Book review: The trouble with physics

Until now, I had not read Lee Smolin’s famous The Trouble with Physics. Having recently written a rather negative review about a book written by someone who can’t stand Smolin, I thought that I should read both sides.

A pleasure to read

Lee Smolin writes very well, and it is clear why his book had a lot of success. He presents a simple thesis, and backs it with a well-constructed reasoning illustrated with dozens of examples. Like any good book, there are dozens of sub-plots, twists and turns, recurring themes and characters, but more importantly, what makes this book interesting is, very simply, that it has a point. Lee Smolin seems to have a single and clear objective with this book, which is to explain why physics research is no longer working as well as it should. And to be honest, I find the point pretty convincing myself. It’s hard to not have a deep sense of sadness when a researcher like Smolin begins a book with “we have failed“, but to reuse one of his expressions, this has the ring of truth…

One interesting twist and recurring theme is Smolin’s own role in this grand saga, how he views himself in the small community of hard core physicists. Clearly, Smolin is an insider, but a relatively atypical one. I would say that the reason is because he recognizes failure early, and is ready to switch horses and try something else when failure happens. Smolin also makes an interesting distinction between seers, who invent new techniques, and physicists who are more adept at applying existing techniques. It is clear that he sees himself more as a seer, and that he believes that we are at a turn where seers are what physics science needs the most. One of the key subplots is how today’s academia favors technicians much more than seers. Smolin advocates for academia to be more open to ideas that seem strange to the mainstream.

Limits of the book

However, this is also the limit of the book in my view. Reading it, one cannot escape a feeling that Smolin essentially argues in favor of himself and his own research. I do not believe that he’s being dishonest at all, but rather that it somewhat distorts his judgement and weakens his argument. For example, he argues that scientists should have an open mind and be ready to find ideas where they don’t expect it. But he immediately slashed that openness with a note at the end of the book that, naturally, you have to be serious and that you can’t extend the privilege to people without a PhD in physics and other crackpots. In that case, how is that different qualitatively from Lubos Motl’s argument that physics should be closed to anybody not doing string theory? The only difference in “open mindedness” seems to be a quantitative one, where the bar is set.

History records a number of people who contributed science simply because they loved it or had a talent for it. Education often came after their major insight. We all know that Einstein did not have an academic career when he first published his special relativity papers, but he’s hardly the exception among those that Smolin calls seers. Ramanujan, for example, did not have any high-level formal education. This is a bit of an extreme case, naturally, and I would not go as far as saying that you should avoid high-level education. But what this proves (one example being enough for this proof) is that there are people without a PhD who made major contributions, and consequently, that Smolin’s proposal to put the limit there is inconsistent with the rest of his argument about welcoming ideas in physics.

Information overload: the big missing topic

Furthermore, I believe that he fails to say anything about another major issue physicists face, the “information glut”, and which most physicists would recognize in the Sokal affair or the Bogdanov affair. The problem is that there is simply too much to read, including e-mails, books, blogs, articles, and no human being can be on top of everything nowadays. In an ideal world, Smolin would have time to make an informed opinion about everything there is out there, including ideas from people who don’t have a PhD. In an ideal world, Smolin would be able to teach those people who got it wrong why they got it wrong, and maybe to pick up the occasional gem. But this is not an ideal world. Setting the bar at the PhD level is the simplest kind of filter you can put in place to reduce the information flow to manageable levels.

Specialization, this trend in academia that Smolin dislikes because it doesn’t favor seers like him, is just another simple-minded attempt to reduce the amount of data. When Lubos Motl calls “crackpot” anybody who isn’t interested in string theory, he has, in a sense, the same objective as Smolin, which is to reduce his world view to manageable amounts of data.

What I would try if I had time…

This is the reason I think that it’s now time to put some technology in the mix. It’s time to move beyond arXiv and e-mail and newsgroups. It’s time to create some tool to help scientists find the data they need. For this to work, it has to be based on social networks (where others with similar tastes help you filter things). I’ve a pretty good idea of what it would look like, but so little time… And we are back to square one: time, bandwidth, information overload, these are the problems. PhDs aren’t.

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