The Trouble with Physics (review: dnf)

I learned a lot from this book. But at this point, I have neither the time nor the brainpower to finish it off. The half that I read is quite good, though, so I’ll share a bit from that. The title of Lee Smolin‘s book foretells much: The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of Science, and What Comes Next.
Smolin starts off with a an overview of science—what it is and ought to be, the greatest remaining puzzles in physics, what it means to truly solve them, the nature and power of theory, and a history of the major advances in physics since around the Renaissance. Smolin does a great job here. He really takes his time, assumes little, and has a clever way with analogies. Next comes the early development of string theory in the 70s and 80s, its rapid progress in the following decades, and current stagnation. Which brought to the part where he starts talking about branes and M-theory and super-symmetry and… I realized I would never make it. I would need a bit more focus and fewer compelling distractions tapping their foot impatiently in my To-Read queue.

Anyway, here’s a good riff from Smolin on the human side of science:

It seems to me more and more that career decisions hinge on character. Some people will happily jump on the next big thing, give it all they’ve got, and in this way make important contributions to fast-moving fields. Others just don’t have the temperament to do this. Some people need to think through everything very carefully, and this takes time, as they get easily confused. It’s not hard to feel superior to such people, until you remember that Einstein was one of them. In my experience, the truly shocking new ideas and innovations tend to come from such people. Still others—and I belong to this third group—just have to go their own way, and will flee fields for no better reason than that it offends them that people are joining in because it feels good to be on the winning side… Luckily for science, the contributions of the whole range of types are needed. Those who do good science, I’ve come to think, do so because they choose problems that are suited to them.

I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to this book maybe a couples months down the road. See also my post from last September with some stringy links.

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