Terry Pratchett was one, if not my all time, favorite author. Luckily for me, he was also one of the most prolific ones, creating an incredible rich, hilarious yet endearing universe, populated with the most unlikely yet humane characters. What drew me in, when I started reading his books twenty years ago, was his uncanny sense for the absurdities of modern physics. Therefor it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that he also wrote the best popular science book there is. To honor the man, and mark his passing, I republish this post from 2013.
Until recently, there was no competition if I were to be asked what popular science book I’d recommend to a non-physicist. It was always Terry Pratchett’s The Science of Discworld. It comes with a healthy dose of humor and makes no qualms about the fact that any popularized version of modern physics essentially boils down to “lies to children”.
But there is now a new contender, one that I can highly recommend: Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth. This book does an excellent job of retelling how we got to the current state in theoretical physics, that quantum computing theorist Scott Aaronson described this way:
ROTFL! Have you looked recently at beyond-Standard-Model theoretical physics? It’s a teetering tower of conjectures (which is not to say, of course, that that’s inherently bad, or that I can do better). However, one obvious difference is that the physicists don’t call them conjectures, as mathematicians or computer scientists would. Instead they call them amazing discoveries, striking dualities, remarkable coincidences, tantalizing hints … once again, lots of good PR lessons for us! 🙂
This was in a comment to his recent blog post where he has some fun with Nima Arkani-Hamed’s Amplituhedron. The latter is actually some of the more interesting results I have seen come out of mainstream theoretical physics, because it actually allows us to calculate something in a much more straightforward manner than before. That this is currently unfortunately restricted to the scope of an unphysical toy theory is all you need to know to understand how far current theoretical physics has ventured from actual verifiability by experiment.
For those who want to dig deeper and understand where to draw the line between current established physics and fairytale science, Jim Baggot’s book is a one stop shop. It is written in a very accessible manner and does a surprisingly good job in explaining what has been driving theoretical physics, without recourse to any math.
At the beginning, the author describes what prompted him to write the book: one too many of those fanciful produced science shows, with lots of CGI and dramatic music, that presents String theory as established fact. Catching himself yelling at the TV (I’ve been there), he decided to do something about it, and his book is the pleasant result. I am confident it will inoculate any alert reader to the pitfalls of fairytale science and equip him (or her) with a critical framework to ascertain what truthiness to assign to various theoretical physics conjectures (in popular science fare they are, of course, never referenced as such, as Scott correctly observed).
This isn’t the first book that addresses this issue. Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong took it on, at a time when calling out String theory was a rather unpopular stance, but the timing for another book in this vein that addresses a broad lay public is excellent. As Baggott wrote his book, it was already apparent that CERN’s LHR did not pick up any signs in support of SUSY and string theory. Theorists have been long in denial about these elaborately constructed castles in the sky, but the reality seems to be slowly seeping in.
The point is that the scientific mechanism for self-correction needs to reassert itself. It’s not that SUSY and String theory didn’t produce some remarkable mathematical results. They just didn’t produce actual physics (although in unanticipated ways the Amplituhedron may get there). Trying to spin away this failure is doing science a massive disfavor. Let’s hope theoretical physicists take a cue from the the quantum computing theorists and clearly mark their conjectures. It’ll be a start.
Alternatively, they could always present the theory as it is done in this viral video. At least then it will be abundantly clear that this is more art than science (h/t Rolf D.):