“The Trouble with Physics” can be roughly divided into two parts: one part has to do with the review of the recent physics theory development, especially on the the rise of string theory. The other part discusses about the “sociology” in academic world, particularly sociology in physics department.
The success of string theory is well-known and well publicized. One of the most elucidating books about string theory is Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe”. String Theory assumes that string is the most fundamental unit of our nature, and when strings interact, the interaction gives rise to the particles that we observe today.This seemly absurd idea unifies gravity and other three fundamental forces– electromagnetic, strong force and weak force– elegantly. String theory is mathematically beautiful, with applications ramified the beyond String Theory itself. Other physics fields, such as solid state physics, cosmology also have great uses of String Theory’s ideas.
Physicists, when confronted with such a beautifully mathematical theory, has a hard time to ditch it, despite that it has not produced a single new observable prediction and despite that it predicts that the space has 10 dimensions, instead of the usual three dimensions that we normally observe.
Now according to Lee Smolin, this is where the real problem starts. Yes, The inability of string theory to make new prediction–despite having thousands of most talented physicists on earth and more than 30 years of massive research–is not a serious problem. What is a serious problem is that despite this, String Theorists still manage to maintain an unhealthy monopoly on all the top US university physics departments’ jobs, to the detriment of other competing theory such as loop Quantum Gravity in the short term, and to the detriment of physics development in the long term. Lee Smolin says that the monopoly of string theory on the physics market is stifling the healthy academic diversity that is so fundamental to the creation of new ideas; either you are a string theorist, or you can’t get a tenured position at top universities. How many of the young and promising physicists would then want to do other competing theories?
I am more interested in why such a scenario can exist. How can it be that a collective group of well meaning, smart and open minded physicists, when come together, can conspire to something that is tantamount of academic censorship? In other words, what kind of sociological forces that are at play that gives rise to such unhealthy situation?
The answers, Smolin suggests, are because of the peer-review culture, and the specialization of physics department. Peer review and peer evaluation is at fault here. String Theory has become such a groupthink that young theorists would often consider what does “our senior members think” before forming their own conclusions. String Theory has become such a huge, rigid and hierarchical society that the approval of senior researchers carry too much weight into young researchers’ direction and thinking. And why not? It is the senior people who determines whether you get hired or fired. However, such an excessive deference is detrimental to the academic culture that we cherish so much.
Luckily Einstein didn’t bother to ask what did the contemporary physicists thought before proposing relativity.
But assuming that Einstein did exist today, would he be able to flourish? The answer is probably No. Physics departments are so specialized nowadays that when a hiring decision is made, the reviewer would often focus too much on whether a candidate has the requisite technical skills ( the ability to do mathematical manipulation in this case) to fit into existing departmental research paradigm, to the exclusion of his originality and creativity. In other words, specialization encourages craftsmanship, not original thinking. Even Einstein back then couldn’t get a job when he graduated and was forced to do physics on the side, what more is there to say of today, when physics is a few magnitude more difficult and specialized than physics in Einstein’s time.
Smolin paints a bleak picture of the academic world. And having study how human interacts for quite sometime, I can concur with him that such sociological forces do exist, not only in academic and also in corporate. After reading this book, how I wish there are more discussions on these sociological forces and how do we overcome them. But unfortunately, the discussion of the book is drown out by String theorists who mostly concentrate on the first part of the book– of course, string theorists disagree loudly with Smolin’s assessment of string theory. The sociological forces that stiften new ideas, that encourage groupthink are largely ignored and such a willful ignorance has a greater consequence on the progress of human civilization, regardless of whether string theory turns out to be correct or not.