Customer Reviews: The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design
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The first thing to note is Professor Susskind's insistence on using 14 billion years as the time since the Big Bang whereas most authorities today give 13.7 billion years. That of course is a minor point. More troubling is Susskind's unconvincing and quixotic support of the anthropic principle in cosmology. He characterizes the principle as "really shorthand for a much richer set of concepts that I will make clear in the chapters that follow." (p. 7)

Unfortunately--perhaps revealing the poverty of my discernment--after reading nearly four hundred pages of rather dense text I was not able to appreciate his "richer set of concepts." What I do know is that "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle" (title of John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler's book from 1986), which I like to call the "anthropic cosmological fallacy," is really a kind of mystical expression that declares we are here only because of a miraculous series of events or conditions, when in fact we are here precisely because we are the sort of creatures that those events and conditions allow.

A better way to state the cosmological anthropic principle is simply this: if things in the universe were not as they are we would not be here. This avoids the unfortunate suggestion that somehow we cause the universe to be the way it is. We cause nothing. We are a result--an example--of what is possible considering the way the universe is. Notice "a" result, "an" example. Other beings might be here if the laws were different.

On page 363 Susskind writes that the anthropic principle "provides marvelous explanatory power for questions like, why is the cosmological constant small?" But this is not so. It happens that a small cosmological constant is compatible with a universe that allows life as we know it to exist. Again there is no causation, and life itself provides no explanation for a small cosmological constant. If aphids appear in your garden we can say that they would not appear in your garden if you grew cacti instead of vegetables. This does not mean that the growing of vegetables caused the existence of aphids. It merely says that of all the places that aphids could exist, your vegetable garden is one of them.

In the glossary Susskind defines the anthropic principle as "The principle that requires the laws of nature to be consistent with the existence of intelligent life." If we turn this around and say that "the physical characteristics of intelligent life must be consistent with the laws of nature," we can better see the direction of causality and why most physicists consider the anthropic principle to be vacuous.

It would help a lot if Susskind and others when they use phrases such as "for life to develop" to include the left-out qualification "for life to develop AS WE KNOW IT." That way they will be reminded that all this "fine-tuning"(a phrase that implies a fine-tuner, by the way) they are raving about is just an after-the-fact projection of an anthropomorphic perspective.

Another problem I had with this book is Susskind's unrelenting endorsement of string theory as something proven and true, as something "discovered." Also annoying is his answer to the fact that string theory has no--zero--experimental support: namely that experimental support isn't really necessary. See especially Chapter Nine "On Our Own?" in which he speculates on whether the Standard Model in particle physics (and of course string theory) could have been discovered without experimental verification. It might be better if Susskind said that he and the others "designed" or "created" string theory instead of saying they "discovered" it, which suggests that string theory is somehow true. A mathematical representation of the world is what they "discovered."

I also don't think that Susskind did a very good job of explaining why we should believe that string theory is an accurate description of our universe. I had the sense of a man trying to support his prodigal son by saying "Trust me he's going to turn out right" despite the fact that he hasn't done anything yet to prove it. "Just see how good-looking he is!" Well string theory may be a beautiful mathematical edifice, but until some beautiful experimental support comes along, it will remain as it objectively is, just one way of describing reality.

Curiously, after all the confident expressions about the truth of string theory, Susskind describes string theory as "our best guess for a theory of nature." (p. 302) A guess!

By the by, Susskind explains that after many years famed physicist Stephen Hawking gave up his heretical idea that information is lost in black holes and came around to agree with Susskind and most physicists that information cannot be lost. What is not mentioned in this book is Hawking's addendum. I suspect it is not mentioned since it amounts to a satire on Susskind's position. What Hawking said was that the information lost in black holes in this part of the "megaverse" would be preserved in other parts in which there are no black holes. In other words, Hawking came up with an argument, like that of Susskind's Landscape, which relied on information from parts of the universe which can never be reached! The salient point is that his statement, like the reality of Susskind's "Landscape," cannot be proven one way or the other

Sometimes we reveal ourselves and our ideas without meaning to. In reference to the idea of supersymmetry, Susskind writes, "...the whole exercise was only a mathematical game, a pure theoretical exploration of a new kind of symmetry that a world--some world not our own--might possess." (p. 241)

Could this be an unconscious but accurate expression of the true nature of string theory?
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on January 11, 2006
Glory to all prominent cosmologists trying to enlighten general reader about intricacies of physics and Universe! Each of them writes through the angle of his/her research. We have Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" focused on String Theory, Lisa Randall's "Warped Passages" presenting RS1 and RS2 brane/extra dimension model, Lawrence Krauss "Quintessence" on search for Dark Matter, Robert Kirshner's "The Extravagant Universe" describing Supernova Cosmology and purpose of Dark Energy, John Barrow's "The Constants of Nature" explaining measurements and importance of constants in cosmology - just to mention few examples.

"The Cosmic Landscape" title comes from string theorists Joe Polchinski, Raphael Bousso and author Leonard Susskind. As Lawrence Krauss points out: "in attempting to graphically explore the different ground states of a subset of the set of all string vacua, they realized that the diagram looked like complicated landscape...the images were so striking that they capitalized the description and invented what they called The Landscape".

However only small portion of Susskind's book is devoted to Landscape theory. Essentially it is a general string cosmology book, very much similar to Greene's "The Elegant Universe". First half of it lectures us about "traditional" popular topics like Einstein, Hubble and cosmological constant, geometry of space (remember these famous three pictures depicting flat, spherical and saddle space-time configuration?) particles, Planck scale, etc. After page 200 we get into strings and other related to it theories including landscape and multiverses. It is not about what and how we observe our Universe, but mostly how about math-derived ideas that are "elegant" but non-testable. What bothers me mostly though is, why author admixed Intelligent Design into his book. There is no need for it. Anthropic Principle, no matter how and on what grounds presented, can always be interpreted both ways: pro, or contra Intelligent Design. Leading cosmologists should refrain from "peddling" atheism in popular science books (see above mentioned titles). Lets Victor Stenger argue about "Science vs. Creator" - but then, he excels in doing so.
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on January 20, 2007
I'm not a physicist, but I could say that my interest in science stemmed from my background as an Engineer in electronics. And no need to go over the scientific aspects mentioned in the book since others have done a good job. Yet, I was surprised at a scientist, or rather the father of the String Theory, and quite knowledgeable in Quantum Mechanics, would treat man as a separate being from the universe. When we say that the universe is fine tuned to suite us, who is "us"? Aren't we a part of this universe in quantum physics perspective? And although I liked his scientific analogy a great deal and I learned a lot, not to say that I completely understood it, but his Anthropic views and conclusions threw me off balance. I'm sure that he has much more explaining to do before he could come to this conclusion. But generally speaking; if you are interested in science of quantum physics, it is a page-turner and the writer's ability to bring the complexities of this field to a layman's lever was amazing. And one more thing; the title was misleading when the writer used the word "illusion" in juxtaposition with"intelligent design"
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on May 9, 2013
I read "the black Hole war" first and it was much clear than this one, this is why i reccomend to start with the new one and understand the concepts there, then you'll be able to find this more digestible
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on August 24, 2011
Let me make one thing clear, Susskind is an accomplished founder of String Theory and a clear thinker. What he is not is a gifted writer. This book is dry and more of an introduction to String Theory and related concepts rather than a defense on why he believes Intelligent Design via the Anthropic Principle fails (which gets minimum air time). Susskind is those type of thinkers who come off much better orally than written. Even more strangely there is no select bibliography for better research into these questions. For an intro into String Theory this is a good start, for an intro into the debates over the Anthropic Principle and an intelligent designer you would do much better looking elsewhere.
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on October 18, 2007
Susskind's explanation of the background of string theory is interesting and entertaining. For many years, most people have accepted a definition of science put forward by the philosopher, Karl Popper, that requires verification of a scientific model or hypothesis by experimentation in a manner that permits "falsification" of the model or hypothesis. If there is no data that can be put into the model, or if the "data" has no meaning relative to the model, its not science. Susskind attacks Popper with anecdotes, not philosophy. He then proceeds to interpret the many solutions to string theory equations as an indicator of parallel universes with a simultaneous attack on some version of the anthropic principle. All of this is done to apply the mathematics of string theory to physical reality, a step that does not seem necessary in the same sense that it is not necessary for a geometry to correspond to physical reality. To me, parallel universes are purely speculation and science fiction, simply because there is no data to support this. If a choice were necessary between the Susskind's hypothesis of parallel universes and an anthropic principle as put forth by Barrow and Tipler in "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle", the latter seems a lot more satisfying because it is based on physics, with some speculation, but having data with models that are subject to falsification.
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on February 14, 2012
It suffers greatly (more than others) from the common fault in popular science books. It attempts to explain complicated concepts for the lay reader while omitting the necessary mathematical rigor. The result is predictable - the ideas are clear neither to the lay reader nor to more mathematically inclined one. A lot of long winded explanations that could be made clear by the inclusion of a little of mathematics. Why not include at least some of the math and take the time to explain it? The writing is somewhat tedious and it seems the author likes to boast a bit too much. The attempts at humor are horrible and face palming inducing. Well at least he did not put his face on the cover as some other physicist and writer of popular science books who shall remain nameless.
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on May 18, 2016
I subscribe to the Anthropic Principle.Sorry Mister Susskind but the odds are in my favor.I have to admit that especulation about the Landscape and the Multiverse is pretty cutting edge and far out but 1 out 10 to the 500 power,come on!.
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In order to show how life, at least as it is currently understood, arose in the universe requires that one have an understanding of how carbon atoms evolved from their elementary constituents, i.e. from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Having done that, one needs to explicitly show how DNA molecules can assemble from the amino acids that they are constructed from. Then one faces the formidable problem of how the proteins arising from RNA transcription fold into the observed configurations. These processes are extremely difficult to analyze given the current knowledge and tools from physics. To show even the first process requires an understanding of how electrons and protons can coalesce to form bound states.

Unfortunately, and contrary to the beliefs of many physicists, it is not possible at the present time to show how carbon atoms can form using the language of quantum field theory, which is the theory governing the interactions of elementary particles. Quantum field theory was invented to describe scattering events that occur in particle accelerator experiments. This it has done with incredible accuracy, an accuracy which has been unmatched by any other physical theory. The calculation and prediction of bound states has not been possible however from quantum field theory, although several proposals and attempts have been made over the last five decades. This inability has caused some physicists to view the theory with a large amount of skepticism. This skepticism is justified, since a successful theory of elementary particle interactions should be able to describe in detail how matter emerges from its elementary constituents.

Quantum field theory is regularly used in cosmology to study the evolution of the universe and is used to calculate various quantities of interest in the `Standard Model' of elementary particles. And again, it has been able to do these calculations with an incredible accuracy, as long as the interactions, or "couplings" between the particles are weak. A weak coupling between the particles enables one to calculate `cross-sections' for the interactions, which are essentially a measure of the probabilities of finding the particles in a certain final configuration after they have interacted and scattered. This involves the calculation of a series in successively higher powers of the coupling constant (being itself much less than one), with the higher-order terms becoming smaller and smaller. This is called `perturbative quantum field theory', and has generated an enormous amount of literature.

Given the inability to perform bound state calculations in quantum field theory, and given it is assumed to be the fundamental theory of particle interactions (excluding gravity), one cannot use it to meaningfully discuss the probability of life arising in the universe. Beginning with the Big Bang one cannot, using quantum field theory, follow the evolution of the universe to show how carbon atoms were formed or even the probabilities that such atoms, or any others for that matter, were formed.

For this reason, any discussion of the fine-tuning of the universe, i.e. of life being very sensitive to the values of the elementary parameters of the Standard Model, is not meaningful. Before one can say that life would not be "possible" one needs to know the probabilities that are involved in forming a carbon atom from electrons, neutrons, and protons. If one believes that quantum field theory is indeed the theory that governs the interactions between electrons, neutrons, and protons, one is forced to calculate the `transition amplitude' between a free state of these particles and their bound state in the carbon atom. This has not been done in the physics literature to this date, at least from the standpoint of purists who insist upon detailed calculations with a minimal number of assumptions. String theory, the generalization of quantum field theory that was invented to incorporate gravity into its theoretical language, is of no help either in the bound state problem.

If the content of this book is viewed in this context then it becomes rather uninteresting. That is not to say that it could not be read by someone interested in the current heated debate on the Anthropic Principle and what has been named `intelligent design.' In addition, a reader interested in string theory will find many interesting insights from a person who has been actively involved in its development. It is difficult to find these insights if the usual literature on string theory is consulted.

From the standpoint of calculations in quantum field theory that go beyond the perturbative regime, the Anthropic Principle and fine-tuning are very much open questions. Life (arising from bound states of electrons, protons, and neutrons) may depend very sensitively on certain parameters or it may in fact be very flexible with respect to these parameters. If one is sincerely interested in these questions one will have to delve into the morass of non-perturbative quantum field theory, an area that many physicists have shied away from, due to its extreme difficulty. Computing power will no doubt play a role, as it has, in attempting to understand the full spectrum of quantum field theory. There are many groups around the world who have been involved in this research, and progress has been slow but steady. Hopefully the "world according to Feynman", i.e. the world as described by perturbative quantum field theory, will eventually be replaced by the "world according to Wilczek", the latter being one where considerations of bound states of protons and neutrons are of main interest.
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on November 3, 2006
Indulges too much in conjectures which by their nature cannot be proved either true or false. Said that, the ideas are beautiful and the book reads as a novel
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