books book reviews

Books by physics skeptics

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review Score+1

The Higgs Fake:
How particle physicists fooled the Nobel committee
Alexander Unzicker
Self-published, 2013, 152 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

What to make of this book? Former physicist Alexander Unzicker thinks particle physics is crap, and says so. He starts out by insulting virtually every Nobel prize winner in the field. He writes:

Already a dozen Nobel Prizes have been handed out that did not advance physics in the slightest: to Alvares, Gell-Mann, Zweig, Richter, Ting, Glashow, Salam, Weinberg, Rubbia, Lederman, Schwarz, Steinberger, Friedmann, Kendall, Taylor, Perl, 't Hooft, Veltman, Gross, Politzer, Wilczek, Nambu, Kobayashi, and Maskawa.

Weinberg, says Unzicker, is a “wanna-be maker of the laws of Nature.” Higgs is “certainly no Einstein.” Rubbia tricked his competitors into delaying their discovery in order to be first.

After making sure everyone in the field is mad at him, Unzicker then launches into a fiery and somewhat curmudgeonly criticism of the way physics has evolved since that fateful day in 1930 when Dirac proposed the existence of antimatter and sent physics down the rabbit hole into an 86-year Easter egg hunt.

(Are there Easter eggs in rabbit holes? There must be.)

Unzicker's thesis that physics was better when there were only two particles. It has now become too theory-driven, and almost all the particles that have been discovered since then are artifacts, including quarks, neutrinos, W and Z bosons, and the Higgs boson. He also says that all the CERN data should be made freely available on the Internet.

This last suggestion is quite reasonable. The data should be preserved. If it's correct, it has historical value; if it's not, that too has historical value.

As for the particles, Unzicker's criticisms mainly center around the calibration and properties of the Large Hadron Collider's detectors. Unfortunately, particle physics can get a bit technical, and Unzicker doesn't stop to tell us exactly why he believes the signatures are all artifacts. This makes his criticisms too vague and unspecific to be very convincing.

On the plus side, his writing style is pretty good, he seems to know the science, and he has a lot of good sound bites and lots of useful quotes, like these two:

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible. —Bertrand Russell

Convictions are more dangerous enemies of the truth than facts. —Nietzsche

You may rest assured that you will see these quotes again.

When experts in some scientific field start ignoring the possibility of their ideas being wrong, you get skeptics. When skeptics ignore the possibility that they too might be wrong, you get cranks. And that may be why modern physics has cranks up the wazoo, which is a very bad place to have them.

So is this guy a crank or a skeptic? Most real cranks are drawn to Einstein or quantum mechanics. They have idiosyncratic theories of their own and view non-acceptance of them in conspiratorial terms. By those criteria he's not a crank, but more of an extreme skeptic.

Books like this serve a valuable purpose. Skepticism is a sign, like a canary in a coal mine, that people are unclear about the fundamental stuff. There's a book opportunity here for somebody to tell the public how physics knows neutrinos are neutrinos (instead of, say, neutrons) and how it knows the Higgs is really a Higgs. As useful as the Brian Coxy whizzy-bangy stuff may be, over time people get suspicious if they don't see the proof.

Toward the end of the book Unzicker calms down a little, but even so this book could be used in rhetoric classes as a textbook example of how to make sure your opponent ignores you. He extensively cites Andrew Pickering's 1984 sociology of physics book Constructing Quarks (reviewed at right), which should perhaps be consulted if you're looking for someone who really hates physics.

feb 26, 2017; last edited mar 05, 2017

book review Score-1

Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search For Scientific Truth
Jim Baggott

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Very basic, non-technical introduction to physics, starting with Einstein and gradually working up to things like string theory, multiple universes, and the anthropic principle. The author portrays this as a departure from empirical science. Written for laymen; lots of people stuff. PC writing style.

mar 04 2017

book review Score-2

Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics
Andrew Pickering
U of Chicago Press, 1984, 468 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

This history of particle physics from 1960 to 1980 focuses not on the personalities involved (colorful as they may be) but on the emergence (or ‘construction’ in sociology lingo) of the quark theory, as proposed by Murray Gell-Mann, George Zweig, and many others.

Pickering's idea is that science is not a clear-cut progression of theories that always work and experimental results that fall from heaven. A lot of judgment and interaction between theorists and experimentalists goes on. Theories that are too radical face obstacles to acceptance, like the quark theory, which proposed that protons are made up of three quarks containing multiples one-third of a unit of charge. Memorable images and personalities play a role as well. In some ways, doing science is a lot like making sausage, only a lot more expensive.

Pickering's starting point is this:

Scientists typically make the realist identification of these constructs with the contents of nature, and then use this identification retrospectively to legitimate and make unproblematic existing scientific judgments.

Some of these theories, like the S-matrix or bootstrap theory, have long since been abandoned, while quantum field theory has become ascendant once again, and the quark model is generally accepted (though not in its original form, and not by everybody—see the book review at left). Pickering describes these theories and the experimental methods pretty well.

There are some interesting bits of information here. Pickering describes how Feynman modeled the collision of two protons, relativistically contracted in the direction of motion, as a collision between two pancakes. One imagines bits of syrup flying out, along with an occasional blueberry. Gell-Mann described his current-algebra formulation using the metaphor of French cuisine, where the theory is a slice of pheasant that is cooked between two pieces of veal which are then thrown away. Quarks were bestowed with properties of color, strangeness, and flavor.

Ah, but of course this is a sociology book. Having produced a detailed and mostly accurate if somewhat tedious history of how quark theory replaced the older theories, he somehow concludes, by ignoring everything in his previous 400 pages, that this proves quarks are merely a cultural construct:

The dynamics of the new-physics traditions were, in turn, structured by the culturally specific resources available for their elaboration. Thus, the new-physics world-view was itself culturally specific.

You can probably see where this is going.

Kuhn's argument was that if scientific knowledge were a cultural product, then different scientific communities . . . would recognize the existence of different natural phenomena and explain their properties in terms of different theoretical entities. . . . They would be, in philosophical language, incommensurable . . . . There would be no extra-cultural facts against which the empirical adequacy of different theories could be impartially measured. [p.407]

Since the ‘old physics’ looked at resonance production and soft scattering, while the ‘new physics’ ignored what was already well understood and sought out rarer events, Pickering concludes that their discoveries are culturally relative. His writing reads like a parody of social constructionism:

The quark-gauge theory of elementary particles should be seen as a culturally specific product. The theoretical entities of the new physics, and the natural phenomena which pointed to their existence, were the joint products of a historical process — a process which culminated in a communally congenial representation of reality.

He ends on a sour note:

There is no obligation upon anyone framing a view of the world to take account of what twentieth-century science has to say.

I'm guessing that in Pickering's view, sociology is not a science.

No, as today's social justice warriors would put it, physics is the product of a European male colonial patriarchal phallocentric hegemony. Or maybe capitalist running-dog imperialist reactionaries. The pejoratives change, but the ideology stays the same. There is no intrinsic truth, Pickering thinks, in the theory of relativity or the theory that there are neutrons, photons, and quarks. All 20th century science is a mere cultural construct, with no more connection to the real world than an episode of My Mother the Car.

This postmod­ernist point of view took root in sociology in the 1980s and 90s. It is only valid if one denies the existence of truth, which is to say the existence of real, discoverable phenomena, which is the principle on which science is based. Thus, the real message of this book is that, as long as this point of view prevails in sociology, it is sociology and science—sociology and knowledge—that are incommensurable.

mar 05 2017; last edited mar 06 2017