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Review of Lee Smolin’s book, The Trouble with Physics [Houghton Mifflin; Boston, 2007].
By: Thomas Imel
Smolin begins by listing five major problems facing theoretical physicists; how to:
1. Merge general relativity and quantum theory into a foundational theory of everything. Smolin notes that these two are incompatible; and they both include infinities which are contrary to observations.
2. Modify quantum mechanics to conform to observations.
3. Determine whether or not the catalogue of physical particles and forces can be merged into a unified, fundamental entity.
4. Explain why the free constants in physics’ “standard model” are not all constant, and why so many exist.
5. Explain the existence of dark matter and dark energy and their significance.
A reader who has a biblical worldview can ask the question, “What does theoretical physics have to do with Biblical truth?”
Quite a bit! Answers at the bottom. Read on. . . .
Smolin insists on the validity of Special Relativity Theory (SRT) and Quantum Theory (QT) throughout his book, but also includes discussions of areas where neither works.
Smolin’s obvious quest is unification of various parts of theoretical physics to uncover the foundational Theory of Everything (TOE) – particle physics is inadequate. String theory hoped to improve things. He devotes a large section of the book to the history of string theories, including his own efforts, looking for that foundational theory, but it didn’t materialize. Various string theories were also inadequate.
String theory is replaced by modifying Special Relativity (resulting in Double Special Relativity, DSR, in two versions, DSR I and DSR II) to include velocities greater than C, which were not allowable in SRT. Also, causality must be included as foundational, which contradicts Quantum Theory. Added choices must be made between things that are dependent on backgrounds (geometry of space) or independent of backgrounds as in SRT.
Smolin wants the best of two worlds: he wants/needs SRT and QT to prop up the Big Bang Theory (BBT) which he sporadically postulates as established; he sees the problems of both SRT and QT and is hoping that future developments, beyond string theory, will resolve this dilemma. He recognizes the problems enough to relate a statement attributed to another prominent theoretical physicist, Leonard Susskind:
If, for some unforeseen reason the landscape turns out to be inconsistent–maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation-I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematical unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID. (p.197)
Smolin next spends several chapters describing his quest to define science and its methods. He journey seems to end with Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend disdains any establishment of methodology, preferring individual freelance thought:
There is no single method to science, and no single criterion for who is a good scientist. Good science is whatever works at a particular moment. . . .Define (progress) anyway you like and this is still true. (p.290)
Smolin does try to establish an acceptable method of doing physics (or any branch of science). The procedures he recommends are worthy – they include encouraging new ideas and theories from younger workers, and not requiring them to conform to existing, programmatic, concepts. However, Smolin does not give definitive criteria for analyzing a successful branch of inquiry. He seems greatly influenced by Feyerabend – “do whatever you feel like.” He does despair of ‘younger’ men’s capability to ‘fight city hall.’ All branches of science are dominated by ingrained ideas and programs of inquiry – and leaders would lose prestige and finances by any shift in landscape, so resistance by them is certain.
Smolin notes (p.305) that it is controversy that keeps science alive. But, while espousing changes, he delineates some areas of physics that he does not consider to be subject to change – these areas that are not to be questioned include SRT and QT, even though, earlier, Smolin points out their internal flaws and mutual incompatibility. (But, if things cannot be allowed to be investigated, how can anything be accomplished?)
Although the book is easily read, and can be understood by non-technical readers, its purpose may well be a call to fellow “scientists” to shore up the gaps as indicated by Susskind’s warning that the current state of “science” gives the appearance of “wishful thinking.” That warning might also apply to other fields, such as biology, geology, astronomy.
Now, to answer the question, “What does theoretical physics have to do with Biblical truth?”
Theoretical physics affects cosmology which concentrates on cosmogony, the study of the origins of the universe, extending to all life forms. The Big Bang Theory is the primary alternative to the account of Divine Creation as explicitly portrayed in Genesis. Evolution depends on BBT, which in turn depends on Quantum Theory to eliminate causality, and Special Relativity which is needed to cope with astronomical data’s rebuttal of BBT. All these naturalistic approaches dominate text books that are used in colleges, secondary schools, down to first grade readers. Smolin’s book shows us that his world of science currently has no demonstrable foundation for its outward façade – the book is a call to his fellows to rebuild their foundations before it’s too late.
Christians should not be fooled by the united front among educational, scientific, even governmental pronouncements concerning, life, the universe, and everything. Understand that a naturalistic worldview is philosophy, not reproducible science.
Remember the adage:
“You don’t know you’ve been deceived until you are not.”
Tom, thanks for your review of Lee Smolins book. I agree with your analysis and conclusions. John Hartnett, the Australian physicist/cosmologist, has a lot to say about cosmology and philosophy. You will appreciate his comments on this topic on his blog at http://johnhartnett.org/. Thanks.
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