By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Walter Dixon
After listening to “The Trouble with Physics, it appears physicists have been wandering in a wilderness for the last 30 years. Lee Smolin suggests a theory that explains everything about everything, a Unified Field Theory, is as far away today as it was in 1905. Smolin suggests that the science of Physics is broken.
Smolin argues that science’s exploration of String Theory has diverted attention away from alternative explanations for a unified field theory. In 1905, when Einstein first postulated the theory of relativity (E=mc2), Einstein began looking for one fundamental theory that explains all known physics’ phenomena in the universe.
Smolin notes that research universities and institutions have meted out physics’ research chairs at a rate of 97 out of 100 to believers in String Theory; i.e., a theory that presently cannot be experimentally proven or dis proven and has not, in its 30 years of formulation, been able to predict one new or unknown physics’ event. Smolin says that 1000 physicists are working on String Theory, while roughly 30 are working on alternatives.
Smolin’s information in “The Trouble with Physics” is pre-2005 but his overview of the state of physics’ research helps a layman understand how far science has to go for anything like a Newton’, Maxwell’, or Einstein’ breakthrough in unifying the field of physics. These three scientists provided road maps for unified field theories that have been experimentally proven and served as predictors of future physics’ events. Newton discovered and explained the laws of gravity; Maxwell the unified field of electricity and magnetism, and Einstein the relativity of energy, mass, and time.
Smolin argues that String Theory has consumed physics’ research and resources since 1970, impeding other unified field theories because of its dominance. Smolin says that no theory of science has been followed for such a long period of time without predicting a physics event that can be experimentally replicated.
Smolin infers that the science of particle physics has overtaken theoretical physics because it is less restricted by String Theory bias. The LHD (Large Hadron Collider) is designed to find new fundamental particles of the universe. Discovering new particles, like Higgs-boson, will neither confirm or deny the validity of String Theory. Though finding Higgs-boson is scientifically important, it breaks no new ground in String Theory. Strings in String Theory are not observable with today’s technology and will not be observable in our life time, according to Smolin.
String Theory came into being in the 1960s with subsequent mathematical and theoretical modifications, none of which have been experimentally verified. String Theory hit a road block in the 1980s and was nearing a point of diminishing return when a second modification of the theory gave it new research life. Too many constructs of String Theory were fogging the clarity of one unified field theory; i.e. multiplying String Theory’ hypothesis were destroying the integrity of the original idea. The disorder of many hypothesis had to be reduced to a more manageable number.
A theory of “duality” rescues String Theory’s foundering future. Smolin describes “duality” by explaining how a couple in love remembers and describes the same event in different ways, even though the event remains the same. “Duality” in String Theory reduced the number of String Theory postulates to a more reasonable number of hypothesis and re-invigorated physicist’ interest.
In the early to mid-20th century, the truth of relativity and quantum mechanics was experimentally confirmed, if not absolutely proven, as it evolved; in contrast, no experiment has confirmed any part of String Theory to be a valid scientific construct for a unified field theory. A unified field theory seems as far away today as it was 30 years ago. The uncomfortable part of Smolin’s observation is that no alternative to String Theory is receiving the same level of scientific research or support. If String Theory proves to be a blind alley, a unified field theory returns to a 1905 level of understanding. We will have wandered for over 30 years and returned to an idea born 100 years ago.
Smolin is not saying there has been no progress in physics but he believes a great scientific break-through for unified field theory is not on the horizon because physicists are not confirming String Theory with experimental proof or predictive qualification. Smolin charges that this failure is compounded by tenured scientists that are reluctant to allow competing young theorists access to research facilities and forums that might lead to new theories.
“The Trouble with Physics” is well written and narrated. It does a good job of explaining many physics concepts like String Theory, duality, symmetry, and broken symmetry in terms a layman can understand. (For example, Smolin describes symmetry and broken symmetry as a pencil balancing on its point as a symmetry that becomes broken when the pencil falls in a random direction that breaks its symmetry.)
What makes Smolin’s observations discouraging is that a physics’ break-through, at least in regard to a unified field theory, is unlikely in the near future. If young scientists are being discouraged because of their radical ideas, Smolin may be right; i.e. history shows that most, if not all, break through scientific discoveries are made by people under 30 years of age; i.e. the same people, according to Smolin, being shut out of “non-String Theory” physics’ research.
The general public’s perception is that science is advancing at an accelerating pace; now, one wonders. [contact-form-7 id=”1710″ title=”Contact form 1″]