Bankrupting Physics

Modern Physics is in trouble, it has become a mess of free parameters, over inflated theories and untestable nonsense.

In Bankrupting Physics theoretical physicist Alex Unzicker and science writer Sheilla Jones argue that physics, just like the banking sector, has become too big to fail.

Unzicker expertly guides us through the wonderful worlds of cosmology, particle physics and theoretical physics and takes an unflinching look at whether any of it actually makes sense. How, for example, have scientists managed to find a signal ‘consistent’ with the Higgs Boson when we still cannot calculate the exact amount of photons emitted when electrical charges are accelerated? If dark matter exists, how did two colliding galaxies in the Bullet Cluster manage to pass by each other without any sign of its interaction? Why does the standard model of particle physics need at least 36 kinds of heavy particle to explain itself?

Bankrupting Physics praises the questioning attitudes of physics giants such as Einstein, Dirac and Feynman and wonders why so many physicists today are engaged with concocting elaborate theories that have almost no prospect of ever being tested in the real world.

As a physics novice I was initially daunted by the sheer quantity of cosmological and theoretical physics theories that Unzicker introduces in his book. However all the science is clearly explained; my personal favourite analogy of his is using the idea of Madonna walking through a crowded room to explain the effect of the Higgs field. The sheer density of unfamiliar theories and concepts does mean that this book is one to mull over rather than race through but it is by no means a difficult read. The level of detail enables the uninitiated to get a grip on what is going on out there in the world of physics and even begin to question some of it for themselves.

This wry analysis of the current state of physics also talks about the many encounters Unzicker has had with working physicists during his career. As well allowing us to see the human side of physics, these anecdotes help to highlight the politics at play in modern research. Physics has become a monoculture; large collaborative projects encourage scientific ‘groupthink’. Expensive experiments like the Large Hadron Collider put pressure on researchers to find positive results. In addition the ‘conventional’ views of cosmology and particle physics are enforced via a system of peer review and research funding applications – you have to toe the line if you want to get published, even more so if you want money for your research.

As well as comparing modern physics to a big financial bubble about to burst, Unzicker also scathingly compares the standard model of particle physics to the overtly complicated Epicycles of the middle ages, which were used to explain the movement of the universe around a central static Earth.

It could seem from this review so far that Bankrupting Physics is an anti-science book with a rather gloomy analysis of the current state of theoretical physics. On the contrary, the real passion of the author for his subject shines through. I even found myself getting excited about the ideas of quantum mechanics – the photoelectric effect is what makes digital cameras work! There is a lot of wonderful physics out there but Unzicker’s argument is that it is becoming more and more detached from reality. It is as if modern physicists have abandoned Karl Popper’s basic philosophy that a scientific theory should be falsifiable – you should be able to try and prove it wrong. How can you determine the existence of parallel universes when they don’t have any discernable effect on our own?

Bankrupting Physics is a call to reason for anyone working in physics today – start observing nature again, try and falsify your theories and don’t get carried away with fantastical ideas like supersymmetry, string theory and multiple dimensions unless you can test whether they actually exist.

This review originally appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of I, Science. Bankrupting Physics was written by Alexander Unzicker and Sheilla Jones, it was published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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