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Lee Smolin: The Trouble with Physics: a review

See also a review written by someone else
Lee Smolin: The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next - (Hardcover)



Another postmodern diatribe against modern physics and scientific method (2 stars)

The interactions between Lee Smolin and mainstream physicists are interesting. Lee often visits us. We smile at each other and Lee is being politely explained why his newest theories can't really work. Lee says that he understands these arguments. Then he returns to a conference or a journalist and repeats that all of his theories have been perfectly proven, while offering even more unusual theories. The newest theory says that the neutrinos are octopi swimming in the spin network. Believe me, we like him but it is not always easy to take him seriously.

A few months ago, I had to promise Lee that I would read the whole book before saying anything about it. So I did so. It was tough because the concentration of irrational statements and anti-scientific sentiments has exceeded my expectations. The book is primarily filled with the suicidal and absurd sentiment that all of modern physics of the last 30 years - the era of Lee's career - is a failure. The first part of the book tries to focus on technical aspects of string theory. The second part of the book offers a postmodern view on the scientific community and some radical proposals how to fix the "problems" that the author has identified.




As far as I can say, everything that tries to go beyond the existing popular books is unreasonable with one possible exception, namely some of Lee's general ideas about the anthropic principle.

What are the problems with Lee's appraisal of physics? First of all, Lee reveals his intense hostility against all of modern physics, not just string theory. He believes that quantum mechanics must be wrong at some fundamental level and many people should try to prove it. He also believes that the attempts to falsify the theory of relativity are among the most important topics to work on. In the context of string theory, he literally floods the pages of his book with undefendable speculations about some basic results of string theory. Because these statements are of mathematical nature, we are sure that Lee is wrong even in the absence of any experiments.

For example, he dedicates dozens of pages to speculations about the divergent amplitudes at finite orders of the perturbation theory - amplitudes that have been proven to be finite. He also proposes that the AdS/CFT correspondence and various other dualities are wrong. In doing so, he ignores thousands of papers that lead to the opposite conclusion. Instead, he applies the methods of creationists and invents a "strong" and "weak" version of Maldacena's equivalence. There are also frequently repeated speculations that string theory and M-theory don't exist and many other similar "ideas", together with the most popular myth that string theory can't be experimentally tested. Neither of these things is supported by any results in the scientific literature, not even Lee's own results, and most of them contradict what we know. I am afraid that it is fair to say that Lee is trying to sell things that could never be bought by the experts because he knows that his lay readers won't be able to tell the difference between a result and a nonsense.

More generally, Lee proposes a truly radical thesis that it is wrong for mathematics to play a crucial role in theoretical physics. This meme is repeated at many places and it is later used as a criterion to hire physicists. He also blames the "failures" on the culture of particle physics that has already existed before string theory. For example, we learn that when Lee Smolin studied at Harvard, he was disappointed by Coleman, Glashow, and Weinberg who were "nothing like his heroes". Wow. The reason why they were nothing like his heroes was that they preferred calculations over philosophical speculations. Needless to say, Smolin would be disappointed by Einstein and Bohr, too, because they couldn't stand scientifically unjustifiable philosophical speculations either. No real physicist can.

Two decades ago or so, Lee was also disappointed by his peers who were excited by calculations in supergravity. He also denies the difference between renormalizable field theories and the rest, and so forth.

In the sociological part of this book, Smolin complains that no one takes him seriously and tries to paint the mainstream physics community as a group of evil people. Also, he proposes "cures" for the things that he views as "problems". This includes new ethical standards of the science community. For example, one of his rules says that the conclusions must be accepted by everyone if their author is a person of good faith. Another rule, apparently applied to the other theories of the "infidels", says that they must first present a full rigorous proof.

These and other proposals are clearly meant to transform the scientific community to a dogmatic, non-mathematical, and irrational institution with double standards that is similar to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. He realizes that what he has defined is a church or a sect, so he tries to correct this problem by enumerating a few features in which science and religion are supposed to differ. In my opinion, neither of these things has anything to do with the main differences between science and religion.

The main difference between religion and science is that science will never accept Smolin's ideas about the scientific method. Science will never introduce Lee's proposal of affirmative action for those who are not able to fully learn the current picture of reality as painted by physics - people whom Lee Smolin misleadingly and automaticaly promotes as "original thinkers", without any rational arguments. In reality, gaps in mathematics are something very different from originality; in fact, these two things are negatively correlated, not positively. Lee doesn't want to see the difference.

Also, science will never give up the principle that falsified conjectures (even those from the people of good faith) must be abandoned - a principle that also strikingly contradicts Smolin's thoughts about the democracy of ideas. Science will never abandon solid and quantitative arguments and it will never replace them by vague linguistic games that Lee Smolin prefers. And it will never accept Lee's recommendation that the scientists' opinion should be manipulated by the ideological goals such as Lee's "diversity of ideas" by which he really means the narrow-mindedness of those who lack the imagination to learn the diverse insights offered by string theory.

The postmodern attack against science has had many forms. Evelyn Fox Keller, a professional feminist critic of science and the key supporter of this book, was at the beginning. If you want to see how serious threats the very basic principles of science will probably have to face from within, read this strange book that I rated by 2 stars because of its unquestionable ability to make you angry (and make young science fans frustrated). Unless science is going to be destroyed, it will continue to ignore Smolin's hints, despite the alternating good years and bad years. It will build on results that work and not on those that don't work, hire people who know what they're doing and not those who don't, and allow them to reach their own conclusions instead of telling them which opinions are sufficiently "diverse". Also, the role of mathematics and string theory is bound to increase, regardless whether Lee Smolin will convince his readers otherwise.

See other articles related to Lee Smolin on this blog. See also a deleted review of Non-String Physics Grad Student.

At this place, we originally had an article about an entirely different topic:

Red Sox rule

I am not exactly a baseball fan, but because the Boston Bloody Socks defeated the St. Louis Cardinals and won the "World Series", there should be an article about this overwhelming success. The last triumph of Boston like that was in 1918 against the Chicago Cubs. Great.

In the last couple of weeks, everyone who came to Harvard - Seiberg, Cohen, and so forth - were delivering us (more precisely, to the local patriots) congratulations, and because I have really nothing against the New York Yankees, for example, I did not care at all who would win. But did not they already win the World Series, I was asking?

Of course, the answer was "No", and the car horns that have dominated the acoustic waves in Cambridge since the midnight (simultaneously with people yelling and screaming) have proved that the final night was the last night. Well, I had a good opportunity to check that I had not lost the ear plugs - and they worked fine! :-)

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reader denis said...

Smolin has lots of company - all of the "warmists".