- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Pegasus Books; 1 edition (August 1, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1605984728
- ISBN-13: 978-1605984728
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 61 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #710,026 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth 1st Edition
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*Starred Review* When a prominent theorist acknowledges how many spatial geometries superstring theory allows—“More numerous than grains of sand on a beach. Every beach”—Baggott sees not conceptual fertility but scientific failure. After all, theorists cannot identify any of the absurdly numerous geometries they contemplate as superior to others as a description of reality. Unfortunately, Baggott finds that some theory-mad physicists simply do not care about reality—or about the scientific method as a way of discovering it. Baggott’s own commitment to empirical reality pervades his overview of six principles foundational to the orthodox science behind the accepted model of the universe. To be sure, readers will soon realize that that model leaves large questions unanswered: Why, for instance, won’t relativity and quantum mechanics play together? Why does the big bang look so fine-tuned? Though he acknowledges the lacunae, Baggott argues that scientists should not be rushing into the gaps with wildly imaginative theories exempt from empirical testing. Boldly naming names, Baggott indicts prominent theorists—even Stephen Hawking—for spinning fairy-tale physics in fantasizing about multiple universes, anthropic principles, M-theory branes, and string-theory vibrational patterns. Solid physics, he warns, is fading into airy metaphysics. Certain to broaden and intensify the debate over what counts as science. --Bryce Christensen
“From superstrings and black holes to dark matter and multiverses, modern theoretical physics revels in the bizarre. Now it’s wandered into the realm of “fairy-tale,” says science writer and former “practicing” physicist Baggott (A Beginners Guide to Reality). Quantum theory led scientists to create a Standard Model of physics in the mid-20th century, but that model is really an amalgam of distinct individual quantum theories necessary to describe a diverse array of forces and particles. Meanwhile, astronomical observations have revealed that 90% of our universe is made of something we can’t see (dark matter); some mysterious “dark energy” is pushing all of it apart at an accelerating rate, and physicists are gambling on a “supersymmetry” theory in hopes that it could be the holy grail, a Grand Unified Field Theory that might lend coherence to the Standard Model while explaining some of the phenomena the latter fails to account for―despite the fact, Baggott says, that for “every standard model problem it resolves, another problem arises that needs a fix.” In consistently accessible and intelligent prose, Baggott sympathetically captures the frustrations of physicists while laying out a provocative―and very convincing―plea for a reality check in a field that he feels is now too “meta” for its own good.”
- Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
“Baggott has done something that I would have thought impossible in a popular book. He navigates successfully between the Scylla of mathematical rigor and the Charybd is of popular nonsense.”
- The Wall Street Journal
“The basic history behind the quantum revolution is well known, but no one has ever told it in such a compellingly human and thematically seamless way.”
- Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
- The Economist
Top customer reviews
The truth is that the standard narrative may be all wrong and physicists may have been going down the wrong path for the last thirty years.
Jim Baggott's Farewell to Reality is excellent for its exploration of the metaphysics of science, but for the lay reader, the physics itself may be more than a little daunting. For example, while I understand the signficance of the "Bell Inequality," I'm still pretty sure that I don't understand the experiment that proved (or disproved) it. Nonetheless, the take-away that the measurement of one "entangled" beam of photons determines the quantum state of another entangled beam of photons faster than the speed of light is still an astonishing concept.
Baggott's book is roughly divided into three sections. A section on the metaphysical foundation of science, a section on the standard narrative of the standard model of physics and a section on how the standard narrative distorts or ignores the metaphysical foundations of science.
The first section is, in my opinion, worth the price of admission. It is heartening to hear someone make the "no bones" admission that science has metaphysical foundations that do not come from science. Far too often I have heard science loving internet atheists repeat their view that philosophy is "bunk" and only science matters. This view seems to have been sucked up into - or emanated down from - scientists themselves. I've heard Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss make the same argument.
Baggott, in contrast, rationally points out that science is necessarily "metaphysical" because we do not have access to things in themselves, but only to the things as we measure them. There is a reality that doesn't go away when we aren't measuring it, but we access that reality only through measurements and sense perception, which involves interpretation and reasoning, and, therefore, logic and human understanding. Thus, science is inherently tied up with metaphysics, and the important thing is to make sure that our metaphysics are correct (and out in the open so we know what we are doing.) With that in mind, Baggott lays out 6 principles that he believes makes science to be "science," to wit:
1. The Reality Principle - "Reality is a metaphysical concept, and as such it is beyond the reach of science."
2. The Factual Principle - "Our knowledge and understanding of empirical reality are founded on verified scientific facts derived from careful observation and experiment. But the facts themselves are not theory-neutral. Observation and experiment are simply not possible without reference to a supporting theory of some kind."
3. The Theory Principle - "Although physical theories are constructed to describe empirical facts about reality, they are nevertheless founded on abstract mathematical (we could even say metaphysical) concepts. the process of abstraction from facts to theories is highly complex, intuitive and not subject to simple, universal rules applicable to all science for all times."
4. The Testability Principle - "The principle requirement of a scientific theory is that it should in some way be testable through reference to existing or new facts about empirical reality."
5. The Veracity Principle - "It is not possible to verify a scientific theory that it provides absolute certainty for all times. A theory is instead accepted (or even tolerated on the basis of its ability to survive the tests and meet additional criteria of simplicity, efficacy, utility, explanatory power and less rational, innately human measures such as beauty."
6. The Copernican Principle - "The universe is not organized for our benefit and we are not uniquely privileged observers. Science strives to remove 'us' from the centre of the picture, making our existence a natural consequence of reality rather than the reason for it."
Baggott does a great job of explaining the basis for his principles by offering historical examples showing how science works in reality as opposed to how it has been romanticized by its fans.
The second section presents the standard narrative of the standard model of particle physics and cosmology. This is an important section to read, although it does become impenatrable on a fairly regular basis. On the other hand, there are points of crystline clarity, so it is worth reading, and essential for the next section. Also, even though Baggott seems to be presenting the view as the most sincere fan of physics would present it, there are times when we see problems peeking through the golden nimbus of scientific confidence.
The great virtue of this section is that it takes the reader along, step by step, so that the reader can understand the good faith and logic that have led physicists to the place they find themselves in. The notion of "string theory" and "M-theory" and "many worlds" has coherence. They meet the "test of truth as coherence," i.e., the idea that one idea that is coherent with a true idea should share in that truth. The problem is that science is not a system of "truth as coherence," such as philosophy or theology. Rather, science is a system based on "truth as correspondence" to external reality. When science abandons that perspective, it starts looking more and more like philosophy and theology - not bad enterprises as such, just not science.
The third section takes the hood off of the standard model for a peek at the engine. The problem with the standard model is that for thirty years it has failed to produce any new developments or testable theories. Physics has been faced with anomalies in the production of new particles and physical constants and laws that seem to be mathematically generated to fit observations. These constants and laws do not predict anything. Worse, they predict things - particles and extra dimensions - that have eluded any kind of observation or test. Worse still, these theories don't even purport to offer a theory that can be tested.
Baggott's particular criticism is directed to "string theory" and "M-theory" - which isn't a theory - and the various kinds of "superstrings" and "supersymmetries," and the "many worlds" theories and the rest of the "gosh-wow!" baggage that we - particularly those of us who are science fanboys or science fiction geeks - are fed as the latest, true thing. The problem is that they are not science, according to Baggott. With respect to the "multiverse theory," Baggott explains:
''In case we've forgotten, let's quickly remind ourselves of the status of the multiverse described by superstring/ M-theory. We first assume that elementary particles can be represented as vibrations in filaments of energy. We assume a supersymmetric relationship between fermions and bosons. We assume that superstring theory's extra spatial dimensions are compactified in a Calabi- Yau space. We accept the M-theory conjecture. We assume that our universe is but one of a large number (possibly an infinite number) of inflating spacetime regions in a multiverse. We assume that the 10500 different possible Calabi- Yau shapes are physically realized in different universes, resulting in universes with different physical parameters -- different particle spectra, different physical constants and laws. There is no observational or experimental evidence for any of these assumptions. So, my degree of belief in hM is virtually non-existent. Applying Bayesian logic at this point doesn't change the picture much, if it all."
Baggott, Jim (2013-08-06). Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth (pp. 282-283). Pegasus Books. Kindle Edition.
In other words, it's all turtles all the way down, but in this case, it's all assumptions.and math all the way down, unconnected to reality.
Baggott calls this kind of physics "fairy tale" physics.
How did we get here? For those of us who are philosophy-lovers, Baggott offers this tantalizing rejoinder to literalists like the physicist Lawrence Krauss' s attacks on philosophy:
"Metaphysics is an inherent and perfectly natural part of the language we use in our dialogue with nature. Eliminate it completely and the language becomes devoid of real meaning. We find we can no longer hold a sensible conversation in it."
Baggott, Jim (2013-08-06). Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth (p. 286). Pegasus Books. Kindle Edition.
There are many good features to Baggott's book. It is less confrontational or provocative than Alexander Unzicker's Bankrupting Physics: How Today's Top Scientists are Gambling Away Their Credibility and so less of a "thrill ride" than that book. Baggott doesn't seem interested in burning his bridges with the physics community in the same way that I imagine that Unzicker has. Baggott's caution may be right. For all we know, string theory could be right. Tomorrow, there might be a discovery that will demonstrate that something as crazy as six additional dimensions wrapped up on themsleves on the Planck scale.
On still another hand, Baggott's final advice seems properly moderate, as well - keep an open mind and don't swallow everything that "science" is allegedly saying. Baggott writes:
"In the meantime, we have to square up to the challenge posed by fairy-tale physics. And this is all I ask of you. Next time you pick up the latest best-selling popular science book, or tune into the latest science documentary on the radio or television, keep an open mind and try to maintain a healthy scepticism. By all means allow yourself to be entertained, but remember Hume's quote above. What is the nature of the evidence in support of this theory? Does the theory make predictions of quantity or number, of matter of fact and existence? Do the theory's predictions have the capability -- even in principle -- of being subject to observational or experimental test?
Come to your own conclusions."
Baggott, Jim (2013-08-06). Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth (p. 300). Pegasus Books. Kindle Edition.
That seems like very good advice.
Not sure why so many four stars... This is a five star book!
Very few people, especially non-physicists, can understand most of what passes for current 'theory', then organize it in understandable and entertaining fashion and critique it. Jim Baggott does just that. He bends over backward to present the ideas in their best light and show how and why some people might believe these theories, yet in the end there are no predictions, no numbers, no nothing. And worse than that, it's a house of cards, in the sense that one thing, strings, led to super-strings, led to Calabi-Yau "windings" around 10-dimensional manifolds, (a 10-D torus) leading to 10*500 possible windings, which somehow get connected to 'inflating bubbles' each of which has many different parameters (I would say 'put in by hand', but they're not even put in, they're just assumed to exist!) and these 'bubbles' form an infinitely varied multi-verse, supposedly explaining why our finely tuned universe was just our "luck of the draw", and somehow backed by 'M-theory', etc. And not one of these 'supporting theories' has an observation, a calculation, or a prediction to back it up! Zip. Nada. A number don't even have equations written down, let alone solved!
Baggott's generous treatment of these "fairy tales" is impressive, yet in the end he simply states that they fail to meet any smell test. In fact he begins the book by laying out an excellent approach to 'reality' and how one can go about deciding if a theory relates to reality, while acknowledging clearly just how hard (impossible) it is to define reality. Yet you are real and I am real. I wrote this, you're reading it. It's real. So despite Bell's theorem and "gravity as geometry", there is something real there. Baggott's treatment of the problem and his suggested approach is simply excellent.
One review suggests he is making mountains out of mole hills. Nonsense. It's not a problem of "just a little speculation". The problem is "nothing but speculation". As Unzicker, in another critical analysis of physics, "Bankrupting Physics", points out, this is dangerous. Physics can lose all credibility by becoming metaphysics (and not even good metaphysics!)
Unzicker points out that the institution of physics has become "Too big to fail". He also attacks the socio-politico-economic structure of the problem more than does Baggott, who despite severe criticism of ideas remains a gentleman and quite polite in his criticisms. This book is nothing if not fair.
The problem is real -- it has not been discussed much, probably because of the complexity of the issues -- and this is a truly excellent book that should be read by all those who wish to be well informed about major issues of our times.
I repeat: this is a five star book.
Edwin Eugene Klingman
Most recent customer reviews
String theory, LQG, QHT, asymptotic gravity, etc are ALL MODELS worth...Read more