Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cool books 2

In keeping up with science, I've also recently re-read Lee Smolin's two quantum gravity-inspired books, The Life of the Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. Among specialists, these are controversial topics. Smolin does a fine job of explaining the key concepts and the agonizingly slow progress of unifying the very small (quantum) with the very large (gravity/general relativity/cosmology), including (a) string theory, (b) canonical quantum gravity, and (c) black hole information theory. He proposes a mind-bending multiverse picture where life and consciousness play a critical role in sorting out viable universes. It's speculative metaphysics and no more scientific or convincing than other such multiverse ideas. But Smolin's version is better thought out and argued than the others. He does indulge in too much groovy-sounding postmodernism -- I guess he wants his book to sound hip. But po-mo is anti-intellectual poison. A serious thinker like Smolin should know better.

A critical concept in the "multiverse" debate is the "Copernican principle," which requires that any particular place or time or situation in the cosmos not be "special" in some suitably defined sense. The "multiverse" extends the Copernican principle to multiple universes, not just multiple solar systems or galaxies. The problem is that the Copernican principle isn't a scientific principle like the "principle of relativity" or "energy conservation." These are precisely formulated concepts carefully tested under controlled conditions and confirmed by all observations. OTOH, the Copernican "principle" is really nothing more than a philosophical prejudice (one Copernicus is not even responsible for). There are good reasons to think that it's not all that, especially when it comes to the evolution of complex life. The universality of physics and (with some qualifications) chemistry is an established fact. Not so for biology. If we abandon serious standards for science in favor of philosophical enthusiasms, what we have is not science, but science fiction.

Smolin is coming out with a new book in September, about the failure of string theory and how fundamental physics (the search for a complete and consistent theory of forces and matter) has lost its way. More such books are starting to appear -- they're overdue in my opinion. A lot of money and talent has been sunk into string theory in the last 20+ years, accompanied by a lot of gaga hype, with no more than modest results.The sociological pressure on the best graduate students to do this stuff is intense, and theoretical physicists who don't are shuffled out the door. The price paid (beyond just the money) is that smart people have been lured into a scientific dead-end and away from the most exciting and rapidly-progressing subjects, like biophysics and astrophysics, as well as from difficult but accessible problems in complex and nonlinear systems, all of which need more smarts. But they do know how to market themselves, to the disadvantage of more productive and successful areas of science.

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