From the Archives: The trouble with physics: The rise of string theory, the of a science, and what comes next by Lee Smolin

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, is from August 14, 2007.


This one of those very rare books, books that make you truly smarter and more knowledgeable than when you started. What does Lee Smolin, physicist at Waterloo's Perimeter Institute, make us smarter and more knowledgeable about, you ask? First of all, the history of theoretical particle physics and the search for a theory that unifies classical physics and quantum theory. Second, the progress of String Theory as a unifying theory and it's alternatives. Third, the culture of the physics community and how it influences the first two.

It's also one of those books that just stops you in your tracks every once in a while. An insight or a story provoking intense reflection and concentration. I'd be sitting there, reading, and suddenly, staring off into space. It makes for a slow but worthwhile reading experience. Since the book treats a lot of fairly advanced topics in theoretical physics, it's also a pretty mind expanding experience, requiring a fair bit of comprehension to soak it all in. Any previous knowledge of string theory or other physics concepts will only enhance the enjoyment (and comprehension) of this book. My general physics knowledge is probably above average and there were a couple of parts where I struggled a bit. There were times when things seemed to make perfect sense while I was reading; then, after putting the book down for a bit, all comprehension simply vanished. On the other hand, as will become apparent later in the review, the hard-core physics stuff isn't really the main payoff of the book so if you find yourself skimming some of the particularly hairy parts in order to keep up your momentum, that's OK.

The main topic of the book has to do with the lack of really productive research in physics since the mid-1970s, when the Standard Model was set out. Since that time, the main focus of theoretical physics has been String Theory. However, as advanced as the theory is, there has been no experimental proof that it is valid. In this sense, compared to the insane pace of advances in the previous century (from atomic theory, to relativity to Quantum Theory to the Standard Model), physics is in a crisis. Smolin attempts to understand that crisis, both from a scientific viewpoint and from a more sociological/philosophical viewpoint as well. Now, there's no more hoary a cliche than the brilliant scientist that turns to philosophy of science in his dotage, mostly to his embarrassment, but Smolin is no geezer and he definitely doesn't embarrass himself is his attempt to understand why the incredibly bright community of physicists has failed to make significant progress in such a long time. Smolin is certainly not afraid to criticize the String Theory community for being too single-minded, for refusing to entertain alternative ideas about theoretical physics, or the physicists themselves for being a bit arrogant or dismissive of their colleagues.

This is a brave and worthwhile book. Read it to learn a lot of physics. Read it to learn a lot about the culture of physics. But definitely read it.

Two blogs to check out in relation to this book, one pro-String Theory and one more skeptical are the group blog Cosmic Variance (example here) and Not Even Wrong (here).

Smolin, Lee. The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 392pp.

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By Raskolnikov (not verified) on 29 May 2011 #permalink

"the lack of really productive research in physics since the mid-1970s, when the Standard Model was set out"

Ah... No. You are talking about high energy particle physics. Atomic and Solid State theoretical physics - where a majority of physicists work - have had a very productive time the last 30 years or so. Uncertain Principles here on ScienceBlogs would I think, agree. This is the ignoring of most of physics that is starting to get on people in the field. Somehow "High Energy Particle Physics" got set equal to Physics in popular imagination.

Hi John,

"The main topic of the book has to do with the lack of really productive research in physics since the mid-1970s"

Sorry, I have to object here. The book is about research in high energy physics, quantum gravity in particular. There's been loads and loads of really productive research in physics, think astrophysics, quantum optics, condensed matter, etc etc. Best,


markk, Bee,

Thanks for the comment. You're right, I definitely should have phrased that differently. I'm pretty sure I meant HEP in particular rather than physics as a whole when I wrote the review originally back in 2007 and when I reread the review on Saturday I just missed it.

It seems to me that string theory has fallen from grace in academic circles. It seems looked down upon there, whereas it's still held up in the public eye as the be-all-end-all. Does the book take a stance on that?

Hi Sarah, Stretching my memory back to when I read the book, I think it came out around the same time academia was starting to take a more critical look at string theory. It probably helped that movement out, in fact, along with Peter Woit's book Not Even Wrong.

There may be someone who's read the book more recently and can comment.