The trouble with physics

January 9, 2009

Over the Christmas break I read “The trouble with physics” by Lee Smolin. It’s been on my list of popular science books to read for a while, and given that one of the key professional issues for me in 2008 was dealing with a debacle on Physics funding the title seemed quite apposite too!

The main focus of the book is explaining the current status of theoretical physics, with  the aim of trying to understand why, after huge advances through most of the 20th century, the last 25 years have seen no major steps forward. Smolin’s thesis is that this is because of string theory. Not because it is ‘wrong’ (although Smolin appears to think it is), but because it has become too dominant within the theoretical physics community even though experimental support is low or non-existent. As a result of string theory being so dominant, other theories are receiving less attention. Smolin also believes that string theory is heading away from true science. By proposing a huge number of universes each with their own version of the theory, string theorists are making their work non-falsifiable, he argues. Along the way Smolin explains current thinking in theoretical physics (including both string theory and other approaches) in a clear and cogent way.

The final section of the book was for me the most interesting. Here Smolin moves away from a discussion of the problem with theoretical physics today, to trying to understand why it has arisen and what we might do about it. This discussion takes him into the territory of the philosophy and sociology of science, which is rarely covered in popular science books. Some readers may surprised to learn that scientists (even theoretical physicists…) are only human, have a tendency to follow fashions, and are strongly influenced by the policy environment in which they operate. This has both an upside and a downside for those of us in the research policy community; we have more influence than we might think, but it also means we have to take as we define the policy landscape to avoid unintended outcomes. One of Smolin’s points is that an overly measured and managed research environment may well stifle truly innovative research, which gives pause for thought in th weeks after the publication of the latest UK Research Assessment Exercise results.

I think this is one of the best popular science books I have ever read. The sections describing the state of theoretical physics are pitched at the right level, resisting the temptation on the one hand to take the content beyond the grasp of the non-specialist and on the other to over simplify. And the closing section is a valuable contribution to helping non-scientists understand the process of scientific discovery and how research works in the real world. Definitely well worth a read.

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