Kathleen's Reviews > The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next

The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin
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Jun 17, 2009

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bookshelves: math-science, non-fiction, read-in-2009
Read in June, 2009

The trouble with physics is apparently the decline of everything one loves--or ought to love--about science. The idea that theories should be falsifiable and supported by experimental evidence has, according to Smolin, fallen by the wayside when it comes to theoretical physics as it is practiced today. I have heard it before, from sources within the string theory community--okay, it was probably Michio Kaku or Brian Greene--that string theorists do consider M-Theory "the only game in town". Where Smolin suggests that new approaches in addition to string theory are needed, the string theorists who dominate physics academia believe that string theory should be exclusively pursued by every promising mind. This is all very interesting, but of course no one wants to read a book about academia. It is the alternative ideas--not necessarily of a unifying theory, but theoretical topics in physics do go beyond that--that Smolin presents that make this book highly worth reading.

Doubly Special Relativity is one such idea that blows my mind. This theory suggests that the speed of light--a ratio of two measurements, as all speeds are--may have been different in the early universe. In case this is as incomprehensible to you as it was to me, the idea is that the speed of light may have, ten billion years ago when the universe was hotter, denser, and more energetic, been a different speed than it is today. Like maybe it was 300,000,001 meters per second. Feel free to read the previous three sentences as many times as you need to, or get the book to try to wrap your head around the idea. Smolin presents this idea because--radical and mind blowing as it is--there are experiments that can be conducted to decide whether or not it is a viable scientific theory. Unlike String Theory, it is falsifiable, and possibly in the process of being proven false.

I like String Theory: I think it is beautiful and cool, if more mathematically complex than I can truly hope to wrap my head around. I think it would be awesome if someone proved it. However, I also really liked this book, because Smolin rightfully points out that it has taken more than thirty years of study by some of the best minds of a generation to come up with the culture of physicists who think they may never understand their theory, although they believe that it's true.

If you can't figure out what's wrong with that after this book, may I also recommend Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why The Arguments For God Just Don't Add Up.
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