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

by Lee Smolin

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

“A splendid, edifying report from the front lines of theorectical physics” (San Francisco Chronicle).
In this illuminating book, renowned physicist Lee Smolin argues that fundamental physics—the search for the laws of nature—is 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. Even still, these speculations dominate the field, attracting the best talent and much of the funding, while creating a climate in which emerging physicists are often penalized for pursuing other avenues. 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.
“The best book about contemporary science written for the layman that I have ever read.” —The Times (London)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547348483
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/04/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 473,893
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist who has made influential contributions to the search for a unification of physics. He is a founding faculty member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. His previous books include The Trouble with Physics, The Life of the Cosmos, and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity.

Read an Excerpt


The Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics

FROM THE BEGINNING of physics, there have been those who imagined they would be the last generation to face the unknown. Physics has always seemed to its practitioners to be almost complete. This complacency is shattered only during revolutions, when honest people are forced to admit that they don't know the basics. But even revolutionaries still imagine that the big idea — the one that will tie it all up and end the search for knowledge — lies just around the corner.

We live in one of those revolutionary periods, and have for a century. The last such period was the Copernican revolution, beginning in the early sixteenth century, during which Aristotelian theories of space, time, motion, and cosmology were overthrown. The culmination of that revolution was Isaac Newton's proposal of a new theory of physics, published in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. The current revolution in physics began in 1900, with Max Planck's discovery of a formula describing the energy distribution in the spectrum of heat radiation, which demonstrated that the energy is not continuous but quantized. This revolution has yet to end. The problems that physicists must solve today are, to a large extent, questions that remain unanswered because of the incompleteness of the twentieth century's scientific revolution.

The core of our failure to complete the present scientific revolution consists of five problems, each famously intractable. These problems confronted us when I began my study of physics in the 1970s, and while we have learned a lot about them in the last three decades, they remain unsolved. One way or another, any proposed theory of fundamental physics must solve these five problems, so it's worth taking a closer look at each.

Albert Einstein was certainly the most important physicist of the twentieth century. Perhaps his greatest work was his discovery of general relativity, which is the best theory we have so far of space, time, motion, and gravitation. His profound insight was that gravity and motion are intimately related to each other and to the geometry of space and time. This idea broke with hundreds of years of thinking about the nature of space and time, which until then had been viewed as fixed and absolute. Being eternal and unchanging, they provided a background, which we used to define notions like position and energy.

In Einstein's general theory of relativity, space and time no longer provide a fixed, absolute background. Space is as dynamic as matter; it moves and morphs. As a result, the whole universe can expand or shrink, and time can even begin (in a Big Bang) and end (in a black hole).

Einstein accomplished something else as well. He was the first person to understand the need for a new theory of matter and radiation. Actually, the need for a break was implicit in Planck's formula, but Planck had not understood its implications deeply enough; he felt that it could be reconciled with Newtonian physics. Einstein thought otherwise, and he gave the first definitive argument for such a theory in 1905. It took twenty more years to invent that theory, known as the quantum theory.

These two discoveries, of relativity and of the quantum, each required us to break definitively with Newtonian physics. However, in spite of great progress over the century, they remain incomplete. Each has defects that point to the existence of a deeper theory. But the main reason each is incomplete is the existence of the other.

The mind calls out for a third theory to unify all of physics, and for a simple reason. Nature is in an obvious sense "unified." The universe we find ourselves in is interconnected, in that everything interacts with everything else. There is no way we can have two theories of nature covering different phenomena, as if one had nothing to do with the other. Any claim for a final theory must be a complete theory of nature. It must encompass all we know.

Physics has survived a long time without that unified theory. The reason is that, as far as experiment is concerned, we have been able to divide the world into two realms. In the atomic realm, where quantum physics reigns, we can usually ignore gravity. We can treat space and time much as Newton did — as an unchanging background. The other realm is that of gravitation and cosmology. In that world, we can often ignore quantum phenomena.

But this cannot be anything other than a temporary, provisional solution. To go beyond it is the first great unsolved problem in theoretical physics:

Problem 1: Combine general relativity and quantum theory into a single theory that can claim to be the complete theory of nature.

This is called the problem of quantum gravity.

Besides the argument based on the unity of nature, there are problems specific to each theory that call for unification with the other. Each has a problem of infinities. In nature, we have yet to encounter anything measurable that has an infinite value. But in both quantum theory and general relativity, we encounter predictions of physically sensible quantities becoming infinite. This is likely the way that nature punishes impudent theorists who dare to break her unity.

General relativity has a problem with infinities because inside a black hole the density of matter and the strength of the gravitational field quickly become infinite. That appears to have also been the case very early in the history of the universe — at least, if we trust general relativity to describe its infancy. At the point at which the density becomes infinite, the equations of general relativity break down. Some people interpret this as time stopping, but a more sober view is that the theory is just inadequate. For a long time, wise people have speculated that it is inadequate because the effects of quantum physics have been neglected.

Quantum theory, in turn, has its own trouble with infinities. They appear whenever you attempt to use quantum mechanics to describe fields, like the electromagnetic field. The problem is that the electric and magnetic fields have values at every point in space. This means that there are an infinite number of variables (even in a finite volume there are an infinite number of points, hence an infinite number of variables). In quantum theory, there are uncontrollable fluctuations in the values of every quantum variable. An infinite number of variables, fluctuating uncontrollably, can lead to equations that get out of hand and predict infinite numbers when you ask questions about the probability of some event happening, or the strength of some force.

So this is another case where we can't help but feel that an essential part of physics has been left out. There has long been the hope that when gravity is taken into account, the fluctuations will be tamed and all will be finite. If infinities are signs of missing unification, a unified theory will have none. It will be what we call a finite theory, a theory that answers every question in terms of sensible, finite numbers.

Quantum mechanics has been extremely successful at explaining a vast realm of phenomena. Its domain extends from radiation to the properties of transistors and from elementary-particle physics to the action of enzymes and other large molecules that are the building blocks of life. Its predictions have been borne out again and again over the course of the last century. But some physicists have always had misgivings about it, because the reality it describes is so bizarre. Quantum theory contains within it some apparent conceptual paradoxes that even after eighty years remain unresolved. An electron appears to be both a wave and a particle. So does light. Moreover, the theory gives only statistical predictions of subatomic behavior. Our ability to do any better than that is limited by the uncertainty principle, which tells us that we cannot measure a particle's position and momentum at the same time. The theory yields only probabilities. A particle — an atomic electron, say — can be anywhere until we measure it; our observation in some sense determines its state. All of this suggests that quantum theory does not tell the whole story. As a result, in spite of its success, there are many experts who are convinced that quantum theory hides something essential about nature that we need to know.

One problem that has bedeviled the theory from the beginning is the question of the relationship between reality and the formalism. Physicists have traditionally expected that science should give an account of reality as it would be in our absence. Physics should be more than a set of formulas that predict what we will observe in an experiment; it should give a picture of what reality is. We are accidental descendants of an ancient primate, who appeared only very recently in the history of the world. It cannot be that reality depends on our existence. Nor can the problem of no observers be solved by raising the possibility of alien civilizations, for there was a time when the world existed but was far too hot and dense for organized intelligence to exist.

Philosophers call this view realism. It can be summarized by saying that the real world out there (or RWOT, as my first philosophy teacher used to put it) must exist independently of us. It follows that the terms by which science describes reality cannot involve in any essential way what we choose to measure or not measure.

Quantum mechanics, at least in the form it was first proposed, did not fit easily with realism. This is because the theory presupposed a division of nature into two parts. On one side of the division is the system to be observed. We, the observers, are on the other side. With us are the instruments we use to prepare experiments and take measurements, and the clocks we use to record when things happen. Quantum theory can be described as a new kind of language to be used in a dialogue between us and the systems we study with our instruments. This quantum language contains verbs that refer to our preparations and measurements and nouns that refer to what is then seen. It tells us nothing about what the world would be like in our absence.

Since quantum theory was first proposed, a debate has raged between those who accept this way of doing science and those who reject it. Many of the founders of quantum mechanics, including Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and Louis de Broglie, found this approach to physics repugnant. They were realists. For them quantum theory, no matter how well it worked, was not a complete theory, because it did not provide a picture of reality absent our interaction with it. On the other side were Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and many others. Rather than being appalled, they embraced this new way of doing science.

Since then, the realists have scored some successes by pointing to inconsistencies in the present formulation of quantum theory. Some of these apparent inconsistencies arise because, if it is universal, quantum theory should also describe us. Problems, then, come from the division of the world required to make sense of quantum theory. One difficulty is where you draw the dividing line, which depends on who is doing the observing. When you measure an atom, you and your instruments are on one side and the atom is on the other side. But suppose I watch you working through a videocam I have set up in your laboratory. I can consider your whole lab — including you and your instruments, as well as the atoms you play with — to constitute one system that I am observing. On the other side would be only me.

You and I hence describe two different "systems." Yours includes just the atom. Mine includes you, the atom, and everything you use to study it. What you see as a measurement, I see as two physical systems interacting with each other. Thus, even if you agree that it's fine to have the observers' actions as part of the theory, the theory as given is not sufficient. Quantum mechanics has to be expanded, to allow for many different descriptions, depending on who the observer is.

This whole issue goes under the name the foundational problems of quantum mechanics. It is the second great problem of contemporary physics.

Problem 2: Resolve the problems in the foundations of quantum mechanics, either by making sense of the theory as it stands or by inventing a new theory that does make sense.

There are several different ways one might do this.

1. Provide a sensible language for the theory, one that resolves all puzzles like the ones just mentioned and incorporates the division of the world into system and observer as an essential feature of the theory.

2. Find a new interpretation of the theory — a new way of reading the equations — that is realist, so that measurement and observation play no role in the description of fundamental reality.

3. Invent a new theory, one that gives a deeper understanding of nature than quantum mechanics does.

All three options are currently being pursued by a handful of smart people. There are unfortunately not many physicists who work on this problem. This is sometimes taken as an indication that the problem is either solved or unimportant. Neither is true. This is probably the most serious problem facing modern science. It is just so hard that progress is very slow. I deeply admire the physicists who work on it, both for the purity of their intentions and for their courage to ignore fashion and attack the hardest and most fundamental of problems.

But despite their best efforts, the problem remains unsolved. This suggests to me that it's not just a matter of finding a new way to think about quantum theory. Those who initially formulated the theory were not realists. They did not believe that human beings were capable of forming a true picture of the world as it exists independent of our actions and observations. They argued instead for a very different vision of science: In their view, science can be nothing but an extension of the ordinary language we use to describe our actions and observations to one another.

In more recent times, that view looks self-indulgent — the product of a time we hope we have advanced beyond in many respects. Those who continue to defend quantum mechanics as formulated, and propose it as a theory of the world, do so mostly under the banner of realism. They argue for a reinterpretation of the theory along realist lines. However, while they have made some interesting proposals, none has been totally convincing.

It is possible that realism as a philosophy will simply die off, but this seems unlikely. After all, realism provides the motivation driving most scientists. For most of us, belief in the RWOT and the possibility of truly knowing it motivates us to do the hard work needed to become a scientist and contribute to the understanding of nature. Given the failure of realists to make sense of quantum theory as formulated, it appears more and more likely that the only option is the third one: the discovery of a new theory that will be more amenable to a realist interpretation.

I should admit that I am a realist. I side with Einstein and the others who believe that quantum mechanics is an incomplete description of reality. Where, then, should we look for what is missing in quantum mechanics? It has always seemed to me that the solution will require more than a deeper understanding of quantum physics itself. I believe that if the problem has not been solved after all this time, it is because there is something missing, some link to other problems in physics. The problem of quantum mechanics is unlikely to be solved in isolation; instead, the solution will probably emerge as we make progress on the greater effort to unify physics.

But if this is true, it works both ways: We will not be able to solve the other big problems unless we also find a sensible replacement for quantum mechanics.

The idea that physics should be unified has probably motivated more work in physics than any other problem. But there are different ways that physics can be unified, and we should be careful to distinguish them. So far we have been discussing unification through a single law. It is hard to see how anyone could disagree that this is a necessary goal.

But there are other ways to unify the world. Einstein, who certainly thought as much about this as anyone, emphasized that we must distinguish two kinds of theories. There are theories of principle and constructive theories. A theory of principle is one that sets up the framework that makes a description of nature possible. By definition, a theory of principle must be universal: It must apply to everything because it sets out the basic language we use to talk about nature. There cannot be two different theories of principle, applying to different domains. Because the world is a unity, everything interacts ultimately with everything else, and there can be only one language used to describe those interactions. Quantum theory and general relativity are both theories of principle. As such, logic requires their unification.


Excerpted from "The Trouble With Physics"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Spin Networks, Ltd..
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
The Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics,
The Beauty Myth,
The World As Geometry,
Unification Becomes a Science,
From Unification to Superunification,
Quantum Gravity: The Fork in the Road,
Preparing for a Revolution,
The First Superstring Revolution,
Revolution Number Two,
A Theory of Anything,
The Anthropic Solution,
What String Theory Explains,
Surprises from the Real World,
Building on Einstein,
Physics After String Theory,
How Do You Fight Sociology?,
What Is Science?,
Seers and Craftspeople,
How Science Really Works,
What We Can Do for Science,
Sample Chapter from TIME REBORN,
Buy the Book,
About the Author,

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The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Tunguz More than 1 year ago
I have been acquainted with Lee Smolin's work primarily through his contribution to the research in loop quantum gravity. This is a less well known approach to quantum gravity, and the most serious rival to string theory, the primary subject matter of "The Trouble with Physics". Even though I am not a big fan of String Theory, to say the least, I am also rather sceptical about all the other current approaches to the problem of quantum gravity, so I was a bit reluctant to read this book as I was not sure of how much valuable critique wasSmolin able to provide. My unfortunate prejudice was quickly put to rest, and this book proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises in the genre of popular advanced physics in a long while.Smolin is a great writer, both in terms of style and content, and he is able to engage the reader even thorough some of the more arcane topics in the modern theoretical physics. He does not waste too much time on the history of the subject, and one may want to find a more throughout introduction somewhere else. However, he gives an exciting first-person view of the developments in high-energy theoretical physics over the last few decades, and even those of us who are rather familiar with most of the major events and players are will findSmolin's account of interesting and fresh. Smolin's critique of the String Theory comes across as eminently well-founded and fair, especially when one takes into the account the fact that he's published numerous scientific articles in this field. Even though the title and the general tenor of this book is negative, the books overflows with optimism and excitement about Physics, and one can only hope that all the trouble that Physics has found itself lately in will be over before too long. In the meantime, we need more books and articles like "The Trouble with Physics". Although many of the topics in the book are rather advanced, the approach is fairly accessible and anyone with some basic knowledge of Modern Physics would benefit from reading this book. I would particularly recommend this book to people who are interested in pursuing high energy theoretical physics as their career, since it provides some sobering statistics about academic and funding prospects.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author and physicist Lee Smolin gives an informative and comprehensive account on the history of string theory, while review some of important concepts of physics. Great if you are already familiar with the concepts of spacetime, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes...but who isn't, right? The organization of the book is somewhat confusing because it keep getting back and expanding on concepts presented earlier, so a little back tracking is necessary. For example, ""you may remeber that now we have QCD wich came from QED after sussy was propposed"". It get easier as soon as you get familiar with the terms. Finally, I'll add that Smolin can be a very funny writter, especialy if you consider all the technicalities beign thrown at you (or hidden from you). Also gives some very interesting anecdotes.
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Very interesting and enlightening.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a two subject book: first it is a very good summary of the current hot topics in physics, from versions of quantum theory to string theory. Second, it is an essay about the problems that are inherent in how advance physics research is organized and funded, as evidenced by the lack of any significant advances in physics for an historically long time. The summary and discussion of various hot topics in physics is fascinating and very informative to those of us with some physics knowledge, but who are not at all current in that field. The second, in my opinion, is overly long, repetitive, and, as well as it is presented, just runs out of steam. But, the first easily justifies a 5 star rating for the book
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I love science...
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Willp More than 1 year ago
Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin notes, ¿One question that has bedeviled the [quantum] theory from the beginning is the question of the relationship between reality and the formalism¿, that is, between the real material world and our ideas about it. Smolin backs materialism against idealism writing, ¿It cannot be that reality depends on our existence.¿

He attacks the idea that it is `as though the universe had been designed to accommodate us¿. The universe has evolved in a way that has produced the conditions that make our lives possible. This does not mean that it was designed, still less that it was designed for us.

Smolin tells the story of how the American physicist Freeman Dyson in 1947 read Einstein¿s efforts to construct a unified-field theory and decided that they were junk. Unfortunately he didn¿t have the nerve to tell Einstein this ¿ but he should have done, because it might have helped Einstein to do better.

Currently, string theory is the leading paradigm in physics. But its research programme has found no grounding in experimental results or mathematical formulation. As one of its pioneers, Daniel Friedan, later wrote, ¿String theory cannot give any definite explanations of existing knowledge of the real world and cannot make any definite predictions. The reliability of string theory cannot be evaluated, much less established. String theory has no credibility as a candidate theory of physics.¿ Smolin writes, ¿the existence of a population of other universes is a hypothesis that cannot be confirmed by direct observation; hence, it cannot be used in an explanatory fashion.¿

Fortunately, there are approaches other than string theory, new theoretical and experimental developments, like doubly special relativity, which claims that in the early universe the speed of light was faster.

Smolin argues that there was continual progress in physics between 1780 and 1980, but none since. University physics departments have become dominated by conventional research programmes, threatening both academic freedom and progress. Original minds are dismissed as `too intellectually independent¿.

He argues that physics needs a revolution questioning the basic assumptions of relativity, quantum theory and the foundations of space and time. He ends by urging young people never to let others do their thinking for them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was on a best seller list on the internet. The title sounded interesting and slightly humerous. What it is really, is an article that should appear in a scientific journal. While I found the subject matter interesting for the first 10 pages, it wasn't funny and not very engaging. This was a statement piece and not for reader outside the physics/mathematics community.