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December 2006 / January 2007 - The Trouble With Physics...


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

by Lee Smolin


In this groundbreaking book, the renowned theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues that physics-the basis for all other science-has lost its way. The problem is string theory, an ambitious attempt to formulate "a theory of everything" that explains all the forces and particles of nature and how the universe came to be. With its exotic new particles and parallel universes, string theory has captured the public's imagination and seduced many physicists. But as Smolin reveals, there's a deep flaw in the theory: no part of it has been proven, and no one knows how to prove it. As a scientific theory, it has been a colossal failure. And because it has soaked up the lion's share of funding, attracted some of the best minds, and penalized young physicists for pursuing other avenues, it is dragging the rest of physics down with it.


With clarity, passion, and authority, Smolin charts the rise and fall of string theory and takes a fascinating look at what will replace it. A group of young theorists has begun to develop exciting new ideas that are, unlike string theory, testable. Smolin tells us who and what to watch for in the coming years and how we can find the next Einstein. This is a wake-up call, and Lee Smolin; a former string theorist himself; is the perfect person to deliver it.


I want to give everyone some time to purchase the book or find somewhere where they can read it before we start discussions. However, if you've already read the book and want to share some comments now, feel free to do so. Also feel free to post along as you read. You don't need to finish the book before you post! Please read the book discussion FAQ for more information on what this is all about.

Purchase from Amazon.com

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Great choice for discussion.


Plenty of controversial issues for people to differ about. and fascinating stuff to ask questions about. Also the author has exceptional talent for explaining frontier physics in ordinary words----he's careful but non-mathematical: there are no formulas.


I don't think anybody who buys the book is going to be disappointed or find it hard to read, so I feel safe recommending it.


You may find stuff you disagree with, but you are going to find interesting new ideas you don't usually get in a popular general-audience book.


good idea, blike. If you are leading the discussion and refereeing I predict lots of people will want to get in and take stands on Smolin's issues.


BTW IMHO the book is not primarily a criticism of string! It is more positive than that----it gives a sympathetic survey description of string that actually emphasizes its strong points----but then it also puts the spotlight on alternative theories being developed.


good SFN project! if it gets started and gets lively I will probably want to jump in and take positions on some of the more contentious points. could be fun.

good luck with it.

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BTW, about reviews, I like to read some reviews AFTER I've read a book, so I get my own direct impression of the book and the reviewers ideas can startle and contrast and set off further trains of thought.

I like the kind of reviews that don't just say blurb-good or pan-bad but go deep into the issues in and surrounding, where the review-writer can have his own thoughts to add.


One of the most interesting reviews of TwP that I've seen is by physicist and author David Lindley in an online magazine called WILSON QUARTERLY.



this is the kind of review that can make you want to read the books by the guy who wrote the review, Lindley is smart and thoughtful, he doesnt just write blurb----but be warned: I'd read Smolin first so you get your own authentic reactions



for people who are really into seeing how a book has been reviewed here is an incredible trove of links


these are reviews of the companion book "Not Even Wrong" by mathematician Peter Woit----his book came out around the same time as TwP and reviewers tended to discuss them together in one article. So most of these (I guess, I have only sampled a few) are actually reviews of BOTH books.


Smolin Woit could be a kind of goodcop badcop team because Smolin explains string and talks nice about it, but shows why some alternatives could be more promising and should be pursued as well----whereas Woit people say is more just on the attack (I havent read Woit, I'm more interested in positive critique and overview and alternative routes up the mountain than I am in news of disaster and folly)


So anyway here are all these reviews, many of them are FREE though some want you to be a subscriber so forget it, plenty are free more than one would ever read. and most are about both books, even tho it is Peter Woit's list.


and then there is Lee Smolin's list of links to reviews, but he has not bothered so much with it so it is a shorter list:


click on "reviews"

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This book is on my Christmas list :D


It must be on a lot of people's Christmas list because here it is a couple of weeks before time to wrap presents and the book is having phenomenal sales!


I just checked the Amazon physics bestsell list and it was outselling Brian Greene by quite a bit. The top standings were


1. Your Brain on Music (290)

2. Carl Sagan: Varieties of Scientific Experience (401)

3. Smolin: The Trouble with Physics (528)

4. a Mars coffeetable book of photos "Postcards from Mars" (939)

5. a Brian Greene book (1039)


numbers in parentheses are the overall sales ranks among all books Amazon sells


From what I've seen, I think these are all fine books that could be an excellent present for someone you know is interested, but I'm especially excited that there is so much interest in a book about the search for a new understanding of space, time, and matter which is what quantum gravity is about. It is a tough problem, but Smolin's book is actually overall pretty hopeful---he talks not only about the frustrating failures but some promising new approaches and prospects for empirically testing them. Somehow he hit a nerve and got the attention of a wide range of readers.

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It must be on a lot of people's Christmas list because here it is a couple of weeks before time to wrap presents and the book is having phenomenal sales!


I ordered a copy sometime ago, and admittedly forgot all about it. I've asked my sister to get me a copy for Christmas, only to find out there won't be any available until February !?! So I'm getting book tokens, and I'll just have to wait...booo!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well by now if anyone is going to read the book that blike proposes to discuss a few people will have gotten it.


And if nobody (but me) has gotten it, then it doesnt suit the reading tastes of the group and we need a new choice.


I think it an extremely readable well-written book. Full of deeply interesting stuff.

And it has a kind of unique historical importance.


one way to describe the market penetration of this book is to note that if you look at the amazon GENERAL physics bestsell list, then it has been NUMBER ONE whenever I checked at least, which is about FOUR MONTHS.


Anybody want to bet how long it will stay number one?


the problem with looking at the full physics bestsell list is that the top titles can include psychic stuff and stuff about your brain and the mind and that coffeetable book of Mars photographs, and the Carl Sagan book about how a scientist understands the search for God.


So on the full list, Smolin has been number two or number three most of the time for 4 months. And right now he is number two.

But it is not as clear cut.


here is the full list:


right now it says

1. Your Brain on Music

2. Smolin

3. coffeetable Mars book

4. Carl Sagan


and then after that comes all the Hawking stuff and Brian Greene and Lisa Randall etc. etc. Kaku string pop, and so on.



but it is much more stable and clear cut if you look at the "GENERAL" physics list


because that filters out the coffeetable books, and the books about your Brain and Music.

then you see how Smolin stacks up against the real competition.

It has been steady number one there for a long time and I don't expect that to change (topping Greene and Randall and Hawking and Kaku etc.)

so please prove me wrong :) check it out and tell me whenever the book isnt


it is a serious attempt to cut thru the hype and BS and to say in words (without math formulas) what is going on in the

search for a predictive description of the most fundamental reality: space time matter.

and to say what the approaches are that are currently making progress

So it has made a lot of string people furious. And it is amazing that the book has sold so well.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The big initial bunch of sales of the Smolin book looks to me as if it is over.


It stayed up near the top, often #1 or #2, for several months (from end-August onwards) but looked to me like it was slipping, or tapering off, end-December.


I will check it sometime this morning and see.


Probably all that matters is that there are enough copies sold and out there so that the book has an impact-----and for sure that has happened.

So once that is assured it can settle down to #10 place or something, no dismay.




I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS! I just checked as of 10:05 AM pacific 3 January and the book is NUMBER TWO ON THE PHYSICS LIST. I must say that was a surprise. I was prepared to see it some ways farther down.


1. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

by Daniel J. Levitin



2. The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next

by Lee Smolin



3. The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe

by Lynne McTaggart



4. The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (Editor)



5. MCAT Complete Study Package, Sixth Edition (Exam Krackers) (Exam Krackers)

by Jonathan Orsay



6. iPod & iTunes For Dummies (For Dummies (Computer/Tech))

by Tony Bove, Cheryl Rhodes



7. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

by Brian Greene (Author)




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I got the book for Christmas. I'll be starting it soon!


Glad to hear it. Wish more people would have a look at it. Book must be in public libraries all over by now, so if you have one nearby you dont even have to purchase.


The incredible things, to me, about the book are


1. the honesty (he is frank and open about what it's like to work in fundamental physics research)


2. how much he manages to make understandable in (both string and nonstring) quantum gravity


3. the impact the book has had on the climate of opinion and the popular book market


For example Brian Greene (and to a lesser extent Kaku and Lisa Randall) books used to be at or near the top of the "GENERAL PHYSICS" bestseller list. But I just went and had a look around 3:10 PM pacific time today and saw this:



2. Smolin's book

6. Greene fabric

15. Greene elegant

23. Kaku parallel

24. Randall warped (hardbound)

52. Susskind cosmic landscape


As something to compare with, a week ago the average standing of the five most popular string books on this list was around 10. That's been a typical value for the past month or so. Now the average rank of the top five string books is 23.8.

It has more than doubled compared with last week or last month.


And Smolin's book is still up there after 4 months of doing quite well in sales. They started taking orders in August and the book actually became available in September. So not only has it done well but it also seems to have had an influence on the mental environment, making people more conscious of alternatives to string and perhaps less interested in buying string pop.


Seems to have, anyway. We'll have to see how things turn out. It may have had a sustained impact, which would be pretty remarkable.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Reading the book now. I'll have more to say later, but for now one thing I'm happy with:


For me personally it was the first time I heard a discription of guage theory and spontaneous symmetry breaking described in clear, modern, layman's terms. I believe it'll do wonders for my understanding of current physics.

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Well, I must say, Smolin has given me more respect for string theory than I had previously. Not as it relates to physics, as I would come to the same conclusions with the info presented, but as a concept that's so powerfull that it's begun it's conquest of earth. You'd think it would take a charismatic flesh-and-blood human to become emperor of the world, but perhaps an abstract mathamatical concept will be the first to achieve that goal.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Finally, I'm picking up my copy tomorrow...no idea why it's taken so long, this is a major bookstore. Also, this has 24 more pages than the edition available on Amazon, anyway I'm sure I won't put it down for the next couple of weeks, as well as finishing off Darwin's Watch...and I'm sure I'll be raising some points to discuss.


I thought the book discussion forum was a really good idea, would be nice to get it under way. :)

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Finally, I'm picking up my copy tomorrow...no idea why it's taken so long, this is a major bookstore. Also, this has 24 more pages than the edition available on Amazon,...


The UK edition, published by Allen Lane, has a publication date of 22 Feb 2007.

One reason your copy took a long time could be that they are selling the UK edition, which only just now appeared.


It is available on UK amazon too



It will be interesting hear from you if Smolin has put in any new stuff, like for example a "preface to the UK edition".


The UK edition (amazon says) has 416 pages

The cover is white, with black lowercase lettering, rather more tasteful and elegant than the cover of the US edition---which is blue, with a pair of shoes.


The US edition from Houghton-Mifflin has 392 pages, publication date was September 2006.


Yeah, so it is clear you are getting the UK Allen-Lane edition that just came out this week.

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Well, now the UK edition has been out a few days and i'm wondering what kind of publicity and reviews the UK publisher (Allen Lane) will organize to promote sales.


the book is available from UK Amazon



but it says "usually ships in 1-3 weeks"

Can they have sold out their stock so soon?


I see the current sales rank is #2654


The UK amazon listing for a book ordinarily says "in stock", unless they are getting it from overseas.


I hope Allen Lane handles the book well, it has a lot of potential, it was #1 on the US amazon physics list for six weeks or so and has been near the top in "general physics" for much of the time since it came out in September.

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An excellent book.


Glad to hear it, finally have it sitting next to me at my desk...the bookshop refused to unpack it last week, but I rushed back today in my lunchbreak, and grabbed the last copy...they only had 3 !?! I've never looked forward to reading a book so much, but that's clearly due to waiting more than anything. Just need to finish off Darwin's Watch (highly recommended) and then get stuck into Smolin's book at the weekend...woot !


EDIT: Martin, I'll post a summary of any additions e.g UK preface et.c, when I've had time to look, I'm quite bogged down with maths at the moment, but hopefully sometime in the next few days.

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It will be interesting hear from you if Smolin has put in any new stuff, like for example a "preface to the UK edition".


AFAICS, there are no additions to the UK edition e.g preface. So I guess the UK edition has been edited due to larger text perhaps, it's hard to tell without having the U.S edition to compare to. I managed to read the first few pages on the way back from work...Smolin uses the word 'failed' with regards to his generation of physicists, and the progress they've made. Failed is a strong word, but anyway, I'm jumping the gun...so I'll wait till I've finished the book, before commenting further.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Allen Lane has been doing a great job handling the new UK edition.


The Sunday Times reviewer said it was the best science book written for laymen that he had ever read, and urged folks not only get and read it but read it twice! :)


Smolin was interviewed on the halfhour BBC program Leading Edge. Excellent interview. Geoff Watts also discussed the book with the London Times science columnist Anjana Ahuja.


The Royal Society for the Arts held a three-way debate on the issues raised by the book! Smolin did an excellent job, as did science philosopher Nancy Cartwright. It's available online. If anyone wants the link so they can listen, let me know and I'll post it here.


Smolin's book has been the #1 physics bestseller at Amazon UK for about a week now.


And it has even gotten into "TOP FORTY" (among all books UK Amazon sells). This is quite unusual for a serious physics book, or any physics book. It means competing with detective, fantasy, diet, self-help, Harry Potter, love/romance, celebrities, and so on.

During the past week TWP salesrank has several times gotten down into the twenties. It will go back to around 70 or so and then visit the forties, thirties etc.

For a physics book that is huge.


Oh they also had a three-way debate at Oxford University, but it didnt get put online AFAIK. I think British academics have a tradition of this. They are good at it. A kind of mentally stimulating entertainment. Smolin is obviously having a great time in the UK!

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