The Trouble With Physics

I seem to have made some awful choices in literature lately. The last five books I have chosen to read have all been all-too-putdownable. I have read speculative fiction posing as science in Barabasi's "Bursts" (a terrible sequel to his excellent book "Linked"), and I have read grossly pretentious and self-tittilated review posing as philosophy in Marilynne Robison's "Absence of Mind". I shall not begin to mention the fiction I suffered through, and ultimately abandoned. However, one book has lifted me from dispair.

It was a book that fell off the shelf while I was browsing through Richard Dawkin's prolific output at the Heathrow airport. From the title to the introduction, I was hooked immediately. The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin is the best popular physics book that I have read for many years. Indeed, it almost makes up for all the other nonsense I have read lately. For one thing, Lee Smolin is writer of rare gift, somewhat like Dawkins in that respect. Second, he is master story teller, relating the years of complex ins and outs if the world of theoretical physics. I feel compelled to recommend this book to others.

Double trouble

Most books on fundamental physics today are just terrible, in my opinion. Either they are copies of much better books that were written earlier, or they are hyperbolae masquerading as ellipses, with a little alchemy thrown in, that glorify speculative ideas over science.

I had almost given up on reading books about fundamental physics. I used to love them -- starting with the excellent books my former departmental acquaintance Paul Davies and New Scientist writer John Gribbin. It was around the time when Stephen Hawking turned his hand to writing, however, that things took a turn for the worse. Although he was not the first, his star-power unleashed a veritable big bang of speculative hubris on the part of theoretical physicists claiming to know the Truth (indeed, the `mind of God'), or juggle with `God particles' -- in a triumph of ego over substance. It was popular at the time to tout the phrase from Alice in Wonderland about being able to believe "six impossible things before breakfast". The crazier the idea, the more theoretical physicists and their populists loved to lord them over readers, essentially saying: What?! You don't believe this? You are just not as smart as we are!

In truth that `smartness' was more often a premature suspension of disbelief that is starting to unravel. Ultimately, I migrated away from this environment towards condensed matter physics and later computer science to escape the trend, but it has been chasing me through the library catalogue, fueled ultimately by the politics of science. I have already commented on that in Selling Research by the Pound so I won't say more. So, must all science be this way?

Not so with Lee Smolin. Smolin's views on physics (indeed, science) are quite identical to my own. It was a joy to read his book from the viewpoint of someone who stayed the course, rather than fleeing for cover. Smolin uncovers the hypocrisy that has infused fundamental physics (especially) since the 1970s and points out that no real progress has been made in the past 50 years!

What has beloved physics turned into? Certainly not science, that much is certain. It has become a vanity fair and media circus, often little better than pulp fiction, which overshadows the work of real science. String theorists especially have stolen far too much attention.

It pains me, in fact, to see intellectually gifted people make these errors of judgement, while masquerading under the banner of science. It's an ethical issue, and to me it is every bit as repulsive as the spoon benders and mediums that infest television channels these days, pretending to solve mysteries by talking to the dead.

Science is culture

Science is a part of our culture, it is part of the stories we tell about the world. It can never pretend to be the truth (even on a good day). It represents our closest available understanding of what we think we know, which is not the same thing at all. Since the mid 1980s string theorists and their cronies, have professed to have the answers to the ultimate questions, while in fact ignoring gaping holes and evidence to the contrary. In doing so they have even blocked other avenues of investigation, perhaps not intentionally.

As a theoretical physicist in the 1980-1990s I rejected string theory, not because of the theory (which has many attractive qualities), but because of the culture of insider arrogance and narcicism that grew up around it. It was therefore breath of fresh air to read Lee Smolin's excellent book telling a far more authorative story than my own, but confirming my instincts exactly.

I shall not spoil the book by retelling any of its episodes. Let me only say that if you want an insight into what is really exciting in physics and want to be inspired by the excitement of physics, without having to choke down "importance inflation", then read his book. It is not just a critique of poor judgement, it is pointer to where things might be going next. And the prospects are truly exciting.