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The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next

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In this groundbreaking book, the renowned theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that physics — the basis for all other sciences — has lost its way. For more than two centuries, our understanding of the laws of nature expanded rapidly. But today, despite our best efforts, we know nothing more about these laws than we knew in the 1970s. Why is physics suddenly in trouble? In this groundbreaking book, the renowned theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that physics — the basis for all other sciences — has lost its way. For more than two centuries, our understanding of the laws of nature expanded rapidly. But today, despite our best efforts, we know nothing more about these laws than we knew in the 1970s. Why is physics suddenly in trouble? And what can we do about it? One of the major problems, according to Smolin, is string theory: an ambitious attempt to formulate a “theory of everything” that explains all the particles and forces of nature and how the universe came to be. With its exotic new particles and parallel universes, string theory has captured the public’s imagination and seduced many physicists. But as Smolin reveals, there’s a deep flaw in the theory: no part of it has been tested, and no one knows how to test it. In fact, the theory appears to come in an infinite number of versions, meaning that no experiment will ever be able to prove it false. As a scientific theory, it fails. And because it has soaked up the lion’s share of funding, attracted some of the best minds, and effectively penalized young physicists for pursuing other avenues, it is dragging the rest of physics down with it. With clarity, passion, and authority, Smolin charts the rise and fall of string theory and takes a fascinating look at what will replace it. A group of young theorists has begun to develop exciting ideas that, unlike string theory, are testable. Smolin not only tells us who and what to watch for in the coming years, he offers novel solutions for seeking out and nurturing the best new talent—giving us a chance, at long last, of finding the next Einstein.


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In this groundbreaking book, the renowned theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that physics — the basis for all other sciences — has lost its way. For more than two centuries, our understanding of the laws of nature expanded rapidly. But today, despite our best efforts, we know nothing more about these laws than we knew in the 1970s. Why is physics suddenly in trouble? In this groundbreaking book, the renowned theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that physics — the basis for all other sciences — has lost its way. For more than two centuries, our understanding of the laws of nature expanded rapidly. But today, despite our best efforts, we know nothing more about these laws than we knew in the 1970s. Why is physics suddenly in trouble? And what can we do about it? One of the major problems, according to Smolin, is string theory: an ambitious attempt to formulate a “theory of everything” that explains all the particles and forces of nature and how the universe came to be. With its exotic new particles and parallel universes, string theory has captured the public’s imagination and seduced many physicists. But as Smolin reveals, there’s a deep flaw in the theory: no part of it has been tested, and no one knows how to test it. In fact, the theory appears to come in an infinite number of versions, meaning that no experiment will ever be able to prove it false. As a scientific theory, it fails. And because it has soaked up the lion’s share of funding, attracted some of the best minds, and effectively penalized young physicists for pursuing other avenues, it is dragging the rest of physics down with it. With clarity, passion, and authority, Smolin charts the rise and fall of string theory and takes a fascinating look at what will replace it. A group of young theorists has begun to develop exciting ideas that, unlike string theory, are testable. Smolin not only tells us who and what to watch for in the coming years, he offers novel solutions for seeking out and nurturing the best new talent—giving us a chance, at long last, of finding the next Einstein.

30 review for The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next

  1. 5 out of 5

    Manny

    An interesting and well-written book. Smolin started out wanting to write about the sociology of research funding in the US. He is extremely worried about the fact that it has become difficult for young researchers to get money to pursue novel ideas, with most funding concentrated on a small number of mainstream projects which are regarded as "safe". In many fields, this has already been taken to the logical extreme, with nearly everything focussed on one single direction. As a researcher (albei An interesting and well-written book. Smolin started out wanting to write about the sociology of research funding in the US. He is extremely worried about the fact that it has become difficult for young researchers to get money to pursue novel ideas, with most funding concentrated on a small number of mainstream projects which are regarded as "safe". In many fields, this has already been taken to the logical extreme, with nearly everything focussed on one single direction. As a researcher (albeit in a completely different discipline), I have had good reason to make similar observations. It is indeed worrying. Smolin's publisher, however, was concerned that a general book on this theme would be too dry, and encouraged Smolin to organise it around a specific topic that he knew well. Smolin agreed, and used string theory. So now you essentially get two books for the price of one: a very interesting, up-to-the-minute, critique of string theory, written by an insider who knows where all the bodies are buried, and a general treatise which takes this as an example of what's going wrong with the way research is organised. Both are very successful. If you are at all interested in these topics, it's a must-read. The part I liked best was the historical section, where Smolin examines the claim string theorists like to make that "it's so beautiful that it simply has to be true". He comes up with some great examples of beautiful theories that actually just happened to be plain wrong. _________________________________________ I just finished rereading this excellent book. There's so much interesting material that it's easy to miss many of the best bits first time around! So here are some of the things that most impressed me on my second visit: The Kaluza-Klein theory It's not well-known (or at least, I had never heard it before), but the idea of using higher dimensions to unify gravity and electromagnetism is far from new. Kaluza, Klein and some other smart people came up with a scheme of this kind about the same time as Einstein invented General Relativity. The theory was very elegant and beautiful. But, unfortunately, the experimental predictions it made turned out to be incorrect, so it was junked. Lack of experimental predictions from string theory The problem is that "string theory" isn't actually a single theory. It's more a research program based on a some extremely complicated mathematics that only a few experts understand. There are many different versions of it, and all of them have multiple adjustable parameters, so it predicts very little. Hence it's extremely hard to disprove it. What happened to string theory when dark energy was discovered One of the very few predictions made by string theory was that the cosmological constant had to be zero or negative. Then, in 1998, astronomers discovered dark energy, which appears to point to a positive cosmological constant (the dark energy force is stretching the Universe apart, rather than pulling it together). Under normal circumstances, one would just have said that this showed string theory wasn't correct. But the string theorists found an even more complicated way to rejig the theory and get a positive constant. The new theory comes in about 10^500 different forms (1 with 500 zeros), so now it really is almost impossible to test it experimentally. The string theorists counter by saying that there is a "Cosmic Landscape", by which they mean there are 10^500 different universes, one for each version of the theory. Then they invoke the "anthropic principle" to explain the appearance of the world we see by arguing that we're observing it, hence we must be in one of the few universes that can support life. As Smolin says, this is not a normal way to do science. Some weird shit that astronomers have been finding String theorists like to say that they're the only game in town. Smolin reminds us that we don't actually have to spend all our time playing in this sterile mathematical wonderland. There is some amazing stuff turning up in real-world observations and crying out to be explained. First, he encourages us to think more about dark energy. As far as we know, it's not like it's in any particular place. It seems to be a property of the whole Universe. Physicists like to take about what happens at different "scales" - the scale of subatomic particles, the scale of molecules, the scale of planets, etc. Different forces are at different scales: for example, quantum effects are really important at the subatomic scale but not important at all at the planetary scale, while gravity is the other way around. So he says, well, let's call R the size of the Universe, about 10 billion light years. Dark energy appears to be operating at the scale of R. Is there anything else? Let's try deriving some other physical quantitities on that scale. In particular, let's look at R/c^2, R divided by the square of the speed of light. That's an acceleration, which works out to about 10^-8 cm/s^2. It's a very small acceleration indeed. Is anything interesting happening with accelerations at this level? And, it turns out, there is! Stars near the outskirts of a galaxy should be accelerating at just about R/c^2. But, in fact, they're moving faster than they're supposed to, while stars near the centre of the galaxy move at the predicted speed. This has been well known for decades, and is generally ascribed to the existence of a "dark matter halo" - invisible mass which only interacts through gravity, and is spread out around the outskirts of the galaxy. Suppose, though, that dark matter and dark energy were different aspects of the same thing? Not only that, but there is some odd data coming from the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes. These are now leaving the Solar System but can still be tracked. It turns out that they appear to be slowing down more than they should, with the difference between the observed accelation and the predicted one being around 6 times R/c^2. People have been checking the figures carefully, trying to find normal explanations, and so far nothing has emerged. He also has some very cool stuff about cosmic rays, and how you can in effect use the whole Universe as a particle accelerator to do experiments. But let me move on to my last topic. Seers and craftspeople The last third of the book is about sociology. Why has physics got itself into this mess? Smolin's answer is quite long and complicated, but let me give you one part I particularly liked. He distinguishes between two kinds of periods in science, "revolutions" and "normal science". Revolutions are when things abruptly change; the last big one was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Normal science is what happens in between, where people work out all the consequences of the last revolution. He also distinguishes between two kinds of scientists, whom he calls "seers" and "craftspeople". Craftspeople are very smart, very focussed, very good at math. They were top of their science class all through school. They learn existing techniques quickly and are good at using them. Seers are more unfocussed, mystic, dreamer types. They're often not that great at math, but they can't stop thinking about the fundamental questions. As he says, it's easy to be dismissive of seers until you remember that Einstein was like that. Smolin thinks we've forgotten why we need seers. He says we're trying to organise a scientific revolution using craftspeople, and it's not working. He's an inspiring guy.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Manuel Antão

    If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. All Much Ado about Nothing: “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin “The Weinberg-Salam model requires that the Higgs field exist and that it manifest itself as the new elementary particle called the Higgs boson, which carries the force associated with the Higgs field. Of all the predictions required by the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces, only this one has not yet been verified.”   In “The Trouble with Physics” by Le If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. All Much Ado about Nothing: “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin “The Weinberg-Salam model requires that the Higgs field exist and that it manifest itself as the new elementary particle called the Higgs boson, which carries the force associated with the Higgs field. Of all the predictions required by the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces, only this one has not yet been verified.”   In “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin     Hello physicists and Lee Smolin in particular,   I can't say I agree with such a hard stance against string theory personally like Smolin does, but I’m what’s known as a stupid person, so it doesn’t really matter what I think. However, I do feel it is healthy for science to have people that challenge ideas from all sides. All this will do is galvanise people to work harder to provide evidence to prove or disprove any theory that tries to describe realty. Science thrives in areas of confliction.   Life is the memory of what happened before you died, i.e. we cannot extricate ourselves from the universe in any way shape or form, including our "objective," apparently repeatable theoretical notions. By definition, there is only one UNI-verse. If you want to call it a universe of multiverses or a multiverse of universes, or balls of string with no limits, no problem, but there is only one of everything that is and isn't. This assemblage of atoms, no different from any other atoms, called the human body, has a life and death, as do the stars; it also has an internal resonance we like to call the consciousness of self-awareness of existence. We all too often, de facto, accept that there is a universe outside our "selfs", our bodies, i.e. it’s just me, my-self, and I, and the universe that surrounds my body, as if there were a molecular separation of some sort.     If you're into Physics and String Theory in particular, read on.

  3. 5 out of 5

    notgettingenough

    If you are looking for an uptodate discussion of the controversy of string theory and whether it's a cult or just a hoax, The Multidisciplinarian has posted a nice essay complete with lots of further reading: The Trouble with Strings. One of the things Smolin discusses is the sociology of string theory. The Multidisciplinarian comments: A telling example of the tendency for string theory to exclude rivals comes from a 2004 exchange on the sci.physics.strings Google group between Luboš Motl and W If you are looking for an uptodate discussion of the controversy of string theory and whether it's a cult or just a hoax, The Multidisciplinarian has posted a nice essay complete with lots of further reading: The Trouble with Strings. One of the things Smolin discusses is the sociology of string theory. The Multidisciplinarian comments: A telling example of the tendency for string theory to exclude rivals comes from a 2004 exchange on the sci.physics.strings Google group between Luboš Motl and Wolfgang Lerche of CERN, who does a lot of work on strings and branes. Motl pointed to Leonard Susskind’s then recent embrace of “landscapes,” a concept Susskind had dismissed before it became useful to string theory. To this Lerche replied: “what I find irritating is that these ideas are out since the mid-80s… this work had been ignored (because it didn’t fit into the philosophy at the time) by the same people who now re-“invent” the landscape, appear in journals in this context and even seem to write books about it. There had always been proponents of this idea, which is not new by any means.. . . the whole discussion could (and in fact should) have been taken place in 1986/87. The main thing what has changed since then is the mind of certain people, and what you now see is the Stanford propaganda machine working at its fullest.” You can find it here: http://themultidisciplinarian.com/201... I'm afraid that what follows here is what came out of my pen after I read Smolin's very interesting book. It has nothing to do with the book, but I had fun writing it. The book is worthy of another sort of review altogether, and if I'd been in another sort of mood altogether, I dare say that's what would have come out. A review written in the straightforward three dimensions. The dimensions God intended us to have. What I have learned about string theory from this book. http://alittleteaalittlechat.wordpres...

  4. 5 out of 5

    David

    It is well known now, that a very large cadre of talent in theoretical physics has been working on string theory. The theory solves a lot of problems in physics, and Lee theoretical physicist Lee Smolin has published a number of papers on the subject. The problem is that, the theory does not make any predictions that might allow it to be "falsifiable". So, according to my definition of a theory--a scientific idea that is supported by much observational evidence from a number of different approac It is well known now, that a very large cadre of talent in theoretical physics has been working on string theory. The theory solves a lot of problems in physics, and Lee theoretical physicist Lee Smolin has published a number of papers on the subject. The problem is that, the theory does not make any predictions that might allow it to be "falsifiable". So, according to my definition of a theory--a scientific idea that is supported by much observational evidence from a number of different approaches--string theory is not a theory at all. It is a hypothesis that has yet to be upheld by observational evidence. And, in the three decades preceding this book, Smolin writes that no fundamental discoveries had been made in physics--a sudden stoppage in progress that had been flowing since the early 1900's. And, when presented with this problem, string theorists are simply certain that their approach is correct; they are even willing to change the philosophical definition of what is science, by suggesting that science requires a new paradigm that does not require confirmation by observational evidence. This book begins by reviewing the landscape of physics before the rise of string theory, and then goes into some detail about string theory itself. Then the book describes the successes and shortcomings of string theory, and the alternative theories/hypotheses that have been proposed. But this book is as much about the sociology of physicists, as it is about science. To me, this is quite interesting, as Lee Smolin is not subtle in his discussion about the physics community. And, Smolin is quick to admit that he is as guilty as others, in his inability to make progress. He had been working in quantum gravity, and "felt like the high school dropout invited to watch his sister graduate from Harvard with simultaneous degrees in medicine, neurobiology, and the history of dance in ancient India. Now, this book was published in 2006, and I am told that the situation has changed somewhat since then, especially with the new discoveries being made by the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at CERN. However, Smolin documents some very disturbing tendencies that are still alive in physics, and in science in general. Smolin asserts that these tendencies are very close to a phenomenon called "groupthink", where everyone in a community is pressured to think in the same way. Smolin writes that there are two types of scientists; craftsmen and seers. The craftsmen are very clever and have excellent technical skills. They have a tendency to work on what Smolin calls "normal science", that is, to follow the fashionable trends. They generate incremental progress in science through hard work. The problem is that they are not going to produce a "revolution" in science. The "seers", on the other hand, are visionaries. They are willing to question the fundamental assumptions that underlie physics. They do not necessarily have strong technical skills, but they are visionaries, and are not willing to "follow the crowd". It is ironic that the scientists who first developed string theory were themselves scientific pariahs for many years. They worked on the fringes of the physics community, and their ideas were not welcomed. They could not obtain academic positions. After more than a decade, their ideas started to get noticed, up to the point where string theory became mainstream. Now, it is the physicists who do not research in string theory who are the pariahs. And according to Joanne Hewett, "... the arrogance of some string theorists [is] astounding, even by physicists' standards. Some truly believe that all non-stringy theorists are inferior scientists. It's all over their letters of recommendation for each other ..." Smolin writes that science needs both the craftsmen and the seers, but only the craftsmen can have normal careers in the present system. Only when young PhD's pursue research along the lines of the older generation, can they have a hope of advancing to a postdoc position, gain funding, and ultimately obtain a professor position. Today, that is how the system works. Much of the physics that Smolin writes is over my head--it is difficult for someone not already steeped in theoretical physics to follow very closely. But I was fascinated by a discovery known as "Milgrom's law" in the 1980s. The discovery has to do with where the gravitational acceleration of galaxies breaks down--it breaks down at 1.2x10^-8 cm/sec^2, which is precisely c^2/R, where R is the scale of the curvature of the universe. Physicists invented the concept of "dark matter" to explain this break-down, so question is whether this match in acceleration is simply a coincidence, or a sign of something more fundamental at work. Smolin is a distinguished researcher, and his descriptions of the science are authoritative. Some discussions I've had with physicists corroborate much of what Smolin writes about the sociology of string theorists. This is an important book, not only about academic physics, but about how all sciences are conducted.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    Manny got me to read this book (admittedly it has taken me a while to get around to it) not so much with this review here http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/..., but rather with the trouble I was having with reading another book on string theory that had maths that was well over my head and that I abandoned in despair. I have a negative gut reaction to string theory – it sounds like crap to me – and so books that confirm my gut reaction are going to be praised. However, this will be the last b Manny got me to read this book (admittedly it has taken me a while to get around to it) not so much with this review here http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/..., but rather with the trouble I was having with reading another book on string theory that had maths that was well over my head and that I abandoned in despair. I have a negative gut reaction to string theory – it sounds like crap to me – and so books that confirm my gut reaction are going to be praised. However, this will be the last book on physics I’m probably ever going to read. Now, those are what are known in the trade as ‘famous last words’ – and, like my determination to give up reading newspapers (oh, if only I could have the strength of my convictions and avoid reading the misinformation that is journalism), one that is likely to be proven wrong. The point is that it is clear people much, much smarter than me are utterly convinced by string theory. They are not in the least worried that it makes no predictions that can ever be tested or that there can be such a thing as a one dimensional string that can curve around things (isn’t the definition of one dimensional something that it can’t curve at all…) And this guy is very convincing – and that is why I’m giving up reading any more physics. Really, I should have stopped reading after Pythagoras's Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War. Physics has become a priesthood. The questions that interest it are of such arcane and limited interest to any normal person that it beggar’s belief we continue to fund such when the world faces real and immediate crises from an endless supply of sources. It seems to me that a theory of everything is much the same as a theory of nothing. Do you for a minute believe you will be able to substitute coverture for the matter term in this eventual equation and find the world’s best chocolate cake? Reduce the gravity term and make the perfect sponge cake? I think not. And if not, how can it possibly be a theory of everything when it clearly won’t even be a theory of everything interesting? Look, it does worry me that both quantum and relativistic physics stand in stark contradiction with one another – but do you know what, it worries me more that we have made so little progress on finding alternative energy sources and that fusion is still no where near a practical reality. There just seem to be more important things to be worried about than strings and things – but given how often physicists tend to end up talking about God it is hardly surprising they spend so little time thinking about anything that might make the world a better place. So, I think I’ve decided that it is best to ignore the wankers. This really is a very good book, beautifully written, clear, and one that, if it was written on any other topic now, I would highly recommend. The problems is that it is utterly clear that there are many physicists who would completely disagree with this guy – and they are the guys with power – and so how is there any way for me – who can know next to stuff-all on this topic and even that stuff-all must be mediated though a narrative that ‘makes sense’ to someone virtually completely ignorant – how can I really have any idea of what is going on? I’m sure that if I read a book by a string theorist who was just as articulate (not that I have so far – Mr Greene) I would be just as convinced. It is sad, but there are much more interesting topics in the world that at least I can form an opinion on and that don’t leave me feeling nearly so completely stupid as this one invariably does. Scientist like to point and laugh at post-modernism – this breathtaking piece of ignorance is a case on point - http://old.richarddawkins.net/article... - but at least when reading postmodernism I have paid the entry fee. I feel like I can say, ‘that’s crap, that’s ok, that’s a maybe’. Science, ‘popular science’ in particular, all too often is so arcane as to defy anything even approaching understanding. There is an hilarious part at the end of this book where he speaks to the educated general public and calls on us to hold physicists to account. Oh yeah, and with what tools? Common sense? Have you any idea what decidedly uncommon sense is required to understand quantum theory? And quantum theory is only the start of the madness. Look, like priest counting angels on the heads of pins, physicists have become utter wankers. I intend to leave them to their masturbatory desires and excesses (an infinite number of universes, anyone?) on the condition they stay in their designated churches and hopefully, unlike other fundamentalists, don’t try to force their silliness onto women’s bodies or to go about sexually abusing little children. The last bit of this on academia and the stifling impact it has on research is the most interesting part of the book – but mostly because I’m a late starter in academia and had been coming to much the same conclusions myself. This book suffers from being too clear and has left me less interested in the topic than I thought I was when I started out.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    I first came across The Trouble with Physics when Richard mentioned Manny's excellent review in a comment on my review of The Elegant Universe. I left The Elegant Universe feeling invigorated about physics [1] but sour on string theory. Simply put, for as elegant as string theorists claimed that string theory was, something (everything?) about it seemed... not quite right. There was a "too good to be true" element to it, but beyond that, it did not seem that there was a good layman's explanation I first came across The Trouble with Physics when Richard mentioned Manny's excellent review in a comment on my review of The Elegant Universe. I left The Elegant Universe feeling invigorated about physics [1] but sour on string theory. Simply put, for as elegant as string theorists claimed that string theory was, something (everything?) about it seemed... not quite right. There was a "too good to be true" element to it, but beyond that, it did not seem that there was a good layman's explanation for what they were really bringing to the table. Vibrating strings as the fundament of all matter and energy? Sure. But extra dimensions? You've got some explaining to do... Thus was I delighted to hear of Smolin's book, wherein he discusses not only string theory (i.e., "the trouble with physics"), but the larger systemic problems with the academy and how science is funded, especially in the United States (i.e., "the trouble with physics"). Perhaps Smolin felt comfortable writing this book because he already perceived himself as a bit of an outsider [2]; regardless, we should all be glad that he did. A couple of items that I delighted in while reading the book: • A focus on failures and blunders. Science (like the rest of life) is full of things that are tried but ultimately fail. Need we any other reminder than the fact that science is made up of experiments? But beyond this, Smolin takes the bold step of presenting (in what seems like every chapter) some theory or conjecture or equation that was perceived as elegant and widely accepted "at the time", but then ultimately failed in the face of the experimental evidence. • A cogent and easily comprehensible argument against string theory. Walking away from The Elegant Universe, I felt a deep sense of unease — that we had a theory or set of theories or set of loose proposals for what may some day become a theory, that had gained a lot of traction among some well-groomed and well-liked and well-spoken physicists that were well-received by the lay-public because they seemed so damn sure of themselves. But (and Brian Greene even says this in his book) you shouldn't be so certain of your hypothesis if you can't break it down in such a way that a layperson can at least get the gist of it — and can get the gist of what the deeper implications are [3]. But string theorists aren't really able to do that; and Smolin gives us a good tear-down of why (specifically) string theory breaks down under scrutiny. • And yet string theory still gets a fair shake. But let's be honest here, there is something sexy about string theory, and it would be nice if that oh-so-elegant theory really were the real deal. And Smolin says over and over again that it might be — at least that some aspects of it might still bear fruit. And that he wouldn't have spent several years of his career looking deeply into it if he hadn't thought that to be the case. • But ultimately we need to look elsewhere. For all the reasons we've already mentioned. Because it's "too good to be true". Because it doesn't really hold together. Because any theory you can just infinitely modify to meet your goals isn't helping you or anyone else. • And then there's the discussion of the systemic problems with science, more generally. The tenure system. The grant-funding system. The peer review system. All of these things which are really important and yet at the same time so fundamentally flawed that you cannot help but drop your jaw when looking for answers to even the obvious questions about how to improve the situation [4]. Where does that leave me at the end of all this? A little stunned. I wish I'd read it immediately after reading The Elegant Universe — while all that string theory jargon was still fresh in my mind [5]. But just the same, Smolin's book is a powerful and fascinating look at 20th century physics and at the culture and climate of academic science in the early 21st century. Anyone even remotely interested in science — be it as an insider to the disciplines or as a lay-person — really ought to get down his/her local library and read this book. ---- [1] : Say what you will about string theory, but Brian Greene does a hell of a good job in describing his antecedents in the field. [2] : At least, that's the gist I get from his at-times-self-deprecating style. [3] : And this continues to be my biggest beef with string theory, I think. That (1) there is no agreement among string theorists about what it is and (2) not only can they not explain it to a lay-person but they deride anyone not also doing string theory and (3) there are a lot of smart and interested lay-people out there reading these theories and just throwing up their hands and saying "Well if these smart guys believe in it then I guess I do too!" And that's just bullshit and we all deserve better than that. [4] : And this applies to all sciences, not just physics. [5] : Not that I've forgotten what Calabi-Yau manifolds are. Inasmuch as I could ever claim to know what they are. ---- Expanded version on my blog: http://blog.founddrama.net/2011/03/th...

  7. 4 out of 5

    Szplug

    As to the content of this exceedingly excellent examination of the state of modern theoretical physics through the eyes of a deeply-learned and concerned practitioner, the reviews by Manny and Rob are both superb and cover all of the bases with flair. If I could go back and do it all over again, I'd run with the math skills I had garnered back in the day together with a speculative bent honed whilst seated, chin-in-hand, upon the toilet, and try to go all the way to the end as a bona fide physici As to the content of this exceedingly excellent examination of the state of modern theoretical physics through the eyes of a deeply-learned and concerned practitioner, the reviews by Manny and Rob are both superb and cover all of the bases with flair. If I could go back and do it all over again, I'd run with the math skills I had garnered back in the day together with a speculative bent honed whilst seated, chin-in-hand, upon the toilet, and try to go all the way to the end as a bona fide physicist—and I might have run into Smolin himself on the well-watered fields of the University of Waterloo!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Marcus

    This is possibly the best physics book I've ever read. Most physics books acknowledge that there are certain unknowns such as dark matter or certain aspects of string theory, but they all cleverly hide the real, and somewhat desperate, situation with contemporary physics. It's rare to find someone in any field who is willing to say "despite appearances, we don't know really what's up." Smolin does exactly that. He argues that we are in the slowest period of innovation in physics of at least the This is possibly the best physics book I've ever read. Most physics books acknowledge that there are certain unknowns such as dark matter or certain aspects of string theory, but they all cleverly hide the real, and somewhat desperate, situation with contemporary physics. It's rare to find someone in any field who is willing to say "despite appearances, we don't know really what's up." Smolin does exactly that. He argues that we are in the slowest period of innovation in physics of at least the last 100 years. String theory, super-symmetry, superstring theory, M theory and all related theories are far, very far, from being proven, disproven or even potentially provable by any known experiments. The Large Hadron Collider, which could possibly lend some actual evidence for super-string theory, hasn't done it yet, and more importantly, will never be able to take us much closer to knowing if string theory is anything more than elegant math. In fact, we can't conceive of any experiment that would. Yet crazily, despite it's tenuous position as a real scientific theory, string theory remains hugely influential and is often couched in the same language of consensus as other, much better proven theories. Smolin argues that if we can't make observations that could prove or disprove string theory or, at minimum, come close in either direction, and we've been working on it for over 25 years without any sign of a solution, it might be time to start looking elsewhere. It's tough to do that though since the theory is so entrenched in the elite corridors of academia. In other words, there are huge sociological barriers that must be crossed before physics can begin to be "healed." The Trouble With Physics is a rollercoaster. Smolin sets up string theory as a beautiful and elegant theory that seems so easy to accept, then, once you've started to really appreciate it, he systematically tears it down. The book feels honest, insightful and sincere. It has completely changed the way I think and read about not only physics, but any science where there is a consensus that lacks the characteristics of historically successful theories.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Richard Thompson

    It is very hard in writing a popular book about physics to strike the right balance between rigorous explanation and appeal to a broad audience. From the favorable Goodreads reviews, it is evident that a lot of people think that Smolin has struck the right balance here, but not for me. There is just too much hand waving in this book for my taste. He trots out scientists and their theories like characters in an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical -- "Hi, I'm a Jellicle Cat, and this is what I do, dum, dee It is very hard in writing a popular book about physics to strike the right balance between rigorous explanation and appeal to a broad audience. From the favorable Goodreads reviews, it is evident that a lot of people think that Smolin has struck the right balance here, but not for me. There is just too much hand waving in this book for my taste. He trots out scientists and their theories like characters in an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical -- "Hi, I'm a Jellicle Cat, and this is what I do, dum, dee, dum, dum." It is a pretty song, and I learn a couple of things about the character, but in the end, I still don't really understand what the heck a Jellicle Cat is. I would have liked the book a lot better, if Smolin had covered less ground and had given more background for the science. As it was written, I wanted to agree with the analysis and the basic philosophical point of view, but I didn't feel that I had been given enough grounding in the science to be able to fairly reach a conclusion and was left with having to rely on Smolin's word as an expert, a predicament that Smolin himself identifies and decries among the string theorists, but does not seem to see as well in the position in which he puts his own readers.

  10. 5 out of 5

    M.L. Rudolph

    2006. Whoa. Not for the faint of heart. You gotta love your fermions and your gluons. And you need to appreciate a good brane. It took me two months to work my way through this book. Pecking away. I'm not a scientist, by far, and I plodded through determined to see what I could learn. I'm glad I did. It was good to read that the world of physics is just as screwy as any other corporate grouping. Suffering from groupthink, careerists, and ladder-climbers, just like everywhere I ever worked. Apparen 2006. Whoa. Not for the faint of heart. You gotta love your fermions and your gluons. And you need to appreciate a good brane. It took me two months to work my way through this book. Pecking away. I'm not a scientist, by far, and I plodded through determined to see what I could learn. I'm glad I did. It was good to read that the world of physics is just as screwy as any other corporate grouping. Suffering from groupthink, careerists, and ladder-climbers, just like everywhere I ever worked. Apparently,just because you're a math genius or a theoretical visionary doesn't mean you get ahead, get grants, or get jobs at institutions of higher learning. White men hire other white men that remind them of younger versions of themselves. No big surprise there. But before you get to those juicy assertions about the world of physics, you have to read through the history of String Theory and a weighty defense of all that hasn't happened since that theory took precedence within the physics community. That's the difficult part of the book and the most rewarding. Not that I can explain what I just read, but I know it was important and I must have learned something that will some day come in handy. I also know now that when I see a NOVA Special on String Theory that it's just a bunch of dumbed-down drivel. String Theory isn't the next big thing. It's just generally accepted by the physics establishment. Smolin attacks the underlying assumptions of String Theory and, lo and behold, he shows that these assumptions have never been proven. Just assumed. Oh, well. Back to the white board. Worthy read. Important book. Enjoy it slowly.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Cassandra Kay Silva

    This book should actually be called the trouble with string theory :) Most of you know that I am a massive Brian Greene fan and absolutely love my world "stringy" even superly so. I find string theory to have an energy and power that sparks the imagination and excites the theorist in all of us. Having said that I tried to take an objective view when reading through Smolins work and felt that he laid out his arguments (not necessarily against it but against the way that it has been latched on to This book should actually be called the trouble with string theory :) Most of you know that I am a massive Brian Greene fan and absolutely love my world "stringy" even superly so. I find string theory to have an energy and power that sparks the imagination and excites the theorist in all of us. Having said that I tried to take an objective view when reading through Smolins work and felt that he laid out his arguments (not necessarily against it but against the way that it has been latched on to by the scientific community and the effects that this has on funding and research) very well indeed. Its a massive undertaking to write something that by many would be seen as "anti" to the scientific community of which Smolin himself is a part of. I think his desire to be objective and revisit the whys and the ifs of the basic premises of string theory to be admirable. It doesn't change my love of it, and even if string theory doesn't end up being the "answer" to everything that we are looking for I still see it as a beautiful and amazing line of thinking. Smolin has a careful and practical outlook on the scientific community at current and I think this book should be read by all lovers of modern science, even those of us who generally follow the more pop variety to keep us grounded in reason and logic. I agree that we must always reevaluate our thinking especially where resources are being allocated. Contray or not I am giving both Smolin and Greene five stars, and value the authors beliefs and efforts equally.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Dr M

    Smolin's polemic is often misconstrued as a criticism of superstring theory as a physical theory. Indeed Smolin is harsh on string theory, but not because it is a bad theory per se, but because the string-theory community provides a prime example of the problem Smolin is really addressing, namely how we do theoretical physics in the first place. Smolin argues that theoretical physics (at least where foundational issues of quantum physics, gravity etc. are concerned) is at a crisis where nothing Smolin's polemic is often misconstrued as a criticism of superstring theory as a physical theory. Indeed Smolin is harsh on string theory, but not because it is a bad theory per se, but because the string-theory community provides a prime example of the problem Smolin is really addressing, namely how we do theoretical physics in the first place. Smolin argues that theoretical physics (at least where foundational issues of quantum physics, gravity etc. are concerned) is at a crisis where nothing much has really happened in the last 20 years, and the reason is that we are not encouraging researchers to try new approaches and we have an academic system that keeps out precisely those few geniuses that we would need to let in in order to solve the deepest problems. The Trouble With Physics is a must-read for anyone in physics, and, quite possibly, for anyone in academia. Smolin makes some very important points, and we do need to take his questions seriously. Towards the end of the book, Smolin goes a bit over the top in his almost worship of the lone genius, but apart from that, he argues convincingly that the two fundamental problems in the physics community is conformity to certain research programs and a system that explicitly rewards incremental science. The Trouble With Physics is written in a popular-science style that makes it accessible to a general audience. However, if you are looking for a popular-science book where you can learn about the cool modern physics, the strange world of quantum physics, or the mysteries of the cosmos, this book is not for you. The book does not assume previous familiarity with modern theoretical physics, but it certainly does help to have a physics background, at least on the level of a couple of pop-sci books. If you are willing to compromise on understanding all of the physics discussions, you can read the book as a general discussion of science and sociology without any special background.

  13. 4 out of 5

    DJ

    It is obvious that Lee Smolin cares deeply and sincerely about the future of his field of physics. I read this with the intent to get a balanced view of string theory (having already read Brian Greene’s gushing pro-string theory book ‘The Elegant Universe’) but got so much more. Smolin’s book offers a deeper look at scientific history, culture, and philosophy as well. I highly recommend this book to anyone who: * wants an overview of the current state of physics (problems, culture, focuses, exper It is obvious that Lee Smolin cares deeply and sincerely about the future of his field of physics. I read this with the intent to get a balanced view of string theory (having already read Brian Greene’s gushing pro-string theory book ‘The Elegant Universe’) but got so much more. Smolin’s book offers a deeper look at scientific history, culture, and philosophy as well. I highly recommend this book to anyone who: * wants an overview of the current state of physics (problems, culture, focuses, experiments, and more) * is a scientist or physicist * is considering becoming a scientist or physicist Questions # If dark matter is fundamentally under tension, how does it accelerate cosmic expansion? # How do we distinguish between dark energy and matter? # Is the notion of a field an oversimplication? (it seems like a stork story for baby physicists) # Mathematically, how does a background independent theory differ from a background dependent one? # What is gauge symmetry and what mathematics are needed to understand it? (more in Smolin’s ‘Life of the Cosmos’) # What is this MOND nonsense? # Is anyone currently studying the cosmological constant scale and its abundance of apparent coincidences? Conclusion # String theory has been deformed so many times that its hard to recognize and understand. # Many interesting and creative ideas have come out of the pursuit of string theory. # My romantic notion of a period of scientific hermitude has been reinforced. # Studying the fundamental can be lonely and difficult but is essential.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    Here's a book that is good but could be better. It has the general aim of explaining the current state of fundamental physics, first in terms of the physics itself and second in terms of how it is practised (with particular reference to the USA). THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN CURTAILED IN PROTEST AT GOODREADS' CENSORSHIP POLICY See the complete review here: http://arbieroo.booklikes.com/post/33...

  15. 4 out of 5

    Bishnu Bhatta Buttowski

    I thought Physics wasn't able to pickup girls anymore. [laugh][laugh] Nevertheless, the ending of the book was indeed something. I didn't expect some ethical and sociological aspect of Physics from this book. All I thought about was the technical aspect which covered almost two third of the book. Progression of the book: The book started off with the background of scientific revolution that kicked off since early era of Hippocrates and Aristotle explaining the theoretical ideas they put forward an I thought Physics wasn't able to pickup girls anymore. [laugh][laugh] Nevertheless, the ending of the book was indeed something. I didn't expect some ethical and sociological aspect of Physics from this book. All I thought about was the technical aspect which covered almost two third of the book. Progression of the book: The book started off with the background of scientific revolution that kicked off since early era of Hippocrates and Aristotle explaining the theoretical ideas they put forward and how some of their predictions were latter proved wrong. The book went through the journey of theoretical science validated latter by experimentation started since then. Book explains a lots about works of major figures like Johannes Kepler, Sir Issac Newton, Galileo and their works. How some of their work were incomplete and later completed by Figures like Einstein and others. The books has tried great deals in explaining about the unification of the different fields in physics which kicked off after Maxwell unified mathematically the theoretical work of Faraday's into the laws of Electromagnetism. The second part of the book goes through the so called 'String Revolution' of the String theory after every intellect and Physics craftsman thought that it would be ultimate viable theory. The books talks a great deal about the things with String theory and its different forms, how it is trying to incorporate general relativity and quantum gravity as well as other major problems of physics. What I didn't like about the book 1. The author said that this book is intended for general public but it contrast with what is stated. 2. The book should have covered less about the technicalities involved in string theory which covered most parts than others in this book and stated other alternative approaches equally as this one. 3.I felt that the book sometimes lost its way with the topic. What I liked about the book. 1.The author has presented the beautiful timeline about the evolution of physics and the emergence of problems and how people have been tried to tackle it. 2.The thing that I didn't expect, the sociological and the ethical factor which could play in the slowing down of physics and leading it in to the dead-end has been explained beautifully. I respect the gut of author putting forward these academic politics into the book without being fearful about the contemporary scientific community. Overall this was a good read.

  16. 4 out of 5

    John

    I really liked this book. I've been curious for years about what all the fuss was about, regarding string theory. I've watched a few shows on TV that had string theorists that tried to explain it, like Brian Greene, but they always seemed to just talk around it with flowery language, never explaining the nuts and bolts of how exactly it was the "theory of everything". Lee Smolin does a good job of showing that the emperor has no clothes. If he is correct, and his writing has that "ring of truth" I really liked this book. I've been curious for years about what all the fuss was about, regarding string theory. I've watched a few shows on TV that had string theorists that tried to explain it, like Brian Greene, but they always seemed to just talk around it with flowery language, never explaining the nuts and bolts of how exactly it was the "theory of everything". Lee Smolin does a good job of showing that the emperor has no clothes. If he is correct, and his writing has that "ring of truth", string theory has been a decade-plus big complex mathematical exercise, and nothing more. But the main focus of his book isn't that string theory has failed (still too early to say that for sure I guess), but rather criticizing how it has monopolized theoretical physics in terms of grants, post-doc positions, etc., and the arrogance of string theorists, and how that's bad for science. But the most important point he makes is that string theory has never made any testable predictions, and that some string theorists are even saying maybe we should redefine "science" so that it doesn't have to be testable! Talk about arrogance there, these guys' favorite theory is turning into a hairball, they can't test it or falsify it (or prove it correct), so instead of admitting that maybe they are on the wrong track and should try something else, they want to redefine what science is. Saying stuff like that should be grounds for having your tenure revoked. He argues (rightfully IMO) that we need more of a balance in supporting different competing theories because it's way too early to decide which is on the right track. It's probable that none of the existing theories is the "right one". Very good book about how science can go wrong sometimes, because it's driven by people and organizations, which are never perfect. But science is unique in that it eventually self-corrects, it just takes longer than it should sometimes.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Nikki

    I came out of reading this book with a pleasing illusion that I understood something of the state of modern physics. Smolin’s style worked for me in explaining things well enough that, for once, I wasn’t left boggling and having to reread pages over and over again to cram the concepts into my head. Perhaps it helps that he’s not an inveterate supporter of string theory, and can explain where it doesn’t work as an explanation for our universe and why — sometimes, it helps to know where concepts b I came out of reading this book with a pleasing illusion that I understood something of the state of modern physics. Smolin’s style worked for me in explaining things well enough that, for once, I wasn’t left boggling and having to reread pages over and over again to cram the concepts into my head. Perhaps it helps that he’s not an inveterate supporter of string theory, and can explain where it doesn’t work as an explanation for our universe and why — sometimes, it helps to know where concepts break down as much as it helps to know where they succeed. Part of the book isn’t just about physics at all, though: it’s about the progress of science in general, and how science progresses. I’m not sure Smolin really gets at anything profound here, but when it comes to the specifics of critiquing why physics has come to a standstill, he genuinely cares and genuinely wants to solve the issue. The way he presents it, it’s clear that it’s time for people to re-evaluate string theory and accept that quite possibly it will never yield the answers we’re looking for. Some days after reading it, being me, I can no longer explain string theory to anyone else, but I can explain why it doesn’t work, so I got something out of this! And I more or less enjoyed letting it turn my brain inside out, too. Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Justin Tapp

    To qualify my review a little better, before I read this book I read: Black Holes and Baby Universes (Stephen Hawking) The Universe in a Nutshell (Hawking) The Grand Design (Hawking) The Hidden Reality (Brian Greene) The Fabric of the Cosmos (Greene) The Elegant Universe (Greene) Lee Smolin's style is similar to Greene's in that he describes a chronological history of the development of string theory and gives simple analogies to explain complex topics. But his analogies are simple and more brief. Of t To qualify my review a little better, before I read this book I read: Black Holes and Baby Universes (Stephen Hawking) The Universe in a Nutshell (Hawking) The Grand Design (Hawking) The Hidden Reality (Brian Greene) The Fabric of the Cosmos (Greene) The Elegant Universe (Greene) Lee Smolin's style is similar to Greene's in that he describes a chronological history of the development of string theory and gives simple analogies to explain complex topics. But his analogies are simple and more brief. Of the above, I'd recommend Greene's work and then try Smolin. If you have to pick one, pick Smolin's work. I felt fairly well-versed in string theory and its importance to modern physics. While Greene points out some of the controversial, philosophical nature of string theory both he and Hawking purport that a theory need not create falsifiable propositions in order to be a "theory." This has always been problematic for me. Smolin, who is a respected physicist himself, opens this book by asking physics has not made any progress in 25 years. Nobel prizes require verification by experiment, which is not possible with most of string theory. His concern is that string theory is being held up as truth and that physicists suspend the definition of "science." The dictionary definition of "theory" is changing in statements about it. Fewer universities are funding positions to research alternative possibilities, it's become near impossible to get a chair or your research published if it's not pushing string theory. Smolin has purportedly tried to be a bridge between the string theorists and the ever-shrinking non-stringers, but points out through various articles, blogs, message boards, and others how vitriolic the string theorists can be. String theorists seem to always look for verification from "thought leaders" and any criticism is met with hostility. Smolin points out that even Einstein was wrong about things, this is the way science works-- no one should be above inquiry. One problem with ST is that the various theories that have spun off of it are built on more assumptions and not proof. In fact, one key assumption that string theorists held from 1984-2001--that the finiteness of the theory had been proven long ago-- was discovered by Smolin and others to be false. He contacted the physicist most often cited by researchers as having proved the point, and he admitted he'd done no such thing. That level of blind devotion is a bit concerting. Theorists are a little like economists (which I am) who fit a curve. They invent models with a large number of constants, and then tweak those constants to fit any new discoveries. This is hugely problematic as various theories are predicting things found not to hold in the rest of physics. What use is a theory that spins off an infinite number of possible theories? It's been two decades and string theory has yet to produce any hypotheses that are testable, with current technology (In The Universe in a Nutshell Hawking writes that you need a particle collider larger than the size of the universe to prove some aspects of string theory, and that's fine with him). Physicists have bent the rules in order to stick with ST, why don't they demand the old rules for the rest of science? Smolin writes that they probably should have stopped when they got above 4 dimensions necessary for string theory-- instead of the 10 required. The extra six curled-up dimensions seem to be a way of "fitting the curve," so to speak. So-called "M-theory," which Greene holds up as reality, actually has no precise equations. It's very vague and imprecise and fits no definition of the word "theory." Smolin explains the importance of the hadron collider, he wrote the book before it was finished. The first thing the collider had to show was the Higgs-Boson or else all of physics would be "in deep trouble." He lists other things that the collider would need to show and explains them well. Super-symmetry itself, hopefully to be proven by the collider, does not require string theory, there are other alternatives (which author has worked on). He explains the evolution of string theory as the grand unifying theory and its requirements: Requires super-symmetry Requires that special relatively hold Requires 10 dimensions "like a car with the features you want but extras you'd rather not have." - 6 are curled up. - Calabi-Yau shapes Richard Feynman himself was skeptical and many physicists jumped ship at various points above. But as string theory evolved, became cult-like-- you were in or out. Researchers speak of its "elegance" and "beauty," and its supposed symmetry, which was never proven, was held up as one of its most important aspects. Smolin has serious "issues" with new string theory pushing a brane universe (he doesn't even mention the latest idea, that we're on a hologram, or Brian Greene's assertion that we're probably all just in a simulated multiverse on someone's computer). Smolin works in quantum gravity, and points out that if dark matter or dark energy exist then string theory has problems. He takes issue with some of the original research in the 1970s on the inflationary multiverse, which Hawking and Greene basically hold up as true, because the original researcher imagined distributing the cosmological constant randomly across all possible universes while holding all else constant-- where he should have distributed all characteristics, otherwise the prediction of the constant will be even farther off. Indeed as I write this (2015), recent evidence cited to support cosmic inflation appears to be caused by cosmic dust. The media doesn't seem to cover events if they are un-discovered so much as they hype them when they are, as in this case. I found Smolin's discussion of quantum gravity fascinating. When the media reports on evidence found for dark matter they don't point out that it bodes trouble for the string theory and inflation for which they'd recently also run stories. Smolin points out that NASA Pioneer 10 and 11 vessels travelling through space have not traveled in a trajectory that was predicted by laws of physics. However, the craft showed unanticipated acceleration, confirmed by multiple measurements. See the wikipedia on the Pioneer anomaly. This measurement confirmed by multiple instruments. Scientists had tried to control for other variables, but had no luck as of Smolin's writing in determining what is amiss. This is important because it may have something to do with quantum gravity. (According to wikipedia, scientists were confident they'd determined the source of the acceleration by 2012.) Could there be dark matter or dark energy? Is the speed of light always constant? Again, observed data suggest that it might not be and if general relativity does not hold, every string theory falls apart. Smolin contends in a chapter on the "sociology" of the field that theorists have "groupthink," and look to thought leaders for approval. They have not abandoned their quest in the face of evidence and criticism and Smolin finds the trend toward quasi-philosophical thinking quite disturbing. Smolin writes that quantum gravity seems to be regaining momentum. It creates falsifiable propositions and is potentially a unifying theory itself. Even so, he closes the book with a look at pioneers who have braved poverty, isolation, and losing their prestige to do their own research outside the paradigm. Some have ended up contributing greatly to the field of physics, but the free-thinkers seem to be a dying breed under the pressure of modern academia. I should note that Smolin is no intelligent design theorist, he rejects what he sees as a false dichotomy put forth by Hawking and Susskind that one either has to believe in God or string theory. He argues that if and when string theory is finally discarded, physicists will still examine other alternatives to explain where the universe came from. In the beginning of the book, he argues about evolution with probably the worst example of supposed Christian apologists I've ever seen, such that I doubt whether they really existed (people who believed dinosaurs are all still alive hiding in African caves). He enjoys philosophy and knows enough not to engage in philosophical debate, except in showing the illogic nature of the string theorists. I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. I found Smolin to be concise and engaging, he comes across as a peace maker. Some of the complaining about modern academia sounds a bit like whining, but it's universal across all fields so it's not unique to Smolin. I highly recommend this book and would like to read Smolin's other works.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Félix

    My rating of this fine work reflects mostly my own shortcomings in making my way through a subject that quite often was beyond my comfort zone in physics. Spoiler alert: the science has hit some formidable brick walls in terms of being able to support many years of expanding theoretical efforts with real-world experiments. Having been written before the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider, the book leaves us hanging on what has been predicted by current theory to be discovered by the machine. My rating of this fine work reflects mostly my own shortcomings in making my way through a subject that quite often was beyond my comfort zone in physics. Spoiler alert: the science has hit some formidable brick walls in terms of being able to support many years of expanding theoretical efforts with real-world experiments. Having been written before the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider, the book leaves us hanging on what has been predicted by current theory to be discovered by the machine. The author was hopeful in that regard. Unfortunately, as I understand what has actually come out from the experiments run so far, it has been disappointing. Yes, the Higgs boson has been observed and measured -- but the supersymmetry theory has not been proven to the extent scientists had desired. At least not yet. Stay tuned, physics fans!

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ericka Clouther

    The beginning of the book was about physics and was maybe a 3 as it varied between being the same old, a little above my head, and kind of a bummer. The rest of the book was a challenge to change the way we think about science in general and physics in particular. I found that section at the end more interesting.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    I could talk a lot about the ideas in this book, but I'll try to keep this a review of the book itself as much as possible. I was predisposed to like this book, since I agree with many of the popular-level criticisms of string theory (not testable, not well-defined and distinct, over-appeals to mathematics and 'aesthetics', etc.). I've heard this book described as a polemic or as an unfair attack on string theory, and that's not quite right. He pulls no punches, certainly, but he makes his case w I could talk a lot about the ideas in this book, but I'll try to keep this a review of the book itself as much as possible. I was predisposed to like this book, since I agree with many of the popular-level criticisms of string theory (not testable, not well-defined and distinct, over-appeals to mathematics and 'aesthetics', etc.). I've heard this book described as a polemic or as an unfair attack on string theory, and that's not quite right. He pulls no punches, certainly, but he makes his case well and seems to give his targets a pretty fair shake. The book's strongest section is the beginning, where he lays out five questions that the next "big" (for lack of a better term) theory in physics should answer. This was well thought-out, well-described, and his clearest arguments against string theory and for alternate approaches come when he refers back to these questions. The discussion of string theory itself started off well, as its beginnings and initial successes were discussed in terms of answering 1-2 of these Big questions. However, his succession of critiques of the theory fell flat to me. He would present a string theory conjecture or hypothesis, then dive into its problems rapidly and without much concern for making the writing/story compelling. I think his goal here was fairness to the idea, which is laudable, but it frankly did not make for great reading for a layperson. I caught myself skimming by the end of a critique of a given idea multiple times. Things improved by the end of his string theory criticisms, as he "pulled back" to focus on larger issues with the theory rather than (to a physics outsider) minutia. I hope string theorists appreciate the detailed back-and-forth he provided of individual conjectures, but I don't know that popular science consumers will. His discussion of the "sociological" problems with string theory also left me wanting. The description didn't seem new to me, and he admitted as much when he related a story about how he had an article about this rejected by a journal because it's a known issue. Of course, science is a human endeavor and plagued by human problems. Entrenched views get revered and contrasting views may get squelched; a pessimist or postmodernist would make the comparison to religion and heresy, and indeed the author does. But, again, not a new problem: Planck, who Smolin would no doubt revere as a hero, quipped "science advances one funeral at a time." Worse than this, though, I think Smolin grossly underestimates the difficulty in solving this problem. He claims it would be trivial to identify "seers" (his term) with unique ideas and out-of-the-box thinking about the Big Questions, and funding these people will increase the likelihood of springing the next revolution in physics. I think this is little short of a joke. The notion that these people can be identified and nurtured so easily is borderline asinine. He tells a romantic story about a mathematician who retreated to a farm to mull over space and time, and emerged a decade later with amazing ideas "untainted" by the "dogma" of academia. Great ... not to put too fine a point on it, but there's another story about a mathematician who did something similar an emerged as the Unabomber. Separating the wheat from the chaff, assuming the wheat even exists and/or is even achievable, would not be remotely as easy as Smolin supposes. Now, all that said, I have to point out that I think Smolin's position is ultimately correct. I think this book is important and worth reading, despite its flaws. (Hence the three stars yet negative review.) If his descriptions of the physics community and string theory are accurate--and they seem to be--then something is indeed amiss. The problem is that Smolin's proposed fixes aren't really tenable: you can't force or even foster the "next Einstein." That's sort-of true by definition ... revolutionary ideas are celebrated because they're revolutionary, whereas an additional decimal place of precision is just that. Now, I don't mean to say we (meaning humanity, or at least physicists) should give up and keep playing with untestable hypotheses in eleven-dimensional space. Rather, this book is precisely the sort of thing that needs to happen. It critically looks at the limitations of current physics theories, and attempts to give physicists a kick in the butt to think deeply and with some innovation. If one string theorist is embarrassed by this book and takes an objective look at his field, proving something right or wrong along the way, great! If one grad student reads this and is inspired to buck the string theory trend and stubbornly pursue non-string-theory physics, great! If Smolin's right, *that's* what progress will have to look like. I think the big limitation of his book is that he seems to think progress will look like, ironically, declaring orthodoxy 'heretical' and funding mavericks he would like to lionized.

  22. 4 out of 5

    BetseaK

    This was a worthwhile and well-intentioned critical overview of the issues troubling the field of contemporary theoretical physics, with the emphasis on the ones concerning the string theory (or rather, theories). Being among those laypersons who find the string theory somehow detached from reality and therefore hard to understand, as obvious from my review (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) of The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, This was a worthwhile and well-intentioned critical overview of the issues troubling the field of contemporary theoretical physics, with the emphasis on the ones concerning the string theory (or rather, theories). Being among those laypersons who find the string theory somehow detached from reality and therefore hard to understand, as obvious from my review (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) of The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, it is not surprising that I liked Mr. Smolin's exposition in that regard as it gives a good picture of the problems confronting the string theory. It's impossible, though, for a person without adequate physics background to appreciate Mr. Smolin's arguments to the full, let alone evaluate them properly and fairly. Consequently, I felt this part of the book a bit too long for this layperson's taste. On the other hand, Mr. Smolin's overview of alternative ideas and approaches beyond the string theory (modified Newtonian dynamics/MOND, GZK prediction, deformed/doubly SR, the idea that the Planck length might also be taken as a universal constant, etc.) captured my interest and kindled my curiosity. The part I also liked very much was the author's characterization of the ethics of science. I highly appreciate Mr. Smolin's endeavor to encourage different point of views and healthy scientific skepticism regarding any physics theory. As for the chapters dealing with the sociological problems of academic physics and suggestions how to recognize and stimulate a seer, Mr. Smolin's honesty and good intentions are praiseworthy. I'm afraid, though, that these problems cannot be solved so easily as the author supposes and wishes. To put it briefly, it may simply be that the time is still not ripe for the wished-for seer to appear. For a more detailed review of this book, please see Manny's at: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jafar

    This book attempts to explain why physics is in such a sorry state, and why no new revolutionary ideas have been put forward in the past few decades – certainly nothing that can be compared with relativity or quantum physics. John Horgan said the same thing about all branches of science in The End of Science, but Smolin focuses on physics only, and he partly blames it on the string theory being fashionable and stifling other approaches to solving physics’ fundamental problems. Smolin, a first-ra This book attempts to explain why physics is in such a sorry state, and why no new revolutionary ideas have been put forward in the past few decades – certainly nothing that can be compared with relativity or quantum physics. John Horgan said the same thing about all branches of science in The End of Science, but Smolin focuses on physics only, and he partly blames it on the string theory being fashionable and stifling other approaches to solving physics’ fundamental problems. Smolin, a first-rate theoretical physicist himself, doesn’t believe that that the string theory is going anywhere. He also blames the politics and the culture that dominate universities, research institutes, and granting agencies. I was hoping that he would have a few words about the possibility that we, as a species with a brain that is the product of natural selection and has a limited ability, have reached the limit of our understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe. How much deeper do we think we can dig into the nature of reality? If a dog can’t understand quantum physics, why can’t we have our own ceiling? He didn’t bring up this possibility. Scientists’ optimism is commendable. “We must know and we shall know,” as David Hilbert famously proclaimed. I presume that my understanding of, and interest in physics are above the average population, but I had a hard time with some parts of the book. Smolin feels compelled to justify why he thinks that the string theory is not working, so he goes on explaining what the string theory is about, and why it can lead to unverifiable absurdities, and the alternative approaches that can be taken. In the process of explaining all this, I’m sure he loses many readers. If you don’t have at least an undergraduate degree in physics, I suggest that you read the introduction and the first chapter, and then skip to the last 100 pages which contain a few really great chapters about what science is and what it should do.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Amar Pai

    If I had to summarize this book in one sentence, I would say: nothing, because I didn't understand hardly any of it. It's not the author's fault, as his pop-science explanations of recondite scientific theories and phenomena (supersymmetry, gauge theory, quantum electrodynamices, string theory obviously) seem about as clear as they could be. I just didn't have the energy to pore over the chapters trying to understand things. From what I gather, string theory is a fashionable & mathematically If I had to summarize this book in one sentence, I would say: nothing, because I didn't understand hardly any of it. It's not the author's fault, as his pop-science explanations of recondite scientific theories and phenomena (supersymmetry, gauge theory, quantum electrodynamices, string theory obviously) seem about as clear as they could be. I just didn't have the energy to pore over the chapters trying to understand things. From what I gather, string theory is a fashionable & mathematically beautiful body of work that unfortunately has not produced many testable new predictions, nor advanced our ability to explain & unify the 4 fundamental forces. UPDATE 10/12/10: giving this another go, prompted by having read this other book, "the shape of inner space" by shing-tung yau. sadly, neither book succeeds at explaining the relevant mathematical concepts in a way that laymen can understand. for something better check out these fascinating slides on "the cosmic distance ladder" by terrence tao: terrytao.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/... that guy is good at explaining math!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Daphne

    Wow. This is an important work for anyone interested or concerned with the current state of science and funding. Beyond the fact that I learned more about theoretical physics and string theory here than any other pop-sci book before, I couldn't get enough of this one. I'll never be able to grasp the hardcore numbers involved in physics of this scope, but I can appreciate the theories and ideas involved. Smolin did a better job explaining it to me than anyone I've read before, and he doesn't even Wow. This is an important work for anyone interested or concerned with the current state of science and funding. Beyond the fact that I learned more about theoretical physics and string theory here than any other pop-sci book before, I couldn't get enough of this one. I'll never be able to grasp the hardcore numbers involved in physics of this scope, but I can appreciate the theories and ideas involved. Smolin did a better job explaining it to me than anyone I've read before, and he doesn't even agree with their theory. I've long known that science funding and research has gotten more and more fuddled up with bias for the in vogue ideas in whatever field one is trying to research, but this book made me realize how much worse it actually is than I had even realized. It made me quite sad tbh, but I'm really glad I read it. I hope that the work Smolin and others are doing to remedy the situation comes about sooner rather than later, so we can advance further as a species in our understanding of the universe and how it works.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tuomas

    The book is essentially a critique of string theory, although that really only provides a framework for a broader and deeper discussion of the state of physics and science, the philosophy of science and problems in the academia. Smolin’s writing is enjoyable and I kept nodding by myself enthusiastically through most of the book. However, at times it may feel that the themes of the book are not quite connected, or they are discussed only superficially. Smolin does not go into much detail about so The book is essentially a critique of string theory, although that really only provides a framework for a broader and deeper discussion of the state of physics and science, the philosophy of science and problems in the academia. Smolin’s writing is enjoyable and I kept nodding by myself enthusiastically through most of the book. However, at times it may feel that the themes of the book are not quite connected, or they are discussed only superficially. Smolin does not go into much detail about some of the relevant background in physics, such as gauge theories, so unless the reader is already familiar with much of contemporary physics it can sometimes seem that too much is assumed. Having said that, Smolin makes it incredibly easy to grasp the major problems of contemporary physics (he lists five of them: the problem of quantum gravity, the foundations of quantum mechanics, the unification of particles and forces, the fixing of the values of the free constants in the standard model, and the nature of dark matter and dark energy). All in all the only flaw in the book to my mind is that it could’ve been longer and gone into more detail on some of the issues. Smolin does have other books which do just that though, such as his 1997 book The Life of the Cosmos, which I quite fancy reading now. Much of Smolin’s discussion of string theory focuses on a simple theme: because string theory has failed to make any empirically testable predictions and is hence not falsifiable, at least not in the usual sense, it does not deserve the dominant position that it currently has in theoretical physics. Indeed, it is not even a particularly well formulated theory. Smolin discusses the scientific, historical and sociological causes for the current state of theoretical physics in which it seems that the only viable career choice is to engage in research concerning one of the currently fashionable problems in string theory. This discussion is fascinating in that it gives an insider’s look into the everyday work of theoretical physicists — it is remarkable how many similarities one can find between Smolin’s description of the less admirable aspects of the endeavours of theoretical physicists and those of philosophers. Philosophers may find Smolin’s discussion of the philosophy of science rather superficial, but one must keep in mind that the book is written for the layman who lacks philosophical education. Besides, it is clear that Smolin himself does have a good grasp of the relevant issues, although his discussion of the work of Popper for instance may lack the input of more recent work in the philosophy of science. Still, Smolin actually met Feyerabend several times and he has some funny anecdotes to share. Although Smolin’s discussion of contemporary physics and string theory in particular are extremely interesting, I thought, rather surprisingly, that the best aspect of the book is the discussion concerning the sociological aspects of science. Some of this discussion, such as Smolin’s application of the so called ‘group think’ idea to the behaviour of the string theory community is perhaps a bit too simplified, but I have no doubt that there is an element of truth to it. Smolin also seems to be particularly concerned about the prospects of young researchers and about the fact that they are not being encouraged to ‘think for themselves’ and to pursue risky, original research projects. Rather, if one wishes to embark on a successful career in theoretical physics, it seems that jumping right into some fashionable aspect of the dominant field, i.e., string theory, is the only way to go. It strikes me that the situation, although certainly not as drastic as it seems to be in theoretical physics, is rather similar in philosophy: it is extremely difficult to sell a research project which deviates from accepted philosophical dogmas. I think that the Quinean conception of ontological commitment is a good example of such a dogma — which is all the more ironic given that Quine’s best known paper was entitled ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’! Let me quote a passage from Smolin concerning research ethics which I think is probably descriptive of much of academia (p. 306): "Adherence to the shared ethic is never perfect, so there is always room for improvement in the practice of science. This seems especially true today, when fashion appears to be playing too large a role, at least in physics. You know this is happening whenever there are bright young PhDs who tell you privately that they would rather be doing X but are doing Y because that is the direction or technique championed by powerful older people, and they thus feel the need to do Y to get funding or a job. Of course, in science as in other areas, there are always a few who choose to do X in spite of the clear evidence that the doers of Y are better rewarded in the short term. Among them are the people who will most likely lead the next generation. Thus the progress of science may be slowed by orthodoxy and fashion, but as long as there is room for those who do X instead of Y, it cannot be stopped completely." Smolin’s greatest concern is the relative lack of room for those who choose to do X. I share that concern, perhaps because I happen to be doing something like X myself! In any case, the real lesson of The Trouble with Physics is that we should not become bogged down with a fashionable approach to a certain problem, even if it seems to enjoy wide support. That’s not how science (or philosophy) works; we need to have several parallel lines of research while knowing full well that only one of them may be correct. The problem is that we can never be certain which one of them it is — more often than not the correct line of research has turned out not to be the most popular one.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Arko

    A fantastic book upholding the bloom and crisis of one of the most coveted theories of physics which is the string theory. Holding high hopes towards finding a theory of everything , string theorists made use of esoteric mathematical forms to establish consistency in uniting the quantum and classical features and observations of our Universe. Based on subsequent refinement of the theory since its inception in the late '60s, this theory gets to be renamed to the superstring theory and finally rec A fantastic book upholding the bloom and crisis of one of the most coveted theories of physics which is the string theory. Holding high hopes towards finding a theory of everything , string theorists made use of esoteric mathematical forms to establish consistency in uniting the quantum and classical features and observations of our Universe. Based on subsequent refinement of the theory since its inception in the late '60s, this theory gets to be renamed to the superstring theory and finally recognized within a unified network in the light of dualities into the M-Theory. The Author most transparently shares his viewpoint on the reasons which lead string theory fall into a pit of criticism based on the falsifiability and verifiable predictability qualification of science. Although very brilliant minds are engaged in this arduous task of completing the string theoretical picture of reality, there are other attempts that shed light on important problem of finding a quantum mechanical description of space and time weaving gravity with it. Being one of the imaginative minds himself, the author relies on the approaches towards quantum gravity which are background independent and are subjected to falsifiability and predictability. The author objects to the unequal division of resources among the various approaches towards new scientific discoveries and to a lack of interaction among the physicists trying to answer the same questions through diverse methods. There is so much to learn from this book about keeping one's mind open and flexible enough to imagine most creatively yet resonating with experimental data. A must read for all science enthusiasts.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Dan Falk

    Few aspects of theoretical physics capture the public imagination – but string theory, which states that the universe is composed of tiny, vibrating strings rather than point-like particles, certainly has. The theory has spawned dozens of popular books and even a three-hour PBS TV series. It continues to attract the attention of many of the brightest graduate students in theoretical physics, as well as the funding agencies that keep their research programs humming. Lee Smolin has a problem with t Few aspects of theoretical physics capture the public imagination – but string theory, which states that the universe is composed of tiny, vibrating strings rather than point-like particles, certainly has. The theory has spawned dozens of popular books and even a three-hour PBS TV series. It continues to attract the attention of many of the brightest graduate students in theoretical physics, as well as the funding agencies that keep their research programs humming. Lee Smolin has a problem with that. Two problems, actually – first, that string theory may be wrong; and secondly, that the physics community, for a variety of reasons, is unwilling to admit it has chosen the wrong path. Smolin, a physicist based at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, lays out his argument in a bold and often audacious book that is clearly aimed at his physicist colleagues as well as the lay reader. His confrontational tone is clear from the first few pages, where he claims that fundamental physics has seen little progress since the 1970s – the first time since the late 18th century, he argues, that the wheels of progress have turned so slowly. Then, referring to string theory, he laments “a trend in which only one direction of research is well supported while other promising approaches are starved.” Having warned readers what lies ahead, he then gives a highly readable summary of 20th century physics, from Einstein’s theory of general relativity to quantum theory, along with major developments in particle physics. String theory, as Smolin explains, emerged as an attempt to unite Einstein’s theory with quantum theory, making it a candidate for a “unified theory,” the kind of framework needed to investigate extreme realms such as the inside of a black hole, or the earliest moments of the universe following the big bang. String theory has yet to make a concrete, testable prediction, but Smolin’s concerns run deeper. In a chapter titled “A Theory of Anything,” he says that the theory can no longer claim to provide a unique explanation for the laws of physics. Many string theorists, he points out, now believe that the theory “should be understood as a vast landscape of possible theories, each of which governs a different region of a multiple universe.” Some theorists, such as Stanford physicists Leonard Susskind and Andrei Linde, have suggested the multiple universes approach as a possible explanation for the “fine tuning” problem – the question of why so many of the universe’s physical parameters seem to be just right for life (or perhaps intelligence) to evolve. But for Smolin, a theory that can explain anything in fact explains nothing – this, in his view, is not how science is supposed to work. Those who postulate multiple universes to explain the physics that we observe, he says, are little better than supporters of “Intelligent Design,” who argue that some sort of intelligent being was responsible for our good fortune. Those multiple universes can’t be observed, Smolin reminds us, and postulating their existence doesn’t allow us to make specific predictions. Instead, he urges us to consider a third possibility – that there is “a so-far-unknown mechanism that will explain both the biofriendliness of our universe and make testable predictions by which it can be confirmed or falsified.” String theory, Smolin argues, “has failed to make any predictions by which it can be tested, and some of its proponents, rather than admitting that, are seeking to change the rules so that their theory will not need to pass the usual tests we impose on scientific ideas.” Smolin goes on to outline some of the alternatives to string theory, including loop quantum gravity, which he helped develop. (In loop quantum gravity, space and time are composed of indivisible, discrete units. In some calculations, those units have the properties of tiny loops – hence the name.) Smolin also turns his attention to other neglected approaches – the possibility that the supposed “constants” of physics may have changed over time, or that the Einstein’s equations for relativity may need modification. He concludes with a long list of things he doesn’t like about the way string theorists behave (though he stresses that he’s not picking on any individual scientist, and greatly respects the work of all those that he mentions). His larger beef is with the mentality of entire institutions, scientific associations, and funding agencies, all of which, he claims, foster “groupthink” and discourage innovative thinking. “More than at any time in the history of science,” Smolin writes, “the cards are stacked against the revolutionary.” Not every argument is convincing. The alleged lack of progress, for example, is surely subjective; the recent discovery that neutrinos have mass, and that the universe is accelerating, must count for something. And just how fast should science progress? The Greeks envisioned atoms some 2,000 years before we could measure their properties; who’s to say string theory isn’t a few decades (or more) ahead of its time? Ultimately, however, I don’t think Smolin’s aim is to disparage the efforts of string theorists. Rather, he wants all of us to take a more critical look at the way physics is done – a laudable goal, whether the universe is made of strings, loops, or something even stranger. (Adapted from a review I wrote for The Globe and Mail.)

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mark Moon

    Hold up well, more than a decade later. Lots of good criticism of modern physics as an institution, and some good ideas for improving the situation.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lohengrin

    The author addresses two different, but related issues in the book: -Superstring theory's currently dominant position. This part is fairly technical at times, although it avoids equations altogether and I think it's well-explained. They key issue dealt with is that superstring theory, however fascinating and mathematically elegant (and there is a long history of mathematically elegant hypotheses being wrong), is just a hypothesis - that it is neither proven nor the only candidate theory out there The author addresses two different, but related issues in the book: -Superstring theory's currently dominant position. This part is fairly technical at times, although it avoids equations altogether and I think it's well-explained. They key issue dealt with is that superstring theory, however fascinating and mathematically elegant (and there is a long history of mathematically elegant hypotheses being wrong), is just a hypothesis - that it is neither proven nor the only candidate theory out there to reconcile what we know about quantum physics with what we know about gravity, nor is it even a complete theory, with many technical details still not sorted out, and not even a unique theory, but a "landscape" of theories, and therefore it is a mistake to present it and believe in it as if it were proven fact, and that it happens is a symptom of a deeper problem with how science, or at least physics, is done. To be clear, Smolin isn't arguing superstring theory is unscientific or necessarily wrong, rather he bemoans that similar resources have not been devoted to alternative approaches, and that all too often it has been presented to the public as if it were a proven fact and not an exciting, but untested and unfinished, hypothesis. -Physics, at least fundamental physics, is stagnating - it has become dominated by "safe," incremental, "me too" science - the ability to publish regularly in the academic journals and persuade funding bodies to fund your work (itself largely dependent on publishing) being what gets you hired, promoted and tenured, making the ability to publish frequently and regularly far more important to get an academic career ("publish or perish") than pursuing bold new directions (which might fail altogether, or take a long time to bear fruit), as well as the ability to get external funding (of which universities take a cut). Smolin argues that, while this is not new (Einstein got a job at a patent office because he couldn't get an academic job), it has become worse because the academic job market has become far worse than in the past (itself, he argues, largely the product of massive overproduction of PhDs resulting from a system that made sense in the post-WWII era, when US higher education was rapidly expanding, which is no longer the case - it's refreshing to have a senior academic admit this openly), because people tend to get funding for their ideas at older ages than happened in the past (and thus depend for longer on well-established senior colleagues, who favour having others join work on their research projects rather than pursue their own), and finally because the processes for tenure and and hiring favour those working on "big" fields, on research agendas that are shared by a large number of senior scientists (who can thus write many references for a candidate, favourably review grant proposals, etc), rather than those who are coming up with their own research agendas. Smolin essentially argues that the way money is allocated is based on a deeply flawed perception of risk and reward - bold new ideas may often fail, but without taking risks you're not going to reap big rewards. Instead, the funding system is based minimizing the risk of no results (no peer-reviewed publications) for any grant, meaning "safe" research by older scientists with a long track record of publications is what gets funded - the system focuses on minimizing failure rather than on maximizing overall rewards. The latter issue perhaps might sound like something directed primarily at academics but, on the contrary, Smolin makes the crucial point that, if academia was going to fix these problems on its own, it would've already done so, and thus outside intervention is needed. His proposals, although not specified in great detail (this is not, after all, a blueprint), would not be expensive but do require asking hard questions about why we're producing so many PhD's and whether the present approach to risk makes sense. Overall, the book is excellent, forceful without being simplistic or vitriolic, and respectful of those it criticizes. Its only real faults are that it perhaps focuses too much for my liking on the issues of theoretical physics as a profession even though many similar problems are faced by other areas of science.

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