Saturday, August 28, 2010

Review: String Theory for Dummies

String Theory for Dummies
Andrew Zimmerman Jones with Dr. Daniel Robbins
Wiley Publishing, Indianapolis, IN (2010)
Andrew Jones has taken on a monumental task: explaining string theory, with all the underlying science and universe-wide implications, without much math and without any more technical terms than necessary. It’s impressive how well he’s succeeded. If that success is short of perfection, that only reflects, as he notes himself, how vast and complex the task is.
Jones opens by noting that some of the ideas presented here will be proven false. I like that: it prepares the reader for the convoluted story which begins with the first attempts at a science of physics and ends with a theory so esoteric that the mind really can’t grasp it the way we do most scientific notions (try visualizing “rolled up” dimensions some time).
Jones opens with the why of string theory: the way relativity and quantum physics have been stopped short by the unsolved mystery of quantum gravity. He then steps back to the origins of physics and leads readers through the fits, starts, progress, blind alleys, and reversals that led to string theory being discovered, abandoned, revived as superstring theory, and modified into its current form, M-Theory.
Any theory will eventually die off if it can’t be proven, and Jones explains the possibilities and problems of testing string theory, including either by observing the universe or in particle accelerators on Earth. He spends a chapter on the arguments that string theory is unprovable, simply wrong, or both. String theorists are split on how (or whether) whether the traditional scientific requirement that a theory be falsifiable applies to a theory of things we may never be able to observe directly. Another chapter looks at the main competitor, loop quantum gravity. There are string theorists and LQG theorists who think there is an underlying connection and they might both be true, while others are convinced the opposing camp is more of a groupthink cult than a scientific approach. Other chapters cover the implications if strong theory is correct: what it means for parallel universes, the Big Bang, time travel, and other concepts of scientific and popular interest.
Jones closes by outlining the ten questions he suggests any “theory of everything” must answer and introducing the most influential people in string theory.
There really isn’t a conclusion that sums up where Jones and his Ph.D. physicist co-author think the whole argument stands today. I was looking forward to that: the information is in the Introduction and Chapter 1, but there’s no law against recapping it. There also isn’t a glossary, an omission which I don’t understand.
The basic question in evaluating a book like this, though, is whether it leaves a nonspecialist with a better understanding of the topic. I do understand it better, much better. If you’re curious about this whole business of string theory but are not interested in getting a graduate degree, String Theory for Dummies is well worth your time.

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