String theory comes under attack, a geneticist muses on God, and the demise of high-tech trash. Plus: Buckminster Fuller's portable, collapsible house.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Two books say that today's theoretical physicists are way off course.

In the mood for some no-holds-barred gossip or a nasty screed? Then start browsing the physics blogosphere, where some exceedingly smart people are spending an inordinate amount of time belittling one another. Alas, even this magazine has come under attack. The cause of all the commotion? Some nervy upstarts are questioning the validity of string theory, which is to physics what Wal-Mart is to retail: the biggest thing around, dominant for more than 20 years now. And woe unto anyone who doubts the orthodoxy. The dispute is bound to heat up with the publication of Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong (Basic Books, $26) and Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics (Houghton Mifflin, $26), both of which argue that string theory's hegemony has undermined further progress in physics.

When we science writers describe string theory, we usually trot out something like this: The theory defines the fundamental constituents of physical reality not as minuscule particles but as shimmying strands of energy less than a trillionth of a trillionth the size of an atom. (For scale: If a string were blown up to the size of an atom, an atom would fill the space between Earth and the nearest star.) Yet that's like defining music as a sequence of notes; it doesn't do justice to string theory's complexity and depth. This is, in fact, a daunting mathematical edifice backed by most of the world's leading theoretical physicists. They believe it will someday enable them to unify quantum mechanics, the physics of all things atomic, with Einstein's general relativity, which describes how gravity shapes the universe on the very largest scales.

But physicists have been chasing that dream for decades now, and some like Smolin, a highly regarded physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, and Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University, argue that string theory has had ample time to prove itself. The main problem with string theory—acknowledged by critics and supporters alike—is that no one knows if it will ever generate testable predictions that can be addressed by experiment (a process that essentially defines the practice of science). The basic equations of string theory have more solutions than there are atoms in the universe. Since the theory can't be disproved, there may never be a way to tell if it is right or wrong.

Woit judges this situation harshly. He calls string theory "a failed and overhyped project" and claims that its supporters have parted ways with science. Woit's book is really two books in one. The first half is highly technical, with little to offer the general reader; the second half is completely different—a lively and entertaining presentation of his case. String theorists will hate it.

Smolin's engaging account is more nuanced. Having devoted several years of his career to string theory, he is much more sympathetic than Woit to both its prospects and its technical difficulties (which, who knows, some bright young student may someday solve). Instead, what most concerns Smolin is the theory's complete dominance of physics departments. What might the great minds of physics past, having revolutionized the field, make of the juggernaut that is string theory? "We must recognize and fight the symptoms of groupthink," Smolin writes, subtly channeling Richard Feynman, the rebellious physics genius, "and we must open the doors to a wide range of independent thinkers, being sure to make room for the peculiar characters needed to make a revolution."  —Tim Folger

Where Technology Goes to Die

If you sleep comfortably having lugged your old computer to a hazardous waste collection site, certain it is being safely picked apart and recycled into next season's iPod, wake up. Chances are, your trash was shipped to a rural province in China, where poor, sandal-clad women melt circuit boards in skillets to harvest the precious metals. These workers wear no protection and breathe fire retardants, dioxins, and furans.

As Elizabeth Grossman reveals in High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health (Island Press, $29.95), her dense and damning book about the afterlife of techno-trash, much of what we cast away is improperly disposed of—regardless of our efforts—and ends up leaching toxins into the air, water, and soil. Between 2003 and 2010, as many as 3 billion units of consumer electronics generated by the States will head to the global junk pile. If current trends persist, only about 10 percent of this will ever be recycled.

Part of the problem is that electronics require costly dismantling and sorting of their ingredients. In Europe and Japan, recycling is mandatory, forcing manufacturers to shoulder the financial burden of recycling waste and compelling them to design less-toxic products. Not so in the United States. Lacking tough tech-recycling laws on the federal level, local governments fashion regulations that are hard to follow. As a result, e-waste is discarded along with junk mail and food scraps and ends up in landfills where shattered screens spew lead and mercury and circuit boards leak cadmium, a probable carcinogen.

"Microchip circuitry may be as invisible as the network of nerves on a dragonfly's wing," Grossman writes. "And whole libraries may appear on our desktop screens apparently out of thin air, but unless some radical changes are made in the way we design and produce our information age gadgetry, its ecological footprint will never really be reduced."  —Joseph D'Agnese

Going With the Grain

The pollen grain is the essential sexual tool of any flower, the protective carrying case for its sperm. This airtight package comes in thousands of varieties, many quite fantastic looking; some are dotted with menacing spikes, others are elongated and wrapped in a sheath that resembles a honeycomb. When dehydrated, a pollen grain looks like a deflated kickball. These mere specks, many only 50 microns across, are gargantuan on the ultravivid pages of Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers (Firefly Books, $60), written by Madeline Harley, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, and photographed with an electron microscope by Rob Kesseler.

The grains, by necessity rugged vehicles, are ingeniously engineered. Unlike animals, which release sperm into a moist environment, plants like angiosperms, conifers, and their relatives need to get sperm cells to a recipient plant—sometimes miles away—before they dry up. The hard covering, or exine, of each grain has to be tough enough to protect its cargo from even the sun's radiation. Yet when pollen reaches its destination, that same outer shell must be yielding enough to transfer moisture to the grain's soft innards, which expand and burst, facilitating fertilization.

Contrary to popular belief, not all of the particles we associate with hay fever are bright yellow and dusty; they can range from colorless to red or purple and vary in texture from dry to sticky, depending on whether wind or an obliging insect is to carry them. And like bugs in photomicrographs, pollen on a blown-up scale can appear otherworldly. At 1,500 times magnification, the expanded Tulipa violacea grain is reminiscent of a distended planet Mars, covered in hills, valleys, and bulges.  —Anne Wootton

Gimme Shelter

From sorrow can spring forth sweet inspiration. In 1927, the inventor Buckminster Fuller contemplated suicide after his daughter's death from pneumonia during a bitter Chicago winter. As consolation he decided to harness nature to improve the lot of humankind. His first venture was the Dymaxion House (left), an energy-efficient home whose name combines the words dynamic, maximum, and tension. Assembled from a kit, Dymaxion House resembled a tree, with a central mast serving as a vertical strut from which a web of cables supported an exterior shell of casein panels.

An image of the house, along with a film of Fuller's 1933 Dymaxion Car—a whalelike jet-propelled vehicle that could travel in any direction, in air or on land—appears in Best of Friends, a beautifully integrated exhibition that examines the friendship between Fuller and the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. On view at the Noguchi Museum ( in New York through October 15, the exhibit uses sculpture, drawings, and photographs to explore the ways in which the two friends influenced each other. For example, Noguchi adapted into his own sculptures Fuller's "tensegrity" system, a term the inventor coined to denote structural integrity created by tension. Sadly, only one Dymaxion House was ever built. When Fuller offered the prototype to the American Institute of Architects, they rejected it, saying that they opposed "any kind of house designs that are manufactured like peas-in-a-pod." —Josie Glausiusz


Lord, is that you in my DNA?

As battles rage between science and religion, some voices peep through the clamor, not choosing sides but instead citing reasons for reconciliation. In his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, $26), Francis S. Collins is one such voice. A scientist with impressive credentials, he directed the Human Genome Project, mining the primary record of evolution to map the vast vocabulary of life's indwelling DNA "grammar," which he calls the language of God. Collins is unafraid of the G-word because, besides being an eminent scientist, he is also a Christian. To him, science and religion are not only complementary but are both essential for a complete understanding of the world, a philosophy he systematically lays out in this book.

Homeschooled by a family of freethinkers on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Collins was attracted to the certainty of the hard sciences. Religion seemed quaint and unrealistic, and as a young man he became an atheist. But his worldview shifted when he was a physician in training, moved by the bravery of his gravely ill patients. When one of them asked him, in a religious context, what he believed, the conscientious scientist realized that he could only answer this question definitively with research (via books) and careful consideration. His analytic mentality, far from deepening his atheism, ultimately drove him to faith. Some of Collins's religious reasoning will be familiar to readers of C. S. Lewis, another skeptic turned believer. Collins freely acknowledges this debt, tracing his own spiritual Big Bang moment to reading Lewis's Mere Christianity.

Collins easily dismantles the shrillest arguments of the creationists, stressing that religion is too important to be based on fuzzy thinking. Of the literalist belief that the world was created in 4004 B.C., he writes, "Its persistence is one of the great puzzles and great tragedies of our time." But just as systematically he rejects scientific materialism, the notion that life is a random, soulless interaction of matter and energy. "In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God," he writes. "Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates." Collins offers the reader a broad concept he calls BioLogos—the cross-pollination of Bios (life) and Logos, the Word of God. (Perhaps he feels the need to name this philosophy so that it can compete with the well-marketed creationist concept dubbed intelligent design.)

The Language of God delivers a steady flow of intelligent, humane writing. But as much as it is a learned addition to the debate, this book is hardly brimming with epiphanies. Its central premise of the compatibility of God and science has been expressed elsewhere, both recently and less recently. As Thomas Aquinas wrote 725 years ago, "For faith is not opposed to sensus [reason] but is of that which sensus cannot reach." —Dean Christopher

Source: Barnes & Noble

1. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It
Al Gore (Rodale)

2. THE GOOD GOOD PIG: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood Sy Montgomery (Ballantine Books)

3. THE LAST SEASON Eric Blehm (HarperCollins)

4. ANOTHER DAY IN THE FRONTAL LOBE: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside Katrina Firlik (Random House)

5. DECODING THE UNIVERSE: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, From Our Brains to Black Holes Charles Seife (Viking)

6. INTELLIGENT THOUGHT: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement John Brockman (Vintage Books)

7. THE WEATHER MAKERS: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press)

8. BEFORE THE DAWN: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors Nicholas Wade (Penguin Press)

9. UNKNOWN QUANTITY: A Real and Imagined History of Algebra John Derbyshire (Joseph Henry Press)

10. KICKED, BITTEN, AND SCRATCHED: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers Amy Sutherland (Viking)

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