages that follow. One of the most important is that thedefinitionor description of any entity inside the universe canrefer only to other things in the universe. If something has aposition, that position can be defined only with respect to theother things in the universe. If it has a motion, that motion canbe discerned only by looking for changes in its position withrespect to other things in the universe.

    So, there is no meaning to space that is independent ofthe relationships among real things in the world. Space is nota stage, which might be either empty or full, onto whichthings come and go. Space is nothing apart from the thingsthat exist; it is only an aspect of the relationships that holdbetween things. Space, then, is something like a sentence. Itis absurd to talk of a sentence with no words in it. Eachsentence has a grammatical structure that is defined byrelationships that hold between the words in it, relationshipslike subject-object or adjective-noun. If we take out all thewords we are not left with an empty sentence, we are leftwith nothing. Moreover, there are many different grammaticalstructures, catering for different arrangements of wordsand the various relationships between them. There isno such thing as an absolute sentence structure that holdsfor all sentences independent of their particular words andmeanings.

    The geometry of a universe is very like the grammaticalstructure of a sentence. Just as a sentence has no structure andno existence apart from the relationships between the words,space has no existence apart from the relationships that holdbetween the things in the universe. If you change a sentenceby taking some words out, or changing their order, itsgrammatical structure changes. Similarly, the geometry ofspace changes when the things in the universe change theirrelationships to one another.

    As we understand it now, it is simply absurd to speak of auniverse with nothing in it. That is as absurd as a sentencewith no words. It is even absurd to speak of a space with onlyone thing in it, for then there would be no relationships todefine where that one thing is. (Here the analogy breaks downbecause there do exist sentences of one word only. However,they usually get their meaning from their relationships withadjacent sentences.)

    The view of space as something that exists independent ofany relationships is called the absolute view. It was Newton'sview, but it has been definitively repudiated by the experimentsthat have verified Einstein's theory of general relativity.This has radical implications, which take a lot of thinking toget used to. There are unfortunately not a few good professionalphysicists who still think about the world as if spaceand time had an absolute meaning.

    Of course, it does seem as though the geometry of space isnot affected by things moving around. When I walk from oneside of a room to the other, the geometry of the room does notseem to change. After I have crossed the room, the spacewithin it still seems to satisfy the rules of Euclidean geometrythat we learned in school, as it did before I started to move.Were Euclidean geometry not a good approximation to whatwe see around us, Newton would not have had a chance. Butthe apparent Euclidean geometry of space turns out to be asmuch an illusion as the apparent flatness of the Earth. TheEarth seems flat only when we can't see the horizon.Whenever we can see far enough, from an aircraft or whenwe gaze out to sea, we can easily see that this is mistaken.Similarly, the geometry of the room you are in seems to satisfythe rules of Euclidean geometry only because the departuresfrom those rules are very small. But if you could make veryprecise measurements you would find that the angles oftriangles in your room do not sum to exactly 180 degrees.Moreover, the sum actually depends on the relation of thetriangle to the stuff in the room. If you could measureprecisely enough you would see that the geometries of allthe triangles in the room do change when you move from oneside of it to the other.

    It may be that each science has one main thing to teachhumanity, to help us shape our story of who we are andwhat we are doing here. Biology's lesson is natural selection,as its exponents such as Richard Dawkins and LynnMargulis have so eloquently taught us. I believe that themain lesson of relativity and quantum theory is that theworld is nothing but an evolving network of relationships. Ihave not the eloquence to be the Dawkins or Margulis ofrelativity, but I do hope that after reading this book you willhave come to understand that the relational picture of spaceand time has implications that are as radical as those ofnatural selection, not only for science but for our perspectiveon who we are and how we came to exist in thisevolving universe of relations.

    Charles Darwin's theory tells us that our existence was notinevitable, that there is no eternal order to the universe thatnecessarily brought us into being. We are the result ofprocesses much more complicated and unpredictable thanthe small aspects of our lives and societies over which wehave some control. The lesson that the world is at root anetwork of evolving relationships tells us that this is true to alesser or greater extent of all things. There is no fixed, eternalframe to the universe to define what may or may not exist.There is nothing beyond the world except what we see, nobackground to it except its particular history.

    This relational view of space has been around as an idea fora long time. Early in the eighteenth century, the philosopherGottfried Wilhelm Leibniz argued strongly that Newton'sphysics was fatally flawed because it was based on a logicallyimperfect absolute view of space and time. Other philosophersand scientists, such as Ernst Mach, working in Viennaat the end of the nineteenth century, were its champions.Einstein's theory of general relativity is a direct descendent ofthese views.

    A confusing aspect of this is that Einstein's theory ofgeneral relativity can consistently describe universes thatcontain no matter. This might lead one to believe that thetheory is not relational, because there is space but there is nomatter, and there are no relationships between the matter thatserve to define space. But this is wrong. The mistake is inthinking that the relationships that define space must bebetween material particles. We have known since the middleof the nineteenth century that the world is not composed onlyof particles. A contrary view, which shaped twentieth-centuryphysics, is that the world is also composed of fields.Fields are quantities that vary continuously over space, suchas electric and magnetic fields.

    The electric field is often visualized as a network of lines offorce surrounding the object generating the field, as shown inFigure 1. What makes this a field is that there is a line of forcepassing through every point (as with a contour map, onlylines at certain intervals are depicted). If we were to put acharged particle at any point in the field, it would experiencea force pushing it along the field line that goes through thatpoint.

    General relativity is a theory of fields. The field involved iscalled the gravitational field. It is more complicated than theelectric field, and is visualized as a more complicated set offield lines. It requires three sets of lines, as shown in Figure 2.We may imagine them in different colours, say red, blue andgreen. Because there are three sets of field lines, the gravitationalfield defines a network of relationships having to dowith how the three sets of lines link with one another. Theserelationships are described in terms of, for example, howmany times one of the three kinds of line knot around those ofanother kind.

    In fact, these relationships are all there is to the gravitationalfield. Two sets of field lines that link and knot in thesame way define the same set of relationships, and exactly thesame physical situation (an example is shown in Figure 3).This is why we call general relativity a relational theory.Points of space have no existence in themselves — the onlymeaning a point can have is as a name we give to a particularfeature in the network of relationships between the three setsof field lines.

    This is one of the important differences between generalrelativity and other theories such as electromagnetism. In thetheory of electric fields it is assumed that points have meaning.It makes sense to ask in which direction the field linespass at a given point. Consequently, two sets of electric fieldlines that differ only in that one is moved a metre to the left, asin Figure 4, are taken to describe different physical situations.Physicists using general relativity must work in the oppositeway. They cannot speak of a point, except by naming somefeatures of the field lines that will uniquely distinguish thatpoint. All talk in general relativity is about relationshipsamong the field lines.

    One might ask why we do not just fix the network of fieldlines, and define everything with respect to them. The reasonis that the network of relationships evolves in time. Except fora small number of idealized examples which have nothing todo with the real world, in all the worlds that general relativitydescribes the networks of field lines are constantly changing.

    This is enough for the moment about space. Let us turn nowto time. There the same lesson holds. In Newton's theory timeis assumed to have an absolute meaning. It flows, from theinfinite past to the infinite future, the same everywhere in theuniverse, without any relation to things that actually happen.Change is measured in units of time, but time is assumed tohave a meaning and existence that transcends any particularprocess of change in the universe.

    In the twentieth century we learned that this view of time isas incorrect as Newton's view of absolute space. We nowknow that time also has no absolute meaning. There is no timeapart from change. There is no such thing as a clock outsidethe network of changing relationships. So one cannot ask aquestion such as how fast, in an absolute sense, something ischanging: one can only compare how fast one thing is happeningwith the rate of some other process. Time is describedonly in terms of change in the network of relationships thatdescribes space.

    This means that it is absurd in general relativity to speak ofa universe in which nothing happens. Time is nothing but ameasure of change — it has no other meaning. Neither spacenor time has any existence outside the system of evolvingrelationships that comprises the universe. Physicists refer tothis feature of general relativity as background independence.By this we mean that there is no fixed background, or stage,that remains fixed for all time. In contrast, a theory such asNewtonian mechanics or electromagnetism is backgrounddependent because it assumes that there exists a fixed,unchanging background that provides the ultimate answer toall questions about where and when.

    One reason why it has taken so long to construct a quantumtheory of gravity is that all previous quantum theories werebackground dependent. It proved rather challenging to constructa background independent quantum theory, in whichthe mathematical structure of the quantum theory made nomention of points, except when identified through networksof relationships. The problem of how to construct a quantumtheoretic description of a world in which space and time arenothing but networks of relationships was solved over the last15 years of the twentieth century. The theory that resulted isloop quantum gravity, which is one of our three roads. I shalldescribe what it has taught us in Chapter 10. Before we getthere, we shall have to explore other implications of theprinciple that there is nothing outside the universe.

Excerpted from THREE ROADS TO QUANTUM GRAVITY by LEE SMOLIN. Copyright © 2001 by Lee Smolin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Prologue: The quest for quantum gravity 1
Pt. I Points of departure 15
1 There is nothing outside the universe 17
2 In the future we shall know more 26
3 Many observers, not many worlds 33
4 The universe is made of processes, not things 49
Pt. II What we have learned 67
5 Black holes and hidden regions 69
6 Acceleration and heat 77
7 Black holes are not 88
8 Area and information 95
9 How to count space 106
10 Knots, links and kinks 125
11 The sound of space is a string 146
Pt. III The present frontiers 167
12 The holographic principle 169
13 How to weave a string 179
14 What chooses the laws of nature? 194
Epilogue: A possible future 207
Glossary 212
Suggestions for further reading 221
Index 227
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 4 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2006

    The worst thing about this book is the title!

    I have two major qualms with this book. First off, for a popular physics book, the author does a terrible job explaining anything, although this was refreshing after sitting through Brian Greene or Michio Kaku. For somebody who is not versed in mathematics or physics beyound the 18th century (i.e. beyond calculus or classical mechanics) much of the prose might go over their head. For somebody fluent in Riemannian geometry, topology, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, particle field theory, and other such studies, the book is not technical enough. Here is my main problem however. The book is called 'Three Roads to Quantum Gravity'. First, it should be noted that there are certainly more than 3 approaches to quantum gravity and the theory of everything, some are a bit out there, so I assume he meant the 3 main paths. Funny, I thought that the three major approaches are M-Theory (and other stringy hypotheses) [particle physics approach], loop quantum gravity, and canonical quantum gravity [general relativity approach]. According to Smolin, whose list is similar, the paths are: 1. Quantum Mechanics approach: String theories such as M-Theory, Bosonic String Theory, 11-D Super Symmetry. 2. General Relativity approach: Loop Quantum Gravity 3. Post-quantum, post-relativity approach taken by some philosophers. I guess we both agree that LQG is a GR approach (top down) as opposed to string theories (QM approach, bottom up). But is canonical QG a GR approach. I thought it was, but Smolin would probably call it an obscure example of the third path. Anyways, as anybody familiar with Lee Smolin's work knows, Smolin favors the loop quantum gravity approach to grand unification. As such, I expected the author to have a bias favoring LQG. Problem was, he did not make mention of the three roads outside the introduction (though the book's title suggests otherwise). LQG was the ONLY thing he mentioned, except for the occasional forray into string theory. Lee's coverage certainly was not fair and balanced (even less so than FOX News). The book was written as a series of philosophical chapters purporting to answer questions, but instead parroting old assumptions and pre-conceived notions about reality from older theories even though quantum gravity might give different answers. Unlike a more loyal LQG theorist (such as Carlo Rovelli), Smolin accepts that LQG and string theories need not be incompatible and said that the two should merge. Unfortunately, Smolin did not extend his acceptance to other approaches to quantum gravity. Therefore, a more apt title should be 'Two Intertwined Roads to Quantum Gravity Which May in Fact be the Same Path' or 'Loop Quantum Gravity is da Best, but Stringy Theories are Cool Too' or even 'I am the Wise Lee Smolin! Trust in my Ability to Forsee the Future of Physics and Answer all Questions Ye Mortals'.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2004

    Not just strings

    The first time I read this book I raced through it and I thought it was too critical of string theory. Later I read it again and I gained an appreciation for what the book was trying to accomplish. String theorists and LQG theorists are tackling the same fundamental problems from different perspectives, and each side needs to see that their work may need to incorporate findings from the other. Although Smolin comes from one side of the problem I felt his treatment was fair to both. I came away with a better understanding of some of the issues string theory has to overcome as well as hope that they will be. I also enjoyed some of the areas LQG is exploring that strings haven't gotten to yet.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2003


    I strongly disliked this book. Firsly, this is because within the first paragraph of the first chapter he makes a very close minded statement. Then in the following paragraph makes some statements that could offend some people and turns that audience against what he has to say before he even says it. I only made it to the 9th paragraph before I couldn't read any more. I acknowledge that he may have some very interesting things to say later in the book, however, the tone in which the book begins and the way in which information is conveyed is very counter-productive. Secondly, acknowleging that he may have other important points to share, I skimmed the rest of the book and found that I had read about these things in other books [listed below]. Thirdly, topics presented in this book are not very cosistiant with the title. Personaly, I do not think this book was worth printing, but who knows you may like it.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)