I enjoy reading science books written for lay people like me with no formal background or education in a particular field. My own science background doesn’t go beyond the introductory classes required to get any degree at NYU, basic biology, chemistry, physics and some social sciences. My computer science background was pretty good in 1983 but, since, I’ve focussed my professional life on software engineering and nothing terribly scientific.
My two favorite books of 2012, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Stephen Pinker and “A Universe From Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss, come from the science department. The Pinker book, about how humans have gradually become less violent actually caused a lot of optimism in the typically cynical old Gonz Blinko and Krauss, with his tremendous writing, teaching and metaphoric skills brings the tremendously complex and unintuitive world of quantum physics to the lay person in a manner we can understand and enjoy. If you haven’t already, go read these two books.
What if Pinker and Krauss just made there books up entirely? What if, indeed, these were works of fiction presenting complex philosophic and scientific ideas accepted by the authors? Were these popular, best sellers in both cases, volumes filled only with the opinion of their authors with minimal support in the literature or scientific consensus? The only honest answer I can give to these questions is, “I don’t know.”
As a science enthusiast who hasn’t the skills or education necessary to read the original literature, how can I know what is and is not opinion and what is in the bast amount of scientific publications out there?
When reading Pinker or Krauss, we have authors who have achieved a level of fame large enough to attract a lot of people from the scientific community to first read their work and, then, make comments and public criticism. These two scientists and authors receive so much public scrutiny in respected publications like Scientific American, New Scientist, National Public Radio, New York Times and elsewhere, that I, as an enthusiast can find greater inspection of their work written in a manner I can understand. Lastly, Richard Dawkins wrote the “Afterward” to “Universe From Nothing,” describing it as the “most important work of popular science since ‘Origin of Species.'” and, as Dawkins is ever impressive on science questions, I’m willing to accept his opinion as having a lot of credibility.
Without compromising the subject they describe in their books, Pinker and Krauss also do a great job of avoiding jargon unintelligible to people not expert in their fields. This piece on its own makes the books enjoyable but it also makes it easier for a science enthusiast to do further research into the subjects discussed in these important books if they are so inclined. Unfortunately, the science book I have read most recently fails in most of these areas.
The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin
This book, as the title suggests, provides a criticism of string theory, some history of physics, a discussion of background independence as an essential component of physical theories, a whole lot about what the author finds bad about the academic politics and funding of theoretical research and, basically, a rant about how his pet theory, loop quantum gravity, gets little attention from funding sources.
When I read the description of the book on Audible.Com, I found it intriguing. All of these topics interest me at some level, I’ve read a lot about string and m theories and, given that neither has ever predicted a single experimental result not also predicted by some other theory, have a generally poor opinion of them and I have so many friends in the scholarly community, I hear a lot about funding issues, academic politics and the like and thought it might be interesting to read how such effects the hard sciences. Unfortunately, what I got was a whole lot of very confusing jargon, math well beyond my own ability to understand and what felt to me like an intentional use of overly complicated language to describe the theories he dislikes while using elegant prose and metaphor to describe his pet theories in a manner that readers like me can learn from.
The History of Physics
Is there a rule, written or otherwise, that all popular physics books must start with a chapter describing the history of the science? If not, why does every editor seem to insist that authors include one?
“The Trouble With Physics” begins with the Greeks, jumps to Galileo, then Newton, Faraday and Einstein. As far as I could tell, Albert Einstein was the only one of these great scientists actually relevant to the book but, for some reason, we needed to read a entire chapter containing what, for all intents and purposes, has appeared in literally of dozens of other books I’ve read. Maybe such books in the future should just contain a link to a generic “history of physics” web site or Wikipedia entry that we can just follow.
Comparing Oneself to Einstein
Lee Smolin, given his credentials, Harvard PhD, long time professor at Yale University and elsewhere and author of many papers and books is obviously a highly accomplished theoretical physicist. Certainly, he will know far more about physics than 99.99% of all people on Earth. At the same time, when I read any author who uses phrases like, “Like Einstein, I…” or “I’m like Einstein in that…” I immediately grow distrustful. If an author needs to tell me he’s just like Einstein, suggesting his work on quantum loop gravity is somehow as important as special or general relativity, a question I can’t answer myself but I’m skeptical of such a statement as it seems highly hyperbolic and overly self promotional.
Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve read a number of books on string and m theory. To me, a lay reader, some of it made sense. In his criticism, Smolin repeats all of the same problems that I’ve read elsewhere but in far greater detail.
To me, the Standard Model of Particle Physics, when described by a good author, seems to make a lot of sense. More than my being able to understand most books I’ve read about it, though, it has repeatedly been confirmed by experiment. The standard model makes excellent predictions and, in the time since the Higgs Boson was discovered at CERN, it has been further confirmed. Meanwhile, neither string nor m theory has ever made a single prediction confirmed by experiment that wasn’t also predicted by another theory. This and Lawrence Krauss’ lecture at the QED conference in Manchester this April in which he described string theorists as functionaries of fiction, I’ve grown convinced that there is little there that actually has much of real value.
This author, however, takes us much deeper inter problems with string theory than I had encountered before. He includes a lot of statements taken out of context by string theorists that make them sound ridiculous. When I googled around to find some of the lectures he cited, while sounding improbable to me, they lacked the absurdity that Smolin shows us with what feels like a disingenuous method of editing their comments. Obviously, the author couldn’t include the entire text of these presentations but I feel he misleads his readers this way.
This book contains the phrase, “This is achieved by wrapping membranes around a six dimensional geometry with an inverted sphere shaped brane at the top.” I’m a science enthusiast, I went pretty far with math in college and I have no idea what a “six dimensional geometry” means or how one can wrap a theoretical membrane around it. He, of course, uses this phrase in the part of the book in which he attempted to show his readers just how silly much of string theory is. Unfortunately, the effect on me as a reader was simply to glaze over and have to assume that the author was telling the truth as I wouldn’t even know where to read something I might be able to comprehend about this sort of geometry.
I’m uncertain if the author intentionally tried to obfuscate the ideas he dislikes but, as a science communicator, he fails terribly in this area.
Throughout the book, Lee Smolin repetitively reminds his readers that he believes that a theory is better if it is “background independent,” a property of a physical theory that requires it to have no constants derived from experimental findings but, rather, nothing but equations that generate the constants. It also requires that the theory be independent of a geometry or coordinate system. After reading this book and the Wikipedia entry on background independence, an article that says that neither the standard model nor general relativity have such a property, I’m largely uncertain as to exactly why this is so important if Einstein didn’t think so.
Here, though, I get puzzled by the author’s leap into philosophy. He writes that his undergraduate education at Hampshire College, a “great books” program, in which he read Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” in the original, led him to having a better understanding of the philosophical nature of science and, hence, is better prepared to work on theoretical matters. I’m quite willing to bet that Richard Feynman, a guy who many compare favorably to Einstein, would call bullshit on this as it seems to imply that only people with a strong liberal arts background, subjects Feynman eschewed, can really understand and promote a theory.
Loop Quantum Gravity
I must admit, by the time I got to the part of the book about the author’s pet theory, I had already formed my opinion of the work and wasn’t listening with much enthusiasm. What bothered me about this section, though, wasn’t the difficult vocabulary or mathematics of the other chapters but, rather, that, after using the most elegant language and metaphors in the entire book, he concludes by telling us that this theory has only been demonstrated to work in a two dimensional universe. Last time I checked, the real world out there has three spatial and one time dimension. That’s not two, it’s four.
Smolin criticizes string theory for requiring ten or more dimensions, dimensions for which there is no proof of existence but then tells us that his “better” theory only has two and that we readers should accept that, because his two dimensional universe theory is background independent (something the Wikipedia entry on the subject suggests that it is only partially so), it is superior to both string theory and the standard model.
He may be right, I can’t tell from my perspective as a lay person but it sounds very fishy to me.
Academic Politics and Funding Models
Smolin tells us that theoretical physics is a dead science because of the different funding models for research that don’t spend enough on theoretical work too far outside of the mainstream. I’m sure he is right in this assertion, ideas that seem really weird to those who form the population that determines consensus are probably much less likely to find funding than those working on furthering the understanding within the boundaries for which we already have a framework. I’m sure some really good ideas are overlooked and this is sad but, at the same time, I’d bet there are a lot of worthless notions proposed by cranks who don’t realize that they’re a crackpot and that their work has little or no probability of success. New, radical ideas should be considered (the notion of “inflation” at the time immediately after the big bang is one) but I think such spending must be balanced with a probability of success.
The author then reminds us that Albert Einstein could not get an academic post after finishing his education. As all students of the history of science know, Einstein went to work in the Swiss Patent Office and did his work on Special Relativity in his spare time while there. Of course, the author neglects to mention that the young Albert Einstein was not yet recognized as the international genius super star that he would become and, as a young physicist, he was suggesting that Newton’s work on gravity, then considered immutable, needed to be modified. Imagine, a young hot shot shows up and says they are certain that general relativity needs to be modified, sure, he might be another Einstein with a profound idea that will change the course of science and human history but, more likely, she’ll be a crank on whom scarce funds shouldn’t be spent.
I’m not suggesting that new ideas in research shouldn’t be explored but, at least at the beginning, I believe that funding needs to be proportional to the likelihood of success.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I am not recommending this book to my loyal readers. If you haven’t a terrific understanding of theories of quantum gravity, multidimensional geometry or the philosophy of science, this book, as it did for me, will probably go over your head. This is a difficult book to read and, in many passages, sounds like to me to be a bitter rant by a person whose pet theories have not received the same attention as string theory and other notions in quantum gravity.
While I, based on a purely amateur set of scientific understandings, agree that string theory has probably reached a dead end, I cannot, after reading “Trouble With Physics” tell you, my loyal readers, what would be either a good replacement or course of action to find one. I left this book having learned little and, because I had to flip over to Wikipedia to look up a lot of the concepts the author presents, took too long to read and I didn’t enjoy it much at all.
I will say that, if you get the audio version from Audible, the narrator does an excellent job of reading the text, it’s well produced and, in this one aspect, it was very good.
Communicating science is a difficult job. Some, like Dawkins, Krauss and Pinker do it very well. Sadly, this author does not.
So, unless you want a lot of frustration, I suggest skipping this one.
Let’s play, “spot the logical fallacy.” Having just reread this article in preparation for editing, I realized that I toss in an “appeal to authority” by suggesting that Richard Dawkins “Afterward” to Lawrence Krauss’ “A Universe From Nothing” added credibility. Unfortunately, while Dawkins is one of the top evolutionary biologists on Earth, he is neither a particle physicists nor an cosmologist so, outside of his own expertise, can he really add credibility to a book in which those are the central themes? Fortunately, Dawkins speaks mostly to the philosophic aspects of the book and how, now that we have this science, the question, “Who or what created the universe?” can be answered with virtual particles.