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

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  4,717 ratings  ·  203 reviews
In this illuminating book, the renowned theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that fundamental physics -- the search for the laws of nature -- losing its way. Ambitious ideas about extra dimensions, exotic particles, multiple universes, and strings have captured the public's imagination -- and the imagination of experts. But these ideas have not been tested experimentall ...more
ebook, 416 pages
Published September 4th 2007 by Mariner Books (first published September 19th 2006)
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Nov 21, 2010 Manny rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone seriously interested in science
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 ...more
I wrote this ages ago, I’m so very sorry for any scientists or others it may fail to amuse. I had lots of 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.

Dec 04, 2013 David rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to David by: DJ
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 ...more
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, 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 ...more
Mar 20, 2011 Rob rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone remotely interested in science
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
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
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 ...more
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
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" ...more
Feb 16, 2009 DJ rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone looking for an overview of modern physics
Shelves: popular-physics
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
Dec 14, 2013 BetseaK rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone interested in science and overview of contemporary physics
Recommended to BetseaK by: Manny, David, DJ (indirectly, via their reviews)
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 ( of The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, ...more
Amar Pai
Jan 22, 2014 Amar Pai rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: smarter or more patient people than me
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 ...more
Dr M
Feb 14, 2008 Dr M rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: physicists
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 ...more
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).


See the complete review here:
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
Feb 11, 2014 Brian rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Brian by: David
Shelves: grbpp
(4.0) Enjoyed it when I realized it wasn't trying to teach us physics

Smolin's book is really a history and philosophy of science book. In that, it's really good. Very open and honest about the state of physics and the degree to which string theorists had been bending the rules and expectations of science...getting dangerously close to religious science.

I had earlier some expectation that I'd 'understand' string theory (little did I know it was essentially a 10^500-size space of theories, rather
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 ...more
Sep 15, 2008 Amanda rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: science students and people with a general interest in theoretical physics
Shelves: pop-sci
This book was a much needed counterpoint to all the popular science books that talk about string theory. Smolin provides a lot of information about this supposed "Theory of Everything" that was previously hard to find as a member of the general public. His diatribes against the sociology of the field are harsh but at the same time, respectful of all the hard work that has been put into string theory. His opinion on the matter is a breath of fresh air.

Possibly my favourite part of this book is t
Extraordinary. While I loved the breadth, depth, and clarity of Smolin's argument, I also loved his sincerity and kindness (not mention the lucid survey of the various approaches theoretical physics has taken to understanding the universe).

Most of all, though, I was impressed by his frank engagement with the sociology and philosophy of science, and how he has been informed by its critics (Feyerabend, et al). His approach is not nit-picky, but holistic.

In short, Smolin is an excellent writer and
I was prepared not to like this book, but I enjoyed it very much. The author does a very good job at summarizing the state of physics in 2007 and the influence of string theory as of that point in time. He does an excellent job of explaining physics and does a good job of putting string theory into its proper context. He starts off with the five major problems haunting physics (measurement problem, where do constants come from, grand unified theory, and two things) and explains what they mean in ...more
The more I read of Lee Smolin, the more I appreciate him. This book was his warning cry that theoretical physics was entering a cul de sac, and risking having nothing meaningful to say about the nature of reality because of its infatuation with elegant mathematics over testable hypotheses.

I was struck by his using the term "postmodern physics" to describe this situation. Indeed, the faddish, fragmented, highly abstract world of contemporary physical theory has its parallel elsewhere in academic
Karan Gupta
This one came up during a discussion with a colleague about random things during the night on the train to Goa. I think we were talking about thinking out of the box and perspectives. He had said that this one offered a fresh perspective on Physics. I have always been passively interested in Physics; it used to be my favourite subject of study in school. It is now, many years later, that I fully grasp why it was so. Anyway, I ordered the book upon return and took it up a few months later.

The Tro
Although the actual science covered is quite arcane and might require the reader to have a really good grasp on the rigidly defined (or not so rigidly, the stuff is really intricate) concepts (which I probably haven't), Smolin succeeds in pointing out the flaws of string theory (essentially that it's not background-independent, i.e. it does not make any specific predictions about the the shape of the background (the number of dimensions and their shape etc.) which means that there are actually m ...more
The Trouble with Physics is perhaps the first Physics book I've read that takes the reader seriously. That's not to say that it's a technical physics book; like most mass market physics books since Hawking's Brief History of Time, it adheres to the axiom that each equation will reduce your audience by 90%. (Brian Greene is something of an exception, in that he lets math creep ever-so-slightly into the footnotes.) But unlike most other books I've read, this one isn't just cheerleading for a parti ...more
Really enjoyed it, even as -- and perhaps because -- I struggled so much due to my lack of background knowledge. I wanted to finish this, and learn, and was propelled forward by Smolin's thoughtful and positive (but unafraid to speak his mind) tone and, I am unashamed to admit, the similarity of his position on rational discourse with my own. His anti-polarization attitude really does represent the scientific mindset to me.

Now I'm going to have to read more about the pro-String Theory (or at lea
Lee Smolin presents a compelling case for the institutional, sociological, and historical factors that have caused physics to fail to answer the basic questions left open by the Standard Model over the past 30 years.

The book opens with an outline of the open problems left in the wake of the Standard Model and is notable for demanding that a theory be both accurate in the sense that it makes testable predictions that hold under scrutiny AND that the theory make sense in providing a framework on r
Jun 14, 2009 Marfita rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: academicians - is that a word?
Recommended to Marfita by: NPR prolly
OMG! Cosmological constants MIGHT NOT BE CONSTANT AFTER ALL!

Okay, this took me over a year to read and it was in, appearances to the contrary, English. I got stuck on the string theory part and more or less kept the book next to the bed for its soporific effects. Eventually the string theory went away and Smolin moved on to his loops (no better, is it?) and finally to his point, which is not that string theory is wrong (unlike that other book I bought at the same time, Not Even Wrong: The Failur
This must be ranked as one of the most courageous works of modern semi-popular science writing. Smolin, himself a very-well-accredited physicist, analyzes in detail the development of modern string theory, which is believed by many in the theoretical physics community to be the best candidate of a "theory of everything" that will quantum mechanics and general relativity. Smolin documents in detail how string theory has failed to deliver on its grand promise. Despite 25 years of concerted effort ...more
Greg Brown
Smolin's The Trouble with Science is kind of a weird book. It was originally meant as a book about the sociology of the scientific community, but the string theory portion swelled to make the book more commercially viable. And to Smolin's credit, that part of the book was what originally pulled me in; he does an excellent job of detailing the history of science over the last few decades, including the developments that led to string theory as well as alternative programs. But about 3/4ths of the ...more
Smolin's book is a counter to those of Brian Green that celebrate the wonders of physics and particularly string theory. Smolin argues that while there is value in string theory research it has come to dominate theoretical physics to a degree beyond what it merits, given its inability to resolve more than one or two of what Smolin sees as five great unsolved problems in physics:

1. Combining general relativity and quantum theory into a single theory that can claim to be the complete theory of nat
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  • Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law
  • Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions
  • The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe
  • The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics
  • Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe
  • The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces
  • The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes--and Its Implications
  • The End of Time. The Next Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe
  • From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time
  • The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins
  • The Character of Physical Law
  • The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe
  • Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality
  • Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun
  • Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation
  • Gravitation
  • Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science
  • Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang
Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist who has made influential contributions to the search for a unification of physics. He is a founding faculty member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. His previous books include The Trouble with Physics, The Life of the Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity.
More about Lee Smolin...
Three Roads To Quantum Gravity Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe The Life of the Cosmos Computers And Artificial Intelligence Science, Mind And Cosmos

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“Some string theorists prefer to believe that string theory is too arcane to be understood by human beings, rather than consider the possibility that it might just be wrong.” 11 likes
“But what is equally important, and sobering, is how often we fool ourselves. And we fool ourselves not only individually but en masse. The tendency of a group of human beings to quickly come to believe something that its individual members will later see as obviously false is truly amazing. Some of the worst tragedies of the last century happened because well-meaning people fell for easy solutions proposed by bad leaders.” 9 likes
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