Saturday, May 14, 2011

Russell Stannard's "The End of Discovery"

There is nothing special here. This is "just another" book on modern physics/cosmology. The author has no new insights or clever way to translate modern physics for the general reader. It is an adequate book, find for someone fairly new to the topic. But readers with other books under their belt will find nothing here to excite them.

The good news is that this author doesn't go off on a tangent or muddy the book with personal "insights". I was a bit worried when I noticed that he was a Templeton prize winner. This is a boodle of cash from a deceased billionaire investor to be given to science to "promote" religion. I'm glad to report that this book shows no especial deference to religiosity. The author does touch lightly on questions creation, soul, purpose, etc. but not enough to perturb a reader.

The one idiosyncracy that did bother me was the author's view that science would come to an end. He admits he doesn't know when and he admits that the late 19th century view that physics was at an end except for ever more accurate measurements was foolish. But he goes down the same path. I find this odd because he does discuss the very recent discoveries that:
  • 95% of what is "out there" is stuff that modern physics really doesn't understand. It calls it "dark matter" and "dark energy" but this more a label than a scientific description with the backing of models and data.

  • Newer theories like string theory hypothesize that we live in a 10 or 11 dimensional world and not in a 4 dimenstional space-time of Einsteinian theory.

  • Cosmologists are still struggling to understand the big bang and the fate of the universe using theory and data that are at most 40 years old. There is no adequate theory of the very early bit of the big bang. And there certainly is no real insight into the end of the universe and were shocked just 15 years ago to discover that the supposed expansion of the universe was in fact an unexpected runaway inflation.

  • The understanding of quantum physics is muddled. As a calculational tool it appears to be our most precise theory. But most physicists throw up their hands and admit they really don't understand it. And, as Richard Feynman said "If you think you understand it, then you clearly don't."

  • They recognize a need to unify the two theories that currently represent the state of knowledge: relativity theory which explains large scale physics and quantum theory which explains small scale physics. But they don't yet have a theory that unifies them. There is hope for string theory, but "hope" isn't science.
Given that state of things, it is comical that Stannard is fussing about and worrying over "the end of science". It is like being at the birth of a baby and breaking into a lament because you "know" that the "end is nigh" and the baby is on death's doorstep. In fact, you have no idea if the baby will die in days, a few years, in a couple of decades, or nearer 100 years old. Any talk of "being on death's door" is just plain foolish. Science is still young. Most of what is to be known has only been discovered in the late 20 to 100 years and current theories point to huge inadequacies in explaining what is out there. So "the end of science" is plain silly.

Stannard is adequate as an expositor of modern physics, but I miss a voice like Isaac Asimov who could combine "the facts" with an excitement that let me feel I was learning as I read. With Stannard, he introduces concepts, but he doesn't present them in a way that a general reader will walk away in awe of what was learned. Stannard's book is more like a packing list while Asimov let you feel like you were reading a grand story that opened up to you with insights and understanding. Maybe I'm confusing my excitement of my youth when reading combined not just learning but a "first experience" of the great excitement and mystery of physics. But I don't think so. I think the difference between Stannard and Asimov is that between a master storyteller and a generally adequate storyteller.

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