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In this groundbreaking book, the renowned theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that physics—the basis for all other sciences—has lost its way. For more than two centuries, our understanding of the laws of nature expanded rapidly. But today, despite our best efforts, we know nothing more about these laws than we knew in the 1970s. Why is physics suddenly in trouble? And what can we do about it?
One of the major problems, according to Smolin, is string theory: an ambitious attempt to formulate a “theory of everything” that explains all the particles and forces of nature and how the universe came to be. With its exotic new particles and parallel universes, string theory has captured the public’s imagination and seduced many physicists.
But as Smolin reveals, there’s a deep flaw in the theory: no part of it has been tested, and no one knows how to test it. In fact, the theory appears to come in an infinite number of versions, meaning that no experiment will ever be able to prove it false. As a scientific theory, it fails. And because it has soaked up the lion’s share of funding, attracted some of the best minds, and effectively penalized young physicists for pursuing other avenues, it is dragging the rest of physics down with it.
With clarity, passion, and authority, Smolin charts the rise and fall of string theory and takes a fascinating look at what will replace it. A group of young theorists has begun to develop exciting ideas that, unlike string theory, are testable. Smolin not only tells us who and what to watch for in the coming years, he offers novel solutions for seeking out and nurturing the best new talent—giving us a chance, at long last, of finding the next Einstein.
"If you want to think in new ways about the interconnected universe around you, read Lee Smolin's provocative, inspiring book."—Margaret Geller, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Harvard University
"Bold, provocative, and, best of all, a joy to read."—Evelyn Fox Keller, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, MIT
"Smolin tells the somber tale of contemporary physics with virtuosity, passion, and courage."—Joy Christian, Oxford University
"An uncommonly clear and confident account of the great obstacles—and opportunities—facing physics today. . . .engrossing and illuminating."—Tim Ferris, author of Coming of Age in the Milky Way and The Big Shebang
"[Smolin] exudes a love of science and imagination, and a faith in the next generation of young physicists."—Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and columnist for Discover
"Lee Smolin is keeping his eyes open, asks sharp questions, and offers his delightful insights as a critical insider."—Gerard 't Hooft, Nobel Laureate, University of Utrecht
"[Smolin's] knowledge of [string theory] enables him to tell the story, and survey the road ahead, with clarity and grace."—Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Quicksilver
"Lee Smolin's understanding of theoretical physics is unusually broad and deep, and his critical judgments are exceptionally penetrating."—Roger Penrose, author of The Road to Reality and The Emperor's New Mind
"Lee Smolin has written an epic story with great energy and characteristic passion. . . .Thrilling."—Janna Levin, Barnard College of Columbia University, author of How the Universe Got Its Spots
"Clear, lively, and continuously interesting. . .Reading it is a very exciting experience and just what is needed at this time."—Kim Stanley Robinson, best-selling author of The Mars Trilogy
"Smolin offers a compelling argument. . . This is a well-written, critical profile of the theoretical physics community." Library Journal Starred
PART I THE UNFINISHED REVOLUTION 1: The Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics 3 2: The Beauty Myth 18 3: The World As Geometry 38 4: Unification Becomes a Science 54 5: From Unification to Superunification 66 6: Quantum Gravity: The Fork in the Road 80
PART II A BRIEF HISTORY OF STRING THEORY 7: Preparing for a Revolution 101 8: The First Superstring Revolution 114 9: Revolution Number Two 129 10: A Theory of Anything 149 11: The Anthropic Solution 161 12: What String Theory Explains 177
PART III BEYOND STRING THEORY 13: Surprises from the Real World 203 14: Building on Einstein 223 15: Physics After String Theory 238
PART IV LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE 16: How Do You Fight Sociology? 261 17: What Is Science? 289 18: Seers and Craftspeople 308 19: How Science Really Works 332 20: What We Can Do for Science 349
Notes 359 Acknowledgments 372 Index 375
This book is not for everyone, but contrary to another review, it is non-technical, quite accessible to an educated lay readership with an interest in modern physics.
Most of the book is a very comprehensible review of the development of physics in the twentieth century, ending with string theory. It is worth reading for this alone. And then the briefer critique begins.
String theory is unquestionably mathematical, arguably philosophical. But string theorists have never proposed a way to test it, a fundamental requirement for a scientific theory, and therefore it does not qualify as science as previously defined. To call it science you must redefine science, as string theory enthusiasts have advocated. Indeed, to the extent that it requires that two unproven mathematical theorems to be accepted on faith, as well as the unproven supersymetry theory, string theory is arguably theology.
A huge practical problem is that string theory is incompatible with general relativity. If string theory is correct, than general relativity must be wrong, despite its extensive empirical verification. I find that a far stretch for a theory with no empirical support.
Why do physicists continue to pursue it? Smolin provides a very interesting sociological/economic explanation.
If you sail through this book, you might want to tackle Peter Woit's "Not Even Wrong". It is more technical, though still written for an educated lay readership. It provided my first real understanding of quantum mechanics, though I had to read that chapter twice before I got it. It is also surprisingly amusing. A physicist with a sense of humor!
3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2007
This was a well written and consistently argued problem with not simply the current problem with String theory, but the fundametal problem with the way physics is executed in today's Academic venues. For those who are not facile with quantum physics, quantum gravity and string concepts etc., which he uses to support his arguments, the issues of group think and hi-jacking of a program by a senior elite et al is very clear and powerful. Consistent problems abound in today's various business cultures. Must read, especially for those who are accepting the public outcry on global warming -- it's not an inconvenient truth but a very convenient liberal political agenda
2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 19, 2007
This is a reasonably engaging book presenting a perspective on theoretical physics that has been rather under-represented in popular works. If you've read popular books advocating string theory and found them convincing, this book will give you a more balanced understanding of the theory's achievements and its limitations. Smolin argues that string theory is failing because it's an extension of the practical particle physics that has led to successes such as the Standard Model--an approach that has done so well, he says, that it's drowned out other avenues of research right at the moment when it has ground to a halt itself--and that what is needed now is more emphasis on re-examination of fundamental problems like spacetime and quantum mechanics. My views are almost opposite in a way (i.e. that the problem with string theory is that it isn't nearly practical enough), but Smolin is an expert whose opinion is worth reading. One point of irritation for me in the text is that I don't trust the analogies. Although I don't know the technical details of most of what he discussed, an analogy he made for something I do understand (fine tuning and the Higgs mechanism) appears to have nothing to do with the actual physics. The others could be better, but I can't tell. His discussion of the specifics of string theory is more balanced than in other books I've read, and that's what makes the book most useful in my view. The rest of his views are kind of out there, but interesting.
1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 18, 2006
This book raises questions about the value of string theory, suggesting that it is a very ingrown subject of interest mainly to those involved, and with few ramifications for either the real world or the philisophical one. Maybe more importantly, the author asks about how this situation evolved and why it continues: what is wrong with universities, with funding, and with the scientific community itself. He is bang on in this arena. The book is very readable and timely, and hopefully will provoke some real change in physics.
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Posted November 23, 2009
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