Neues vom Nordkap

23.01.2009 16:44

The trouble with physics...

I finally finished reading Lee Smolins the trouble with physics. It is one of the two "string bashing" books (the other one being Peter Woit's Not even wrong)which were widely discussed two years ago. (At least in the American physics blogosphere, see f. ex. old posts on Back reaction, Cosmic Variance and Asymptotia)
I enjoyed the book a lot. It raises many legitimate questions about the way physics is done nowadays and about the influence that the entire accademic world and organisation has on science. Smolin's main point is that there remain many major fundamental problems in physics unsolved and they remain unsolved despite many years of effort of many people. Why is this? Is not because we are not smart enough says Smolin, it is because we do it in the wrong way. People are encouraged to become hard working but unimaginative technicians rather than explore fundamental questions and question the premises. And then on top of this, over the last 20 years there has been a predominant theory, a theory which has claimed a solution to all problems and which was very successful in advertising that it will provide the final answer, but indeed it has failed to do so. This theory comes, and Smolin is right about this, with a special kind of culture: an arrogance which is unjustified by its results. This theory happens to be string theory. And it is for this reason that Smolin critisizes it. Every other theory which had played that role: being dominant over 20 years, monopolizing resources at the expense of other ideas and still not meeting up to the promises, would have to face the same critisim. So there is a lot about string theory in the book, but it is wrong to pin it down to "string bashing", that is what the discussion for instance on Cosmic Variance is mostly missing.
Rather I would say a similar critism applies also to many High energy phenomenologists and lattices gauge theorists: we too confine ourselves to mindlessly doing loop calculations to yet another order or waste more and more computing power to calculate low energy constants and hadron masses. We are but engineers. We know our technology well, but that is not the way we learn more about nature. And still we have the pretense to claim (when we compare ourselves to physicists in other fields, like solid states, etc) that we do fundamental physics.
Maybe the book is not so interesting for non-physicists, but I haven't read a better physics book in months. And this, where I claim to be a working physicist. That is sad...
A German translation is about to appear by April this year.

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My name is Magdalena Luz. I am a physicist, now working as a software engineer in Zürich, Switzerland.

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