I finished Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics last night, and will write up a full review in the next couple of days. On the whole, I thought it was a well-done book, and he makes some good points. It’s not without its problems, though, chief among them being the fact that the title is missing some words.
The book is really The Trouble With [Theoretical Particle] Physics, but Smolin, like the string theorists he criticizes for arrogance and narrow-mindedness, consistently talks about string theory and quantum gravity as if they were the only areas of physics that matter, and about physics in general as if the only interesting problems are problems relating to string theory and quantum gravity. This drives me straight up the wall.
Let me be perfectly clear about this: If a rampaging Calabi-Yau space comes along tomorrow and devours every single physicist working on string theory and other approaches to quantum gravity, physics will continue to be a thriving and active discipline. The rest of us will still be here, doing useful work that connects to real-world experiments. Most physicists wouldn’t even notice the loss, and those who notice would probably be happier for it.
If we go another twenty years without significant progress in theoretical particle physics, with string theorists continuing to tinker with infinite numbers of increasingly baroque theories, and loop quantum gravity theorists building models and complaining about being repressed, physics will continue to be a thriving and active discipline. The vast bulk of physics activity has nothing whatsoever to do with questions of quantum gravity and unification of forces. Progress on understanding condensed matter physics, plasma physics, atomic physics, and quantum information (among others) will continue to be made no matter how far the particle theory community sinks into navel-gazing metaphysics.
There’s trouble in theoretical particle physics and quantum gravity, to be sure. The rest of us are doing quite well, thank you very much, and would appreciate it if you don’t burden us with your problems.