The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin

If you are looking for an uptodate discussion of the controversy of string theory and whether it’s a cult or just a hoax, The Multidisciplinarian has posted a nice essay complete with lots of further reading: The Trouble with Strings. One of the things Smolin discusses is the sociology of string theory. The Multidisciplinarian comments:

A telling example of the tendency for string theory to exclude rivals comes from a 2004 exchange on the sci.physics.strings Google group between Luboš Motl and Wolfgang Lerche of CERN, who does a lot of work on strings and branes. Motl pointed to Leonard Susskind’s then recent embrace of “landscapes,” a concept Susskind had dismissed before it became useful to string theory. To this Lerche replied:

“what I find irritating is that these ideas are out since the mid-80s… this work had been ignored (because it didn’t fit into the philosophy at the time) by the same people who now re-“invent” the landscape, appear in journals in this context and even seem to write books about it.  There had always been proponents of this idea, which is not new by any means.. . . the whole discussion could (and in fact should) have been taken place in 1986/87. The main thing what has changed since then is the mind of certain people, and what you now see is the Stanford propaganda machine working at its fullest.”

I’m afraid that what follows here is what came out of my pen after I read Smolin’s very interesting book. It has nothing to do with the book, but I had fun writing it. The book is worthy of another sort of review altogether, and if I’d been in another sort of mood altogether, I dare say that’s what would have come out.

A review written in the straightforward three dimensions.
The dimensions God intended us to have.

What I have learned about string theory from this book.

There is hardly any sex in string theory.
There is no sex in string theory.

I know. I read the introduction. I was smitten. Love letters were written. But that was before I discovered there is no sex in this book.

For a while I thought maybe I was being narrow minded. What would happen if I put my hand on my girl bits (trying not to get flagged here, has a physics book review ever been flagged on goodreads?) while reading stuff like: ‘The particles you get from quantizing gravitational waves are called gravitons, and they are a type of boson. [almost wrote bosom there, we should get so lucky:] But for a system to have supersymmetry, it must have both bosons and fermions.’ [Just as we’ve always thought, dear reader.:]

Maybe if I read stuff like that in the right position, so to speak; from the right perspective, if you like, it would actually be sexy after all. But it isn’t. In fact this book has the capacity to put me right off sex for minutes at a time. And I’m not exaggerating one little bit.

So right here we have it don’t we? The trouble with physics? Not enough sex. It’s a no brainer. Only an incredibly brilliant academic could fail to notice the thing that’s right in front of him. (And do take that however you please).

Here they all are, looking for the grand theory of unification and to a non-scientist such as myself it’s so obvious. NOT ENOUGH SEX. That unifies every single bit of the whole she-bang, physics, just like that.

Not that I’m saying this book doesn’t have its good points.

Consider this scenario, for example.

You are trying to get your pyjamas on and it’s taking for ever. The string that holds up the bottom has a knot you can’t untie – again. One of the arms has completely disappeared, probably, you think grimly, into one of those curled up invisible dimensions. Gone for good, you wouldn’t be surprised. If ever anything was in need of a god-damned unification theory it is these pyjamas. As you struggle with the physics of it all, of course you are wondering how many goodreads votes you’ve got during this ill-spent twenty minutes. And, sigh, once you get them on, you are only going to have to take them off again because the other person in the bed will want sex.

Well, probably doesn’t really want it at all, but thinks you do. When all you want, once you’ve found that %$&^ arm, is to slip out to your computer and check those votes. But you can’t actually admit that, can you? Anymore than you can say what you actually want to do when you get into bed isn’t shag. It’s fantastic quiet time for working out ways to get more votes. You think back to your last idea. The one where you set up a goodreads group called ‘People who love to vote with indiscriminate enthusiasm for anything.’ It was well motivated, the idea was to ask all the people who joined up to be your friend. Only to discover that all 220 who joined were already your friends. What a fucker. You really didn’t need to know that. (Now, don’t worry, sweetheart, I vote for you sometimes, and I didn’t join the group.)

And the funny thing is that if you do decide to be brave and tell the truth about not wanting to shag, this will upset the other person even though they didn’t really want to either. Mentioning goodreads will make them even more likely to insist on the sex they want even less now than before.

Enter this book. What you say, mumbling as it happens, because your head is stuck inside your pyjama top looking for the effing other arm, is ‘Cherub, you will so love the book I just put on your bedside table there. Go on, read a few pages, I really don’t mind, I’ll just go out and do a couple of things and come back and –‘

If my theory is correct, you’ve hit a winner. Cherub reads book. Possibly never wants sex again.

So, I’m just saying, right? Not that you necessarily want to employ this bedtime stratagem. But I’m just saying if you <i>did</i> want less sex. Just say you did. This would work.

Other reasons for reading this book.

1)You’ve read all the books in English in the whole world.*

*Except Booker Prize winners, of course. I figured that went without saying.

2) You really want to know about electromagnetic fields and quarks and mesons and…If that’s the case, you should read this book. I can certainly look you in the eye and say I’ve never read a better book on things like that.

I also think there could be some jokes in this book. For example.

Question: Why can’t quarks have sex with weak bosons?
Answer:  Because the gluons won’t let them.

I’m not saying I personally find this funny (though, actually….hehehe), even though I just made it up, but I imagine that a physicist could find this funny. Hmm. If they find anything funny. Hmm.

I’m working on another review of The Trouble with Physics, this time written in the completely invisible twenty-eighth dimension, but it’s hard work – everything I write down is there one moment and gone the next – and I’m worried that even when I finish it nobody will be able to see it. Or me.


I have news and as it’s a bit shocking, I suggest you sit down before you read on.

The thing is, I’ve been made an Adjunct Research Fellow at a university and, well, it makes a girl think. It’s a good university, by the way, never ranked out of the top ten in Futuna and Wallis during its long, proud history. But I’m not going to tell you the name of it, since I’m a little concerned about a mass movement to withdraw your kids from it solely on the basis that you might think there is not enough about physics in my physics book review. For example.

Not to mention, as far as I can tell, I’ve been given it in, ahem, shuffles feet while looking at floor, blushes even – science. Don’t laugh p-lease. I’m more confused than you are about how on earth this has happened. It wasn’t because that joke I invented about bisons got around. I rang up and checked and they hadn’t heard of it yet.

I can assure you it isn’t my fault. I got sent this form and I’ve never said ‘no’ more often in my entire life: ‘Do you have any qualifications?’ No. ‘Do you know anything?’ No. The form kept asking questions and I kept saying ‘no’, ‘No’, ‘NO!!!!!’ when all of a sudden I realised I’d answered the question ‘Do you like sex?’ ‘No’. I bet they put that one in just to see if you’re paying attention. I’d filled the whole thing in with a pencil, so I could just rub it out. But.

But. It made me think. What if this whole not getting enough is just because I haven’t been paying attention to questions and I’ve answered the wrong way? I’m just saying, what if?

I even told the Professor who sent me the form that I really didn’t want to be part of academia, honestly, I do need you to believe that I couldn’t have done less to get this thing. For now I’d call it one of those mysteries of science that make you realise just how much they don’t know yet.

The truth is, I wouldn’t shag an academic if you paid me. Note. I must stop saying that. I’m an unemployed arts graduate. There isn’t really anything I wouldn’t do for money. So not only would I shag an academic if you paid me, I’d do it for unemployed arts graduate rates. For, that is, not very much at all. I’m not sure exactly what the bottom line would be, but I’d certainly consider a larger sized packet of Kettle chips.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’m jumping at the chips.

But the point is, you know what I mean. It’s not like I’ve been mealymouthed here. In fact, though I would be the last to suggest this was sufficient data, one might hypothesise a theory that if you tell the academic world that you think they suck and that your own standards are so much higher and that you don’t know anything and, further, that you doubt the things you don’t know are even worth knowing, so there. Well, the hypothesis is that then they offer you an Adjunct Research Fellowship.

So, I’m just warning you that from now on, including what I’ve just written, everything is going to be serious, academic, learned….

2 thoughts on “The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next by Lee Smolin

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