00:00 Time Reborn

Time Reborn
00:00 Time Reborn
by Lee Smolin
Published by Penguin www.greenpenguin.co.uk

Lee Smolin’s main job is annoying physicists. Oh sure, he has a day job as founder of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics but he seems to spend most of his time preaching his crazy ideas. You see, Smolin believes that our perception of the flow of time is real, there’s no multiverse and quantum theory is, at best, just a rough guess. This may not seem very outrageous to the average punter but to physicists it’s tantamount to heresy and this book is the latest of his theses to be nailed to the door of public opinion.

To some extent ‘Time Reborn’ is the easy reader version of his earlier book, the all but impenetrable ‘The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time’ wherein he argues that laws of nature evolved, Newtonian or quantum experimental results can’t be scaled up to explain the universe and that we need a more comprehensive (and comprehensible) explanation than the approximations of quantum theory. He uses Ptolemy’s astronomy as an example. With all its epicycles it was wholly incorrect but was still a ‘good enough’ theory. It sufficed to explain and predict the movement of the planets for two thousand years till Newton finally superseded it with something much more accurate. That still wasn’t entirely the whole story and Newtonian gravity was supplanted by Einstein’s curved space 250 years later. It’s now time for another de-throning suggests Smolin. Perhaps quantum theory with it’s half spin states, superimposition and wave/particle duality is so hard to understand because it’s simply isn’t true. Despite its successes says Smolin, it is just “an algorithm for predicting the probabilities for different experimental outcomes” and, like Einstein before him, this sort of half-baked, incomplete, though staggeringly useful theory, just isn’t good enough. What is an electron actually doing when it jumps from one energy state to another? How exactly do widely separated particles communicate instantaneously? Could all those quantum cats and spooky actions be our modern epicycles – absurdities generated by our misapprehension of how the universe truly works?

If quantum isn’t the full story, what is? Smolin namechecks some alternatives with cool sounding sci-fi names like ‘loop quantum gravity’ and ‘spin foam models’ that might have been scooped straight from one of the better Dr. Who scripts. The problem is, that for all their seductively tantalising inferences, they are really just outlines, suggestions, hints. None are full or working alternatives to the current paradigm. Smolin admits this pretty much from the get-go but their strength, he suggests, lies in the fact that they are testable with actual doable experiments and observations. A feat he claims our current cosmological models can’t match.

Though ‘Time Reborn’ has passages of brilliance and insight and clever challenges to the quantum status quo it’s not without significant flaws. Smolin’s writing is generally pedestrian and can be hard to follow with occasional paragraphs descending almost to the level of computer-generated gobbledegook. A guide to style and a stronger editing hand are sorely needed. Some parts of his argument are simply not convincing even to the layman (i.e. me). For instance, one of the supporting arguments for a distinct arrow of time is that the Universe is not in thermal equilibrium but why should it be? It’s a big universe and 13 billion years is hardly an eye blink in its potential lifespan. Maybe it needs 13 trillion years. He also tries to tie-in economic theory and psychology to our understanding of physics which I find a bit of a stretch.

Despite this I have huge sympathy for Smolin’s position. All that quantum stuff works but I have a hard time believing that it works the way ‘just-shut-up-and-do-the-math’ physicists say it does. We need something better. The ideas in ‘Time Reborn’ may or may not be that something but it’s a good place to start.