Book Review (Physics): Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott

Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth by Jim Baggott
Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Modern physics is in trouble. Just when we think we are on the verge of sewing everything up, we tug on a loose end and whole sections of the tapestry unravel.

This is not a new phenomenon. A century ago, thanks largely to breakthrough ideas of Einstein, physicists were replacing space and time with spacetime. Mass and energy, once so obviously different, became a single property related by the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2.

Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect was the first glimmer of an emerging new subfield, quantum physics. Meanwhile the first subatomic particles had been discovered, and many more were to follow.

Great minds proposed new theories. And those theories were challenged and shaped by great experiments. Gradually, physicists accepted the evidence that both relativity and quantum mechanics are valid descriptions of nature, and they developed the “Standard Model” to describe the properties of emerging array of subatomic particles.

Together, those remarkably successful descriptions of the physical universe comprise what physicist and author Jim Baggott calls “The Authorized Version,” which he describes in detail in the first half of his critique of current physics, Farewell to Reality.

The Authorized Version has flaws and missing pieces as well as strengths. For example, it suggests ways to unify electromagnetism with the strong and weak nuclear forces, but gravity remains in its own realm. Likewise quantum mechanics and relativity should both apply to the extreme conditions of the Big Bang and Black Holes, but their mathematics do not mesh.

And although the recent (apparent) discovery of the Higgs boson has strengthened the Standard Model, the latest astronomical measurements suggest that the model leaves out most of the universe. Approximately 95 percent of the cosmos is either “dark matter,” which we observe through its gravitational attraction on the scale of galaxies and galaxy clusters, or “dark energy,” which produces a kind of anti-gravity on the cosmic scale.

Those defects in The Authorized Version are not the reason for Baggott’s challenging subtitle, How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Truth. Rather, he asserts that modern physics has said “Farewell to Reality” in the attempts to fill in The Authorized Version’s gaps with theoretical leaps and multiple conjectures that he calls “fairy-tale physics.”

He uses that characterization to take on Stephen Hawking directly. In a 2010 book, Hawking calls Superstring or M-Theory The Grand Design, presenting it as his favorite candidate theory of everything. Baggott, however, contends that M-Theory is built on an astonishing sequence of speculative assumptions, with no supporting experimental evidence for any of them.

He argues that M-Theory’s proposal of a “multiverse” is implausible in the extreme. The M-Theory multiverse is a vast set of universes with different physical constants. By chance, a few of those turn out to be suitable for the formation of stars, planets, and the atoms and molecules of life.

What bothers Baggott and attracts Hawking is that the number of possible universes in the multiverse is approximately ten to the five hundredth power! The advantage of such a large number is that even an exceptionally unlikely event, such as the evolution of a living world with intelligent life, becomes inevitable.

Baggott looks at it differently. “Scientists (even theoretical physicists) should not be afraid to say they don’t know…. We want them to speculate, to push the frontiers of their science. But when their ambition to give answers drives them to tell fairy tales,… let us all be clear that we have left science far behind.”

Loose ends, he argues, are not a bad thing. And he eagerly begins to tug.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of twenty books including Physics: Decade by Decade, a history of physics in the twentieth century.