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The Trouble With Physics : Lee Smolin


  11:00:12 pm, by Nimble   , 555 words  
Categories: Reviews, Books, Science

The Trouble With Physics : Lee Smolin

Link: http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0618551050/thecerealkill-20

My old high school friend, Menwin, and I chatted about string theory around 1990. He'd done quite a lot of reading on it, and was powerfully intrigued. So was I, but I didn't get a lot of the promise of it. I presumed that the standard model would come out of the equations at some point, and hoped if they had something good in their hot little hands, that there might be some good predictions waiting in the wings.

We're still waiting.

My lingering distress over the progress of science, but physics in particular, was still lingering when I encountered Smolin's bright blue book on the shelves...

It's an interesting book about the attraction of string theory, the problems it hoped to solve, how it was ignored by the mainstream as long as it was, and what string theory has to accomplish to square with, much less predict, nature.

We have put all our eggs in one basket, it seems. If string theory fails, and it's possible that it might, even if that failure is simply never being able to touch ground and make a solid prediction, we don't really have a lot to fall back on. I could easily foresee this going on another decade, maybe two, unless we get some more screaming-for-explanation observations popping out of the Large Hadron Collider or quantum computing research.

The longer it goes on, the more we're screwed, because string theory, being predominant, is by far the largest consumer of grant money, power, support and young minds, and the risk of losing any piece of the pie coupled with the fear of young academics never being able to find work conspire to keep this picture this way. What's most depressing, and I've seen this from sources other than Smolin's book, is that there's great awareness of the troubles, in particular amongst post-graduates, but in most every case a shrug and an admission of the impossibility of changing it.

To euphemize, there's not much in the way of a "think tank" philosophy going on.

Despite Lee's attempts to show that this isn't to denigrate string theorists themselves, or otherwise defuse what some might perceive as accusations, I think this is going to generate some extremely angry reactions. It will be interesting, to see which academics will argue on the level, which will get angry, and which will engage in smear tactics.

I was intrigued to find out that Lee is one of the brains behind Loop Quantum Gravity, which has intrigued me in the past with its more down-to-earth approach.

I agree with the basic premise that physics is in need of a few more 'rebels' right now, and they need to be treated without acrimony. Not that there needs to be all that many, since not all that many physicists are cut out for it, but we need a few more alternatives that can make some shorter-term predictions. Even if these alternatives aren't all-encompassing, but merely shed a little more light on the fundamentals, like Doubly-Special Relativity, where it's not just the speed of light that can be agreed upon by all observers, but also the minimum energy on the quantum scale.

It looks like the think-tank-esque institute, the Perimeter Institute is growing, and is concentrating on some of the fundamentals.

That gives me a little bit of hope.

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