This Sunday’s New York Times has a rather hostile review by Lisa Randall of Carlo Rovelli’s popular book Reality is Not What It Seems, which has recently come out in English in the US. Rovelli responds with a Facebook post. Another similar recent book by Rovelli got a much more positive review in the NYT, his Seven Short Lessons on Physics.
I haven’t written about these two books mainly because I don’t think I have anything interesting to say about either of them (although if someone had asked me to review one of them I might have tried to come up with something). They’re aimed very much not at physicists but at a popular audience that doesn’t know much about physics. From the parts I’ve read they seem to do a good job of writing for such an audience, and I noticed nothing that seemed to me either objectionable or particularly unusual. Rovelli’s two slightly different angles on this topic are an interest in the ancient history of speculation about physics and a background in loop quantum gravity rather than HEP theory/string theory. Instead of wading into the controversy over string theory, he just ignores it and writes about what he finds interesting.
I’m not so sure why, since to me this seems harmless if not particularly compelling, but Randall strongly objects to Rovelli’s attempts to draw connections between modern physics and classical philosophy:
Wedging old ideas into new thinking is analogous to equating thousand-dollar couture adorned with beads and feathers and then marketed as “tribal fashion” to homespun clothing with true cultural and historical relevance. Ideas about relativity or gravity in ancient times weren’t the same as Einstein’s theory. Art (and science) are in the details. Either elementary matter is extended or it is not. The universe existed forever, or it had a beginning. Atoms of old aren’t the atoms of today. Egg and flour are not a soufflé. Without the appropriate care, it all just collapses.
She’s also quite critical of the way Rovelli handles the unavoidable problem of writing about a complicated technical subject for the public:
The beauty of physics lies in its precise statements, and that is what is essential to convey. Many readers won’t have the background required to distinguish fact from speculation. Words can turn equations into poetry, but elegant language shouldn’t come at the expense of understanding. Rovelli isn’t the first author guilty of such romanticizing, and I don’t want to take him alone to task. But when deceptively fluid science writing permits misleading interpretations to seep in, I fear that the floodgates open to more dangerous misinformation.
Here I’m a bit mystified as to why she finds Rovelli any more objectionable than any other similar author (or maybe she doesn’t, and he just happened to be the lucky one to have the first such book she was asked to review in the New York Times). As should be clear from this blog and book reviews that I’ve written, I agree with Randall about a problem that she leads off the review with:
Compounding the author’s challenge is the need to distinguish between speculation, ideas that might be verified in the future, and what is just fanciful thinking.
However, to me it seemed that Rovelli met this challenge better than many, far better than any of the huge popular literature about supersymmetry, string theory and the multiverse. She may be right that someone not paying careful attention could get the wrong idea from Rovelli about cosmological loop quantum gravity models. It’s equally true though that readers of her own books about extra dimensions, dark matter and the dinosaurs might come away not understanding exactly what the strength of evidence was for those speculations.
Note added for clarification 3/6/2017: the following is not part of the commentary on Randall’s review, it’s another related topic I thought readers would find interesting. The relation between the two parts is that they both have to do with the question of distinguishing solid argument/speculation, but it’s not about Randall, and the context is different (communicating with other physicists versus communicating with the general public}.
On this question of how/whether physicists (here mathematicians are very, very different) make clear what is a solid argument and what is just speculation, another interesting case is that of Nima Arkani-Hamed, who came to prominence in particle theory with Randall, both of them working on extra dimensional models. Both of them got a huge amount of attention for this, from the public and from within physics, although these ideas were always highly speculative and unlikely to work out.
There’s a wonderful new “Storygram” by George Musser of a great profile by Natalie Wolchover of Arkani-Hamed. It’s all well worth reading, but related to the topic at hand I was struck by the following:
Arkani-Hamed considers his tendency to speculate a personal weakness. “This is not false modesty, it’s really a personal weakness, but it’s true, so there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “It’s important for me while I’m working on something to be very ideological about it. And then, of course, it’s also important after you are done to forget the ideology and move on to another one.”
Arkani-Hamed is an incredibly compelling speaker, but his talks often have struck me as putting forward very strongly some particular speculative point of view, while ignoring some of the obvious serious problems. If you’re not pretty well-informed on the subject, you might get misled… From the quote above he seems to have a fair amount of self-awareness about this. Also interesting in this context is his talk last year at Cornell on The Morality of Fundamental Physics. He gives an inspiring account of the intellectual value system of theoretical physics at its best. On the other hand, he pays no attention to the very real tension between that value system and the way people actually pursue their work, often very “ideologically”. For particle theory in particular and the current situation it finds itself in, this seems to me an important issue for practitioners to be thinking about.
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