A week ago, Roger Penrose released his new book Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy. We already knew that he was writing a book of this name in 2009 and Penrose was actually giving lectures with this name in 2006 or earlier. So you may say that this book is something that Roger Penrose – and he's far from an average man – has been working on for something like one decade. Also, the book has almost 200 figures which are freely available.
I wrote the clearest description of the book that is now out in 2014. Is the demand for this product of a decade-long effort by a famous thinker appropriate? Before we turn to this question, let me remind you about the content of the book or the meaning of the words in the title.
The three words, fashion, faith, and fantasy, primarily refer to string theory, quantum mechanics, and inflation, respectively. Roger Penrose has some problems with all these three things – and others. So he invents slogans to dismiss all these three important theories. String theory is a bubble, quantum mechanics is a religious cult, and inflationary cosmology is a result of folks on drugs who see pink elephants around. (Penrose's explanations are less concise and less colorful than mine, he's no Motl.)
As I have discussed in previous blog posts, his negative opinions on all these three theories are fundamentally wrong.
String theory is a consistent theory of quantum gravity and in \(d\geq 4\), the only known one. It doesn't have any of the problems that Penrose sometimes talks about. For example, it's a well-defined theory even when the spacetime manifold develops orbifold, conifold, and other singularities, and so on.
Quantum mechanics is fundamentally correct and the observers are needed. However, the predictions of quantum mechanics should be compared with the actual observations by observers and these observers must know in advance what counts as an observation. This pre-existing definition of an observation is a required part of the question that the "observer applying quantum mechanics" asks to the physical theory before the physical theory spits the results – the probabilities of various outcomes etc.
Penrose is wrong when he believes that the gravitational force plays any role in making the results of observations "sharp". It's too weak. The gravitational force and related effects are proportional to Newton's constant \(G_N\) or its positive powers and they are negligible inside small objects such as the brain. He's also wrong when he, along with the physician Hameroff, tries to connect some technicalities of neuroscience with the fundamental aspects of measurements in quantum mechanics. The basic laws of quantum mechanics have nothing to do with any detailed insights about the anatomy or physiology of the human brain.
Finally, Penrose is also wrong about cosmology. Inflation does make some necessary events – that were very unlikely or unnatural in the inflation-free cosmology – natural and likely. Inflation does solve the horizon, flatness, and a few other problems. It doesn't violate the second law of thermodynamics, it doesn't need hugely fine-tuned or insanely unlikely initial assumptions, or any things like that. Also, Penrose completely misinterprets what kind of patterns may exist in the CMB etc.
So the book is composed of three parts – cleverly united with the three F-bombs :-) that he dropped in the title – and the message of every single part is just wrong. OK, so there is some part of me that is happy that the book is getting almost no attention from the media. Some other part of me is deeply frustrated about this fact – because this part appreciates who Roger Penrose is and has been and compares the reception of this new book with the reception of the most notorious, combative crackpots. It's really sad.
At amazon.com, the book has 3 reviews now. Two of them are one-line 5-star reviews by people who haven't seen the book yet. The third review is long, gives the book 3 stars, and says that the book is useless for anyone who has studied these things for less than 40 years. For example, the book says some things about twistors but you won't find anything resembling an explanation what a twistor is.
I think that if you search for Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy on Google News, you will find two reports about some regional "reading from the book". Roger Penrose is visiting two villages or something like that and the local rural newspapers write about it and he will sell about 2 copies of the book to some peasants in those villages and repay some 1% of his travel expenses.
And then I see a single review of the book, Cosmic Certainties by Konstantin Kakaes, in the Wall Street Journal. (Outside Google News, there is also a review in Times of Higher Education.) The subtitle says that Penrose doesn't buy string theory. But Kakaes points out that Gribbin explained Schrödinger's cat better than Penrose. And Penrose gets bad grades as a critic of string theory, too:
Nor is Mr. Penrose’s critique of string theory as clearly argued as Lee Smolin’s 2006 “The Trouble With Physics.” In part because of the persuasiveness of Mr. Smolin’s arguments, Mr. Penrose speculates that physics may have already reached peak string theory: “Its stranglehold on developments in fundamental physics has been stultifying,” he says.So the book, while presented as a book criticizing string theory (and about 1/3 is meant to be dedicated to this goal), is basically said to bring nothing new to the "industry" – industry of attacks against string theory – because a crank has already done such a great job 10 years ago that even Penrose seems to admit that he just can't compete with his "guru".
That's how Roger Penrose – a legendary physicist who has invented not only lots of recreational mathematics but also many things in serious physics that top physicists are using often (like the singularity theorems, Penrose's pp-wave limit, twistors, and others) – ended up a decade after the violent anti-physics crackpot movement exploded. You're now redundant, Prof Penrose, because your critique is not "as clearly argued and persuasive" as Sm*lin's book.
More precisely, you're not as good as Sm*lin is in becoming the natural leader of the hateful, dirty, idiotic, hypocritical, jealous, and generally f*cked-up rabble that loved the books by the two shameful crackpots and the easily memorizable demagogic slogans that always accompanied them. You still think about some actual new physics ideas and that's bad, very bad from their viewpoint. Unsurprisingly, you get punished for that.
In some sense, you deserve it. You have made yourself dependent on this anti-physics scum – and turned Mr W*it and Mr Sm*lin into two key reviewers of your book – so you can't be surprised when you end up as a janitor in W*it's and Sm*lin's toilets. It's absurd yet so completely logical within the new, postmodern version of the institutionalized physics that you helped to establish. You have helped to mock sanity and meritocracy in this field.
The society has already reached "peak string theory" – the maximum of its interest in string theory etc. (and, most likely, the maximum of the resources that it pays to the research) – some years ago. At least, it was a local maximum for a foreseeable future. This peak is clearly "approximately equivalent" to "peak theoretical physics" – just like the critics' hatred towards string theory is the same feeling or defect as their hatred towards theoretical physics in general – and I think that the reception of the book by this legendary physicist is another confirmation of this important equivalence.
There is a rant by Peter W*it in Physics World. No comments. Yes, this megajerk should have been executed at least for some 10 years.