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Repercusions of Smolin's book?

  1. May 1, 2007 #1


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    It's been 8 months since Smolin's best seller The Trouble with Physics.

    Has there been any changes in the state of fundamental researches in physics in the direction pointed to by Smolin in these last 8 months?

    In other words, has the book had any effect on the physics community?
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  3. May 1, 2007 #2
    Why would you ever think that a popular book on science could have that kind of effect? Whatever changes there have been can certainly not be attributed to such a book.

    Someone else will be here shortly sounding reasonable, objective, balanced and/or very very friendly and collegial as they try to con you into believing that if the masses can be convinced that too much effort is being put into string theory, it is somehow going to affect string theory research. Then they'll tell you that the masses are indeed beginning to believe just that. They'll tell you that this will affect string theory research because without public support, string theory won't be as well funded.

    They'll also try to move the thread away from the question you asked which was whether smolin's book has had any effect on research, or perhaps they will mention it, but only as an afterthought to diminish it. They might say that researchers have bought the book hoping you'll conclude from this that the book must be having some kind of impact. Well I'm a researcher and I bought the book (in fact mine was autographed, but it was so ridiculous that I returned it anyway) and I know other researchers who bought the book and they know researchers who bought the book but nobody is refocussing their research because of it.

    Anyway, quantum gravity is too difficult for the masses to be able to judge and it has no practical benefits which is why the amount of funding for this sort of physics has never and will never depend on public opinion.

    If there are books that are beginning to have an impact now, they are the slew of textbooks on string theory. Indeed, courses in string theory are being offered even at the undergraduate level while only a handful of universities even bother funding other research programs and even these would never waste an undergraduates time on such ideas, which is as it should be since there's a reason why so few have any confidence in the chances for success of other approaches.

    As a final point, with the exception of string theory, and despite smolin, the public remains largely unaware of the different research programs in this field. But as I said, it really doesn't matter either way.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2007
  4. May 1, 2007 #3


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    That's right! Woit's book went on sale June 2006 almost a year ago, in UK. People knew about Smolin's book by then and were advance ordering by late August---though the book was not in stock at Amazon until late September IIRC.

    The only people I directly or indirectly KNOW of buying the book are physicists and physics students---or people with a background in related professional fields. And science writers who reviewed the book. It has caused quite a "stir in intellectual circles", as the saying goes.:wink:

    Oh yeah, I heard of the MOTHER of a Harvard student buying and reading TWP because her son was going to take a string theory course that semester and she wanted to know what he was getting into, was it true that string theory was in a mess etc. etc. What a great Mom! But that is an isolated anecdote. Most of the people I've heard read TWP were in physics or related fields, students or other academic.

    If you want to do an EXPERIMENT to see what the market for TWP is like, and you live near a university, you could check out local bookstores to see if there are more TWP on the shelf at the student bookstore on campus (than at the generic commercial bookstores like Borders or Barnes and Noble.) And if you want to find people who have read it, my advice would be drop in at the math department coffee room or the physics building lounge where students are doing their homework. That rather than the YMCA or the country club golf course---you get the idea. :tongue2:

    But it has evidently sold a lot of copies, so it must have sold to the broad non-academic public as well. I'm just guessing. No precise idea of the demographics.

    More could be said about who read it. But you ask some more specific questions about IMPACT. And these are actually two quite separate questions.
    I can't say that nothing has happened, because a lot has, but I don't think the positive developments can be attributed primarily to Smolin's book.
    Maybe it could be argued that in some instances the book has HELPED.
    But I have to note that the main progress in funding non-string QG research has occurred in EUROPE last year, while Woit's book was on sale but not TWP.

    Changes in science funding policy happen slowly. Any change in how non-string QG funding is organized, similar to what has happened in Europe, is not likely to appear suddenly----more on a timescale of years. The changes in Europe must have been in the works for sometime before we saw official action in 2006. Books like Smolin's help to gradually change how influential members of the community think, so they aren't apt to be translated into policy in one quick stroke.

    I think the book needed to be written and it was public-spirited of Smolin to take time away from his own research, in order to write it. So I don't want to give the impression that it was in vain----but so far I believe the impact has been more on how people are talking and thinking---and how they will be thinking and making decisions several years down the line.

    In dollar allocations? I think probably not. This is not the kind of "effect" you meant to ask about, but I think the first effect TWP had on the physics community was to cause a lot of outraged squawking and name-calling. This, oddly enough, is often a sign that something real is going on. And indeed in some respects it may have had a substantial effect on how people in various branches of physics think and talk---what they talk about---attitudes. Some like Chad Orzel, a physicist who keeps a popular blog, have been chuckling. Others have been fuming. Some have been emboldened to speak out themselves, when perhaps they earlier might not have. Others, one hears, have become more modest and reasonable in the way they talk with physicists in other specialties.

    I want to offer you some way to objectively gauge this for yourself: I think the seriousness of this effect can for instance be seen by watching a video of a talk for string theorists at KITP to help them get over the shock and adapt to the new mental circumstances, given around October 2006 by the well-known science journalist George Johnson. Johnson is an experienced journalist who has worked for the NY Times and he did a lot of soothing and hand-holding in that session. The KITP people thought he might help them with the public relations crisis caused by the Woit and Smolin books, and indeed he is very knowledgeable about media matters.

    Last edited: May 2, 2007
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