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The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next

4.4 out of 5 stars 241 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0618551057
ISBN-10: 0618551050
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

String theory—the hot topic in physics for the past 20 years—is a dead-end, says Smolin, one of the founders of Canada's Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics and himself a lapsed string theorist. In fact, he (and others) argue convincingly, string theory isn't even a fully formed theory—it's just a "conjecture." As Smolin reminds his readers, string theorists haven't been able to prove any of their exotic ideas, and he says there isn't much chance that they will in the foreseeable future. The discovery of "dark energy," which seems to be pushing the universe apart faster and faster, isn't explained by string theory and is proving troublesome for that theory's advocates. Smolin (The Life of the Cosmos) believes that physicists are making the mistake of searching for a theory that is "beautiful" and "elegant" instead of one that's actually backed up by experiments. He encourages physicists to investigate new alternatives and highlights several young physicists whose work he finds promising. This isn't easy reading, but it will appeal to dedicated science buffs interested in where physics may be headed in the next decade. 30 b&w illus. (Sept. 19)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

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.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 19, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618551050
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618551057
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (241 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #769,700 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Peter W. Shor on September 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The part of the book I found most interesting was the part which tells how the string theorists were scammed by Nature (or Mathematics). Of course, Smolin doesn't put it exactly like this, but imagine the following conversation.

String theorists: We've got the Standard Model, and it works great, but it doesn't include gravity, and it doesn't explain lots of other stuff, like why all the elementary particles have the masses they do. We need a new, broader theory.

Nature: Here's a great new theory I can sell you. It combines quantum field theory and gravity, and there's only one adjustable parameter in it, so all you have to do is find the right value of that parameter, and the Standard Model will pop right out.

String theorists: We'll take it.

String theorists (some time later): Wait a minute, Nature, our new theory won't fit into our driveway. String theory has ten dimensions, and our driveway only has four.

Nature: I can sell you a Calabi-Yau manifold. These are really neat gadgets, and they'll fold up string theory into four dimensions, no problem.

String theorists: We'll take one of those as well, please.

Nature: Happy to help.

String theorists (some time later): Wait a minute, Nature, there's too many different ways to fold our Calabi-Yao manifold up. And it keeps trying to come unfolded. And string theory is only compatible with a negative cosmological constant, and we own a positive one.

Nature: No problem. Just let me tie this Calabi-Yao manifold up with some strings and branes, and maybe a little duct tape, and you'll be all set.

String theorists: But our beautiful new theory is so ugly now!

Nature: Ah!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I never write reviews for books I buy here although I've read virtually every popular theoretical physics book for sale on amazon; however-- the bizarre negative 'ad hominem' reviews for this book have forced me to say something. I was looking forward immensely to the release, in fact I pre-ordered it, because Lee Smolin's earlier "Life of the cosmos" absolutely captivated me way back when. And I must say, "Trouble with Physics" was so interesting and filled with intelligent ideas I couldn't put it down from the moment I bought it, even reading it while walking home like back when I was in high school...

As stated in the book descriptions above, it reviews the past 30 years of theoretical physics and then concentrates on the fact that little progress has been made in that period towards a 'final theory'. And when you think about it, he's right! The problem of unifying quantum mechanics and relativity is already more than half a century old! And so the book discusses why he thinks string theory has failed, and why physics needs a kind of soul-searching to regain its path, aided by experimental results.
I remember well the 'hype' for string theory a few years ago, it was expected to lead to a theory of everything pretty quickly, which obviously has not happened. I'm assuming the negative reviews of this book are from the string theorists, since there is nothing wrong with the cogency or pertinence of Smolin's arguments. String theorists seem to be oddly over-confident they are on the right path, and Smolin is willing to ask if they are not a bit self-deluded on that count. It does seem like a bit of a rejection of Occam's razor, to be positing multiple dimensions, and a multi-verse, when in the end very little has been truly explained... who knows, in the end?
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Fundamental physics has been exceedingly successful for over two centuries. The rapid advances in our understanding of natural laws in the first three quarters of the 20th century were just as breathtaking as those in microchips or hard drives in the last. But this progress came to a screeching halt 30 years ago. There has been no real progress since the establishment of the standard model.

To observers outside of the physics community, this fact is far from obvious. Theorists in fundamental physics continue to make announcements on new ideas and results. Books are written and TV shows are made to trumpet the progress in string theory. Many models based on string theory are taken and marketed as facts.

As years and decades go by and waves of string theory "predictions" are repeatedly superceded by new, incompatible ones, doubts begin to grow in the minds of knowledgeable outsiders. How can a "theory of everything" that completely describes an "elegant universe" keep contradicting itself on issues as basic as the dimensionality of spacetime? How can the string theorists be so sure of what happens at 10^19 GeV while being totally silent on the physics just beyond the standard model at 10^3 GeV? How can 30 years go by and nothing in particle physics theory is remotely Nobel-worthy? How can the two most important experimental results (non-zero neutrino masses and a positive cosmological constant) catch string theory by such surprise?

Inquiries regarding these and many other suspicious signs are stonewalled by string theorists. The person who raises the issue is inevitably called ignorant, stupid, malicious, anti-science or all of the above. There are just too many beautiful results in string theory to be explained by coincidence, we are told.
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