The String That Has Science Tied Up in Knots

Article excerpt

Byline: HARRY RITCHIE

The Trouble With Physics by Lee Smolin Allen Lane/Penguin [pounds sterling]25 [pounds sterling]22.50 (0870 165 0870) uUuUuUuUuU

The most amazing aspect of science is the speed at which it advances. This is especially true of physics, the core discipline that studies what the universe is made of and how it works.

Just think: it was only four centuries ago that Galileo developed the telescope and turned it on the night sky to prove that the Earth orbited the Sun. Since then, physicists have made at least one important breakthrough every generation, and their progress has thus far become faster and faster.

Between 1880 and 1905,they discovered electrons,X-rays and the thermal properties of radiation. The next 25 years were dominated by Einstein's special and general theories of relativity.

Then from 1930 to 1955 there was dramatic progress in the understanding of quantum theory and the discovery of hundreds of elementary particles - the building blocks of the universe.

By the end of the next quartercentury, physicists had created what is known as the 'standard-model' of elementary particles and the four forces that govern Nature. They also now knew the universe was started by the Big Bang and that it contained gazillions of galaxies as well as lots of exotic things such as quasars and black holes.

That takes us up to 1980. So what, asks Lee Smolin, one of the world's top theoretical physicists, have he and his colleagues discovered since? What fundamental breakthroughs have his generation of physicists made? What amazing new insights will they be remembered for?

'Nothing,' he admits.

There are more physicists than ever before - thousands of them, with colossal budgets - and they haven't come up with one new idea that has been backed up by experiment or observation in more than 25 years.'We have failed,' Smolin confesses.

So what has gone so horribly wrong?

Well, it could just be that physics has hit a wall because human understanding and technology have reached their limits, but that sounds awfully like an excuse rather than a reason.

Smolin has no doubt that the real explanation for his generation's continuing failure can be summed up in two words: 'string theory'.

According to this, the foundations of the universe aren't elementary particles but strings: infinitesimally small,vibrating strings that exist in - be strong,dear reader, be strong - ten or 11 dimensions, not the four (three of space, plus time) we all think we live in.

String theory bears no resemblance to reality as we know it; can't be tested by any experiments and has made no discernible progress after 20 years' dedicated hard graft by thousands of the world's cleverest scientists. …