On Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics.”

We live in an era where everything seems to be falling apart. All our hopes for science, technology, religion, and enlightenment seem to be crumbling down. Science is getting to be too technical, sometimes bordering on metaphysics. Technology has become unexpectedly dangerous, especially in its energy-consuming frenzy which put the earth in a state of high-pitch fever. Religion is no longer a word in which resides a treasure ultold, but heartless in its casteism, narrow in its anti-science interpretation of scriptures, murderous in its sectarian frenzy, and the mind-freeing visions of the Enlightenment have been called into question by arm-chair philosophers, unleashing arguments for dark-age visions.
This book, whose full title is “The trouble with physics: the rise of string theory, the fall of science, and what comes next,” shows how castles built by physicists sometimes turn out to be but in the air. Most significant theories last for two or more generations before newer visions and discoveries emerge to challenge or contradict a highly regarded theory. This was certainly true of Newtonian gravitation and the corpuscular theory of light.
But the much vaunted string theory which was paraded not so long ago as the stepping stone, perhaps the golden key to a theory of everything has barely lasted a generation, and it hasn’t explained a thing. It came with a bang, and will probably go with a whimper. The bang was in the tall promises it made. Its persistence is because powerful men in important centers will not let go of it. So says this devastating book by Lee Smolin, a physicist of stature.
Smolin is unsparing in his critique of string theory in which so many have invested much time and energy, and for which vast sums have been awarded as research grants. He talks about the theory’s impotence, for it has not been successful in any meaningful way; and also about the arrogance of its adherents, for they insist theirs to be the only right path.
In another age, physicists used to argue about the acceptability or otherwise of theories within their esoteric community. They seldom went public and cried shame for one and all to hear. But in this age of Internet and openness, when everyone exposes their dirty linen in public, even non-physicists can listen in on professional recriminations and rebuttals.
It would seem that this book tells us as much about physics as about physicists. Its only disadvantage is that its can give anti-science postmodernists ample ammunition to blast science even more, just as the daily news on American TV shows the world how the country seems to be sinking on every front.
But those side effects aside, this is a very stimulating book, interesting for those who are familiar with the frontiers of high energy physics and the esoteric dreams of devotees of TOE, and somewhat depressing, not to say upsetting, to those who are wedded to string theories as the key to the kingdom.


About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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