Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The End of String Theory?

I just finished reading two books that came out that criticize string theory. You may be familiar with them, you may not. They are Not even Wrong by Peter Woit and The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. They're both pretty well written, though I liked Smolin's book a lot more. Now, when you compare the books solely on discussing string theory as a whole, Smolin's book takes the lead. However, both books do more than that, and can be used for other purposes. Now, I'm not going to discuss the arguments themselves in these summaries, that's for you to read. But if you're on a limited budget and can only buy one book, I might help in describing the styles in which they are written. You can decide which book suits you. Though, I must admit, there might be a bit of a bias, but it's my blog, so tough. Ok, so summaries are below the fold:

Not even Wrong by Peter Woit is the first book I read. It's strong parts were a fairly detailed explanation on the history of quantum mechanics. The first 10 chapters are dedicated to that. After that, he makes a fairly detailed attack on string theory. He concentrates on the standard model and symmetries on this attack. He also suggests some additional reading material for each chapter, which is good, in case you're interested. One fault, in my opinion, is that the beginning gets rather boring when you want to get to string theory. Once you get to string theory, it gets fairly detailed, maybe a bit too much. I also sensed some deep-down hostility toward string theory. I'm not sure where this stems from, but it adds some energy, and sometimes a bit of humor.

The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin was my favorite book. It was a bit longer than Not even Wrong, but much more enjoyable. Smolin's book is divided into 4 parts. The first part is a short (shorter than Woit's) history of quantum mechanics, and some of the implications. The second part is about the history of string theory. He goes over the first and second Superstring Revolutions, which he witnessed firsthand. He also makes his critique in this section. He has a much calmer attitude toward string theory, probably because he himself did some work on it. This critique is much more broad than Woit's, and isn't drenched in detail. Now, the third section is dedicated entirely to subjects that are alternatives to string theory. You don't hear much about them, probably because string theory is so dominant, but they're there, worked on by probably only dozens of people. He also goes over the advantages these theories have over string theory. In the last section, he goes over what happened in physics to cause the monopoly of people to go into string theory. He also discusses how the science has got awry, and the atmosphere created by string theory isn't exactly conducive to creative thought and diversity. It is mostly a description of a social phenomenon that has string theory has put on physics. This part is, amazingly, extremely interesting, maybe even more than the actual critique, and social scientists (or sociologists) might gain some insight into what's gotten into the physics community by reading this section. As you may see, I am heavily biased towards this book, but that's only because I liked it so much. This is a book I'd highly recommend, though if you can (or dare), purchase both.

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