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The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String…

The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a… (2006)

by Lee Smolin

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I'm really interested in this topic, but I just don't have the stamina for long-winded and complex nonfiction. I mean, I finished the book and I checked out another book on a similar topic so who knows what I'm doing. ( )
  captainbooknerd | Jan 11, 2018 |
“The Weinberg-Salam model requires that the Higgs field exist and that it manifest itself as the new elementary particle called the Higgs boson, which carries the force associated with the Higgs field. Of all the predictions required by the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces, only this one has not yet been verified.”

In “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin

Hello physicists and Lee Smolin in particular,

I can't say I agree with such a hard stance against string theory personally like Smolin does, but I’m what’s known as a stupid person, so it doesn’t really matter what I think. However, I do feel it is healthy for science to have people that challenge ideas from all sides. All this will do is galvanise people to work harder to provide evidence to prove or disprove any theory that tries to describe realty. Science thrives in areas of confliction.

Life is the memory of what happened before you died, i.e. we cannot extricate ourselves from the universe in any way shape or form, including our "objective," apparently repeatable theoretical notions. By definition, there is only one UNI-verse. If you want to call it a universe of multiverses or a multiverse of universes, or balls of string with no limits, no problem, but there is only one of everything that is and isn't. This assemblage of atoms, no different from any other atoms, called the human body, has a life and death, as do the stars; it also has an internal resonance we like to call the consciousness of self-awareness of existence. We all too often, de facto, accept that there is a universe outside our "selfs", our bodies, i.e. it’s just me, my-self, and I, and the universe that surrounds my body, as if there were a molecular separation of some sort. This starting point for science, i.e., this assumed separation from a universe that surrounds our (apparent) bodies is the first thing that has to go. By definition there is only one UNI-verse that includes Heisenberg, I, the photos and videos of flying objects that make apparently perfect right angle turns at thousands of miles per hour, which we casual observers are not able to identify, black holes, white holes, pink holes, blue holes, our memories, our records, not to mention everything else. It's all much ado about nothing. As someone else used to say, "This IS the cosmic drama," we are living at the interface of the Sun's outgoing light and the apparent incoming light from the universe that appears to surround the Sun. Ah, but, what if we live in a black hole and don't realize it? That would mean the night sky, which most of us consider to exist outside the sun would actually be all the light of the sun after doing a 180, except, and here's the kicker, daylight, i.e., the light of the sun that we experience as sunshine. Maybe we need to revise the old coin that says yin and yang, black holes and white holes, matter and anti-matter, light energy and dark energy, night and day, black and white, etc. ad nauseum, are two APPARENT sides of the same coin as perceived by bunches of atoms they (we) are observing other atoms in a universe that is completely outside their (our) own "personal universe" as defined by their (our) sensory input. In other words, the interface between black and white colors our apparent existence. That sophistry and $2.25 will get you a ride on the tube.

I am not a string theorist but back in the day I considered myself a physicist who knew a few physicists doing physics for a living. Something that might surprise people to hear is that many (perhaps the majority?) of string theorists did not spend any time thinking of ways the idea could make observable predictions. The reason for this was that the typical energy scale of string theory is much higher than even scales we try to probe in the early universe in cosmology. They argue that getting string theory to say something specific about physics 'beyond the standard model' would be like trying to describe friction of a carpet in terms of quarks and leptons i.e. theoretically conceivable but practically impossible. Seen in these terms though, string theory itself is a generalization of the 'theory of carpets' i.e., it is built as an extension of ideas we know are very successful at familiar energy scales: quantum mechanics and relativity. Indeed, the reason the 'typical' energy scales of stringy stuff are thought to be so "unreachably" high is due to an extrapolation about the strength of gravity based on the value of Newton's gravitational constant you can measure on a table-top on earth.

In my opinion this huge extrapolation is a dangerous one as there are reasons to believe that they are things going on in physics before this high-energy scale which may change our understanding of things very much (e.g. the observed value of the 'cosmological constant'). These things could render any of the assumptions about string theory invalid. This represents a rather peculiar situation. Due to their assumptions, the string theory community is likely incapable of making any predictions about anything in our universe. Progress regarding the 'truth' of string theory therefore will not come from string theorists doing string theory calculations but from other physicists experimentally probing the assumptions that string theory relies on.

The question remains whether string theory has advanced understanding of the physical world. They had like one vague prediction for the LHC and when it didn't come true there were all like "ah, it only emerges at much higher energies!". LMAO! String theory is religion at this point. On the other hand, I side with Smolin when he says he’s interested in a testable theory. It just so goes that Smolin's ideas are not fatalist, which turns many militant atheist types off because it means life is not an accident; what that says about God, his position is completely agnostic. Considering the symbiosis we find in nature, his views make a lot of sense and unify well with a lot of biology and ecology.

I'm told string theory is great mathematics though, so great one String Theorist ended up winning the highest price in mathematics, the Fields Medal. I’m talking about Edward Witten who has also lots of references in Smolin’s book.

Between 2006 (when this book came out; see quote above regarding the yet still to be discovered Higgs’ particle), 2012 (when the Higgs boson was “discovered”), and 2017 (when I’m writing this review), what have we to show for String Theory? Not much. And since physicists have spent a lifetime ignoring observational data, they don't feel in the least bit accountable for (1) the plain truth (2) being wrong or (3) all the lives that they destroyed along the way when they mocked the people who were trying to tell them that they were wrong. Over the next few years you will see them lay claim to a beautiful theory of Quantum Gravity, even capable of making contact with experiment. They will even tell themselves that they were really working on this theory of Quantum Gravity all along.

Well, bottom-line: I hope someone kills String Theory, it's getting to the stage where physics is starting to resemble pseudoscience, and lots of pretty and convoluted theories that are essentially untestable.

NB: I don’t care about String Theory; what I really want is FTL travel. I want what the Tomorrow’s People had: flicking long distances in time and space in the blink of an eye; I want the Star Trek replicator that makes my dinner when I want it and how I like it; I want my phaser at stun; I want all of this. If the String Theory gets me there asap then spend, spend, spend... ( )
  antao | Sep 19, 2017 |
Smolin's The Trouble with Science is kind of a weird book. It was originally meant as a book about the sociology of the scientific community, but the string theory portion swelled to make the book more commercially viable. And to Smolin's credit, that part of the book was what originally pulled me in; he does an excellent job of detailing the history of science over the last few decades, including the developments that led to string theory as well as alternative programs. But about 3/4ths of the way through the book, the topic shifts to problems within the scientific community with a big clunk, and you sense that's his true passion.

One of the fundamental issues—one only semi-directly dealt with at the end of the book and never explicitly said—is that our social expectations of theory and the needs of science have come to be at odds. We want any new theories to agree with existing ones (for the standard model is possibly the most successful scientific theory ever), but need ones that disagree to actually give us testable predictions and cope with the unexpected results of experimentation. So we get theories, both string and otherwise, that only differ on the very large or very small scales. And whenever we do find unexpected effects at those scales, we are often left with nothing that had predicted them.

He does close, though, with a wonderful paen to the different "seers" in the field, those who have pursued inconsistencies and worries about the structure of theories for decades. They ran in the face of the field's traditional incentive structure, which prizes publishable work to earn tenure and looks for consistent output that precludes tackling the big fundamental issues of physics. It's hard to not tie this to Bret Victor's "Inventing on Principle" talk that's been circulating lately, and see the same lesson here. Pursuing a principle as a guiding light can lead you to much greater things than simply seeking to excel or solve a specific problem. It's a vision of the way the world should be, one that leads you to the skills and the means you need to make it a reality. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
To qualify my review a little better, before I read this book I read:
Black Holes and Baby Universes (Stephen Hawking)
The Universe in a Nutshell (Hawking)
The Grand Design (Hawking)
The Hidden Reality (Brian Greene)
The Fabric of the Cosmos (Greene)
The Elegant Universe (Greene)

Lee Smolin's style is similar to Greene's in that he describes a chronological history of the development of string theory and gives simple analogies to explain complex topics. But his analogies are simple and more brief. Of the above, I'd recommend Greene's work and then try Smolin. If you have to pick one, pick Smolin's work.

I felt fairly well-versed in string theory and its importance to modern physics. While Greene points out some of the controversial, philosophical nature of string theory both he and Hawking purport that a theory need not create falsifiable propositions in order to be a "theory." This has always been problematic for me. Smolin, who is a respected physicist himself, opens this book by asking physics has not made any progress in 25 years. Nobel prizes require verification by experiment, which is not possible with most of string theory. His concern is that string theory is being held up as truth and that physicists suspend the definition of "science." The dictionary definition of "theory" is changing in statements about it. Fewer universities are funding positions to research alternative possibilities, it's become near impossible to get a chair or your research published if it's not pushing string theory. Smolin has purportedly tried to be a bridge between the string theorists and the ever-shrinking non-stringers, but points out through various articles, blogs, message boards, and others how vitriolic the string theorists can be. String theorists seem to always look for verification from "thought leaders" and any criticism is met with hostility. Smolin points out that even Einstein was wrong about things, this is the way science works-- no one should be above inquiry.

One problem with ST is that the various theories that have spun off of it are built on more assumptions and not proof. In fact, one key assumption that string theorists held from 1984-2001--that the finiteness of the theory had been proven long ago-- was discovered by Smolin and others to be false. He contacted the physicist most often cited by researchers as having proved the point, and he admitted he'd done no such thing. That level of blind devotion is a bit concerting. Theorists are a little like economists (which I am) who fit a curve. They invent models with a large number of constants, and then tweak those constants to fit any new discoveries. This is hugely problematic as various theories are predicting things found not to hold in the rest of physics.

What use is a theory that spins off an infinite number of possible theories? It's been two decades and string theory has yet to produce any hypotheses that are testable, with current technology (In The Universe in a Nutshell Hawking writes that you need a particle collider larger than the size of the universe to prove some aspects of string theory, and that's fine with him).
Physicists have bent the rules in order to stick with ST, why don't they demand the old rules for the rest of science?

Smolin writes that they probably should have stopped when they got above 4 dimensions necessary for string theory-- instead of the 10 required. The extra six curled-up dimensions seem to be a way of "fitting the curve," so to speak. So-called "M-theory," which Greene holds up as reality, actually has no precise equations. It's very vague and imprecise and fits no definition of the word "theory."

Smolin explains the importance of the hadron collider, he wrote the book before it was finished. The first thing the collider had to show was the Higgs-Boson or else all of physics would be "in deep trouble." He lists other things that the collider would need to show and explains them well. Super-symmetry itself, hopefully to be proven by the collider, does not require string theory, there are other alternatives (which author has worked on).

He explains the evolution of string theory as the grand unifying theory and its requirements:
Requires super-symmetry
Requires that special relatively hold
Requires 10 dimensions "like a car with the features you want but extras you'd rather not have."
- 6 are curled up.
- Calabi-Yau shapes
Richard Feynman himself was skeptical and many physicists jumped ship at various points above. But as string theory evolved, became cult-like-- you were in or out. Researchers speak of its "elegance" and "beauty," and its supposed symmetry, which was never proven, was held up as one of its most important aspects. Smolin has serious "issues" with new string theory pushing a brane universe (he doesn't even mention the latest idea, that we're on a hologram, or Brian Greene's assertion that we're probably all just in a simulated multiverse on someone's computer).

Smolin works in quantum gravity, and points out that if dark matter or dark energy exist then string theory has problems. He takes issue with some of the original research in the 1970s on the inflationary multiverse, which Hawking and Greene basically hold up as true, because the original researcher imagined distributing the cosmological constant randomly across all possible universes while holding all else constant-- where he should have distributed all characteristics, otherwise the prediction of the constant will be even farther off. Indeed as I write this (2015), recent evidence cited to support cosmic inflation appears to be caused by cosmic dust. The media doesn't seem to cover events if they are un-discovered so much as they hype them when they are, as in this case. I found Smolin's discussion of quantum gravity fascinating. When the media reports on evidence found for dark matter they don't point out that it bodes trouble for the string theory and inflation for which they'd recently also run stories.

Smolin points out that NASA Pioneer 10 and 11 vessels travelling through space have not traveled in a trajectory that was predicted by laws of physics. However, the craft showed unanticipated acceleration, confirmed by multiple measurements. See the wikipedia on the Pioneer anomaly. This measurement confirmed by multiple instruments. Scientists had tried to control for other variables, but had no luck as of Smolin's writing in determining what is amiss. This is important because it may have something to do with quantum gravity. (According to wikipedia, scientists were confident they'd determined the source of the acceleration by 2012.)

Could there be dark matter or dark energy? Is the speed of light always constant? Again, observed data suggest that it might not be and if general relativity does not hold, every string theory falls apart. Smolin contends in a chapter on the "sociology" of the field that theorists have "groupthink," and look to thought leaders for approval. They have not abandoned their quest in the face of evidence and criticism and Smolin finds the trend toward quasi-philosophical thinking quite disturbing.

Smolin writes that quantum gravity seems to be regaining momentum. It creates falsifiable propositions and is potentially a unifying theory itself. Even so, he closes the book with a look at pioneers who have braved poverty, isolation, and losing their prestige to do their own research outside the paradigm. Some have ended up contributing greatly to the field of physics, but the free-thinkers seem to be a dying breed under the pressure of modern academia.

I should note that Smolin is no intelligent design theorist, he rejects what he sees as a false dichotomy put forth by Hawking and Susskind that one either has to believe in God or string theory. He argues that if and when string theory is finally discarded, physicists will still examine other alternatives to explain where the universe came from. In the beginning of the book, he argues about evolution with probably the worst example of supposed Christian apologists I've ever seen, such that I doubt whether they really existed (people who believed dinosaurs are all still alive hiding in African caves). He enjoys philosophy and knows enough not to engage in philosophical debate, except in showing the illogic nature of the string theorists.

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. I found Smolin to be concise and engaging, he comes across as a peace maker. Some of the complaining about modern academia sounds a bit like whining, but it's universal across all fields so it's not unique to Smolin. I highly recommend this book and would like to read Smolin's other works. ( )
1 vote justindtapp | Jun 3, 2015 |
The more I read of Lee Smolin, the more I appreciate him. This book was his warning cry that theoretical physics was entering a cul de sac, and risking having nothing meaningful to say about the nature of reality because of its infatuation with elegant mathematics over testable hypotheses.

I was struck by his using the term "postmodern physics" to describe this situation. Indeed, the faddish, fragmented, highly abstract world of contemporary physical theory has its parallel elsewhere in academics. We're all living in the enormous aftermath of some hope for a grand synthesis that never happened.

Why would anyone who's not a scientist care about these things? Because science, particularly theoretical physics and evolutionary biology when taken together, is attempting to give us our origin story and our place in the scheme of things without the kind of social coercion and enforced ignorance that political ideology or religion do. It's a tremendously worthwhile thing - if it doesn't become another unaccountable priesthood in its own right. And if it is honest about its limitations - its ability to create useful models of reality, but not to duplicate or replace it.

But if science is becoming its own Church, full of careerism, orthodoxy, and arrogance, then its helpfulness is reduced and its danger is increased. Physics has obtained too much power over the physical world not to be humble. Smolin's is a welcome voice of caution and hope from the inside. ( )
1 vote CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
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Secondo Smolin, la teoria delle stringhe, che ha regnato incontrastata negli ultimi venti anni, è prossima alla fine. Piú che una vera e propria teoria è una congettura, un’elaborazione matematica raffinata e imponente, ma che manca di ogni possibilità di sperimentazione, di verificabilità. I suoi sostenitori, infatti, non sono mai stati in grado di provare nessuna delle loro ardite idee, e non pare che abbiano alcuna possibilità di riuscirvi nemmeno nel prossimo futuro. La scoperta di un’«energia oscura», che sempre piú velocemente sembra spingere lontano l’universo, non è spiegabile dalla teoria delle stringhe e rimane un vero rompicapo per i suoi sostenitori. Lee Smolin è convinto che i fisici stiano facendo l’errore di inseguire una teoria «bella» ed «elegante», invece di trovarne una che sia supportata dagli esperimenti. Il celebre scienziato americano, che agli inizi della carriera aveva aderito alle tesi unificanti della teoria delle stringhe, oggi critica la direzione che la fisica sembra aver intrapreso con troppa sicurezza, e sprona i colleghi a cercare strade alternative, sottolineando e descrivendo il lavoro particolarmente promettente di alcuni di loro.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 061891868X, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:59 -0400)

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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.… (more)

» see all 4 descriptions

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