By Lee Smolin
Explaining the debates that engage today’s cutting edge physics to non-physicists is a nearly impossible task, with even the most accessible popularizations of subjects like quantum mechanics and string theory tending to lose most of their readers after a couple of chapters of basic introduction. Compounding the problem is the fact that physics is grounded in mathematics, and much is lost in translation as key concepts have to be put into layman’s terms and illustrated with everyday analogies.
Nevertheless, in this new book physicist Lee Smolin puts forward a transformative and contrarian thesis the outlines of which the general reader should be able to follow. The key idea is that time, which has been put aside in the kind of modeling preferred by a lot of modern physics, is re-introduced as a real and vital force in the universe. Mathematics, in this new dispensation, “will continue to be a handmaiden to Science, but she can no longer be the Queen”; its absolute, eternal laws replaced by laws of nature that evolve through time.
This is a Big Idea, and one with many ramifications ranging from the Big Bang (and before) to the end of the universe. Bigness is important because Smolin believes that for a theory of everything to be truly foundational it can’t just describe a timeless chunk of the universe, but account for an entire universe that exists in time. The idea presented here also signals a radical turn, “involving not just the invention of a new theory but a new method and hence a new kind of theory.” And finally it marks what is, thus far, an admittedly speculative shift, though one that Smolin believes will ultimately be more generative of predictions subject to experimental test than the current mainstream thinking, which is criticized as being full of metaphysical and mythical baggage.
Whether you find the argument convincing or not there is still a lot here to mull over as Smolin introduces and engages with a number of current cosmological, scientific, and philosophical debates. Helpfully, the material is represented with clarity throughout, though there are inevitable sticky passages and places where Smolin has to confess that it “not easy to explain this in nontechnical language.” The main thread of the argument, however, is easily grasped in its fundamentals, and stands as a provocative challenge to the present state of what we think we know about the universe.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2013.