three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
By: 
Lee Smolin
user_rating: 
0

The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next

A-The Trouble With PhysicsThe politics of science—particularly as debate rages among physicists over the value of a "string theory" of fundamental particles that some hope might eventually connect all forces of nature into a Theory of Everything—discourages the efforts of scientists who look elsewhere for inspiration. So says Lee Smolin, a reformed string theorist and outspoken commentator on what he sees as an academic patronage system that encourages further research into string theory despite a lack of experimental evidence that supports its claims. Smolin explains how string theory works (or doesn’t), how scientists’ pet projects get funded, how "groupthink" compromises scientific objectivity, and how testable alternatives could take physics in new and possibly more productive directions.
Houghton Mifflin. 416 pages. $26. ISBN: 0618551050

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Smolin makes a very strong case, delivering in the latter part of his readable, mind-stretching book a jeremiad that we in academe can agree with. … Beyond the polemics, however, and his questions regarding string theory, Smolin serves up an excellent overview of the state of contemporary physics." Sam Coale

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The book is so smoothly written that it never turns dull, not even during its longer, semi-technical passages. It is written for laypeople, but it is also a serious piece of scholarship; historians and sociologists of science will value its insights about the evolution of scientific belief systems, which resemble high school cliques and religious sects more than scientists care to admit." Keay Davidson

Globe and Mail (Canada) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Smolin argues that the theory’s popularity has less to do with empirical evidence than with academic politics. … Although I admire the authority and passion of Smolin’s diagnosis, I disagree with his prescription." John Horgan

New Scientist 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Smolin is an excellent writer and a wide-ranging thinker, and his book is extremely readable. … While there is plenty to worry or complain about when it comes to string theory, Smolin’s concerns are not always compelling." Sean Carroll

AK Democrat-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"Smolin may be correct in philosophizing about the problems in the practice of science today, but for me The Trouble with Physics is simply this: We don’t know if string theory is right … and it looks as if we need another decade or two to find out." Fred Bortz

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"In the end, Smolin admits that he hasn’t managed to do much better than string theorists, and his book is ‘a form of procrastination.’ One hopes he will soon dive back into the fog and start making connections." K. C. Cole

Critical Summary

In The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin, founder of the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada, and the author of several popular science books, including The Life of the Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, takes a complex debate on a highly theoretical topic and makes it accessible and interesting to the general public. With gusto, the author describes the infighting and politics that hinder progress in physics. Opinions vary on the success of Smolin’s call to action in sections where he skewers his colleagues in theoretical physics for their shortsightedness. Reviewers, however—most of them physicists—tend to agree that string theorists’ inability to empirically test their results will continue to undermine their efforts.