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The Trouble with Physics

Just finished reading Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Nearly every blogger I read has already reviewed this book, and I have nothing to add to their discussion of the physics: Bee, Chad, Christine, David, Sean, Peter, xkcd.

As a longtime reader of Not Even Wrong, I was already familiar with the history of string theory and it's failure to live up to its initial promise. Many reviewers compare The Trouble with Physics to Peter Woit's recent book Not Even Wrong which grew out of his blog criticizing the over-hyping of string theory. Smolin's book seems to me a perfect companion to Ian Stewart's Letters to a Young Mathematician. Both books provide an insider's peek behind the curtains of academia demystifying the day to day work and politics of professional physicists and mathematicians going about their career.

The elements that fascinated me in both books were the personal anecdotes, the living history where the authors step back from painting a big historic picture and tell stories of them and their colleagues. Here is my favorite story, where Smolin tells of meeting his mentor, Paul Feyerabend.

To thank him for saving my career, I sent a copy of my PhD thesis to Feyerabend. In reply, he sent me his new book, Science in a Free Society, with a note inviting me to look him up if I was ever in Berkeley. A few months later, I happened to be in California for a particle-physics conference and tried to track him down, but it was quite a project. He kept no office hours at the university and, indeed, no office. The Philosphy Department secretary laughed when I asked for him and advised me to try him at home. There he was in the phone book, on Miller Avenue in the Berkeley hills. I summoned up my courage, dialed, and politely asked for Professor Paul Feyerabend. Whoever was on the other end shouted "Professor Paul Feyerabend! That's the other Paul Feyerabend. You can find him at the university" and hung up. So I dropped in on one of his classes, and found him happy to talk afterward, if only briefly. But in the few minutes he gave me, he offered an invaluable piece of advice. "Yes, the academic world is screwed up, and there's nothing you can do about it. But don't worry about that. Just do what you want. If you know what you want to do and advocate for it, no one will put any energy into stopping you." ....

"Just do what you want to do and don't pay any attention to anything else. Never in my career have I spent five minutes doing something I didn't want to be doing."