I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.
Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.
The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.
What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Smolin distills the danger of bureaucracy getting in the way of progress. It’s a story of how the smartest people in the world can reinforce their own blindness and send the course of (in this case, scientific) inquiry down a rabbit hole. I see parallels in the evergreen designs upon my profession (psychotherapist) that I sometimes see glimmering in the eyes of those with a bone to pick (basically: those members of the scientific and medical community only interested in seeing mental and emotional health issues through either a narrowly biochemical or cognitive/rational filter), as well as those within my profession who are adopting neurobiological theories without discerning whether proper research has been undertaken to prove them correct.
I struggle with this book, but there are gems such as this, where Smolin, whose prose is not anonymous, responds to a point in the early 00s where, because a conundrum in the stability of string theory resulted in the fact that there couldn’t be just one string theory but, to balance things out, a landscape of theories to hold up its believability:
Even if we limit ourselves to theories that agree with observation, there appear to be so many of those that some of them will almost certainly give you the outcome you want. Why not just take this situation as a reductio ad absurdum? That sounds better in Latin, but it’s more honest in English, so let’s say it: If an attempt to construct a unique theory of nature leads instead to 10500 theories, that approach has been reduced to absurdity.
I also recognize that there is a certain unintentional arrogance in people like me who become frustrated when quantum theory isn’t particularly easy to visualize or to have reconstructed figuratively via written metaphor for us to better understand it. Some things and concepts can only exist through measurement and mathematics — they do not always have a form which allows their easy understanding. Gnaw on that if you will.
I’m posting this because I love science. I don’t make a lot of time for studying it, but I love it and I wish more people in the arts were not so averse to science (though strict scientific inquiry can often be anathema to, for lack of a better word, the meaning in art).