Thursday, February 20, 2020

The incredible shrinking expertise in Brian Greene's books

Brian Greene has released and is promoting his fifth full-blown book for the popular audiences, Until the End of Time. I read the table of contents, a few extra pages, reviews, and summaries of some talks. I feel totally disillusioned by the trend.

You know, the first book, The Elegant Universe (which I enthusiastically translated to Czech, like The Hidden Reality, the third book; The Fabric of Cosmos #2 was left to my friend who has a name day today), contained a legitimate explanation of the relativity of simultaneity, presentation how the ultraviolet catastrophe was solved by the light quanta, why the spacetime has to be curved to communicate the gravitational force, topological expansion of string theory, T-duality, mirror symmetry, its application on the counting of spheres in a quintic, and much much more.



This fifth book is about the "search for the meaning of our life" in an "evolving Universe". A huge fraction of the book is all about talkative elaborations on statements such as
The Universe is large.
The Earth is small and so are the humans.
There are many orders of magnitude between the size of different things.
The humans are more interesting than the empty outer space.
We should look for the meaning of our lives.
The Universe has been evolving and the entropy was increasing.
The life arose in the Universe and it evolved, anyway.
There is no free will.
and similar stuff. The first problem is that the part of the assertions that are correct are banalities that are known to every intelligent alumnus of an elementary school – and many brilliant kids in the kindergartens. The content doesn't seem to depend on the recent decades (or centuries) of the scientific research at all.

A big part of The Elegant Universe depended on Greene's being among (at most) several thousand people on Earth who understood much of string theory. The latest book doesn't depend on anything like that – it just articulates things that several billion people on Earth more or less know and that have been written, in diverse permutations, in hundreds of philosophical or "very general physical popular" books before this one.



It feels like Brian Greene always wanted to write similar generic low-brow pop science and any texts about more high-brow topics were just his own personal preparation for the much wider book market of moronic readers who can apparently produce higher profits for the writers. I feel like an idiot because I believed, around 2000, that The Elegant Universe would mark a beginning of a trend of the public's increasing interest in the actual science – by which I mean some real mathematically-loaded physics content, why things work etc. As we know, the real world has experienced the opposite trend. All the writers have been deteriorating into parrots of the same group think and the readers, who were dumbing down in a similar way, have encouraged the writers to dumb down as well and vice versa.

The subtitle of the new book reads:
Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
Our search for meaning? By the way, "mind and matter" sounds like a title from projects of Brian Josephson, a Nobel prize winner whose brain has "evolved" in such a way that he supports claims about telepathy and telekinesis.

In this part of a BBC monologue, Richard Feynman has discussed that a scientist like him can live with the uncertainty. At the end, around 2:20, he also discusses the purpose of the Universe. There isn't any, as far as Feynman – and science as of 2020 – can say. That would settle the main question from the subtitle of Greene's book. It's obviously the only scientifically defensible answer.



Each of us has the freedom to look for his own purpose or meaning of life – and everyone should exploit this freedom. Someone chooses a huge juicy steak every day as the meaning of his life; Brian Greene, a vegan, probably has a different meaning. There is nothing objective to be written about the purpose of the Universe or the meaning of life and these personal preferences have nothing to do with fundamental science.

Given the large number of chapters dedicated to related questions, and because of the content of some of his speeches that I reviewed, I think that Greene's new book violently denies the elementary fact. I think that like most of the rubbish pop science books on the market, the book tries to tell hundreds of millions of readers who aren't capable of independent thinking what the purpose of life should be (sheep are waiting for a shepherd); the pool of buyers of such books is greater than the pool that is willing and capable of following some matrix string theory or mirror symmetry, I guess. But that's exactly the kind of answer that totally contradicts the scientific world view because science obviously hasn't produced any unique or well-defined answer to the questions about the meaning of life.

The second major problem is that a huge fraction of the memes that are "at least slightly nontrivial", going beyond the average man's clichés and concepts from the elementary schools (and the New Age babbling that is on par with "marijuana is cool" on Joe Rogan's podcast, flavored by occasional technically correct references to basic physics concepts such as entropy, to give Greene an edge relatively to generic stoners), are just plain wrong (or almost unjustified speculations, like claims about the stuff "before The Big Bang"). Today, The Harvard Crimson wrote a report about a Harvard talk by Greene, an alumnus of that university:
Brian Greene Talks the Physics of Free Will at Science Center Lecture
So that talk was mainly about free will, clearly a topic that plays an important role in the book. Great. What did he really say about free will?
[...] Greene refuted the possibility of humans having free will; thoughts and actions are simply interactions between elementary particles, which are bound to obey mathematical equations. Yet he said that a deterministic conception of the universe need not preclude hope.

“We are made of these exquisitely ordered, wonderfully choreographed particles of nature governed fully by the physical laws, no free will whatsoever,” Greene said. [...]
Oh, really? Did he refute free will? Free will can't be refuted and the deterministic conception can't be established because, as Brian Greene must have failed to notice, free will and indeterminism have been fundamental parts of any viable laws of physics or their application since 1925 – for fudging 95 years. The quantum mechanical revolution has established the non-existence of determinism in Nature and the dependence on the observer and his choice of the observation (and free will is also exhibited by elementary particles and all other degrees of freedom due to Kochen's and Conway's free will theorem; a theorem means that it's been proven mathematically). So Greene must have talked for a very long time about some ideas that are totally wrong for fundamental reasons, stuck in the 17th century misconceptions.

Around 2000, leftists would normally criticize Christians and e.g. writers of religious books for their detachment from modern science and e.g. the denial of Darwin's theory. Much of this criticism was surely justified. Sadly, in 2020, non-religious writers such as Greene are openly spreading utterly scientifically wrong theses – probably because they have calculated that this is what the largest fraction of the readers or listeners wants to hear and the more the public's understanding of science deteriorates, the higher profits from the books these writers will collect. Quantum mechanics (1925) is as old as Darwin's theory (1859) was 66 years ago. The denial of basic principles of QM and the denial of Darwin's theory are surely comparable examples of the denial of science.

All this evolution makes me feel sick. He is just "spending" his perceived image as a scientist to make higher profits from the same stuff that pretty much every writer about "general philosophical questions" may write equally but what he is writing and saying has virtually nothing to do with scientific research (and they often flagrantly contradict each other), at least not the research in recent decades or a century.

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