The recent book by Lee Smolin, entitled Time Reborn, has left physicists scratching their heads somewhat. Frank Close, the Oxford particle physicist who reviews (£) the book in this month’s issue of Prospect commented that he was unsure whether the book ought to be read once, or studied for months.
The reason for this is that Smolin has done something very bold indeed—he has stuck his neck out. Right out. He did so in the writing of the book, and he did so again last night at the Institute of Physics in London, where he set out the core themes of his book before an audience of scientists.
Physics, he says, is in crisis. What is needed is not more delving into the strange soup of string theory, or any other such work, but a fundamental re-working of the common conception of what physics is. Ever since Plato and up to Newton, Einstein and all the others, physics has been crippled by a terrible mistake. Physicists have been wrong in their assumptions about the science they studied. Smolin has arrived, he says, with the corrective.
The concept on which Smolin bases his thesis is Time—that most confusing, fungible and counter-intuitive of all the ideas in science, and philosophy. Smolin’s contention is that time has been excluded from physics—that the equations of physics have about them the property of being timeless, whereas the natural world does not. This is the contradiction that Smolin highlights and that he seeks to correct.
The mathematisation of physics and the reduction of the universe to a mathematical object, says Smolin, has confused physicists and accounts for the worst and most distracting pronouncements of physicists. Multiverse theory and other such concepts that Smolin sees as nonsensical, stem from the failure to encode time into physics. He thinks that such ideas are not only wrong-headed, but he thinks that the public is repulsed by them, making the science both incorrect and less attractive.
So time, he says, has been excluded from physics and now it is time for it go back in. In his speech he is engrossing and fluent on the question of how time has been excluded, but not so clear on how it can be reinstated. The book is similarly weighted towards defining the problem rather than solving it.
Smolin is an unusual figure. He freely admits that his theories may be wrong, but he turns this point to his advantage, pointing out that the possibility of a theory being shown as false is an elemental part of science. Only a falsifiable thesis can be considered scientific. Anything else is metaphysics—it is Smolin’s contention that much current physics theory strays into this domain, containing endless postulates that can neither be proved or disproved.
He is to be applauded for the boldness of his claims. He will no doubt be attacked for presuming to whip away the carpet from beneath the feet of the great and the good of the physics establishment. But it is incredibly refreshing to hear an idea that is quite as original as Smolin’s. We do not live in cheerful times—it is is heartening to be reminded that, despite it all, the light of human ingenuity is undimmed. In Smolin’s case, it burns brighter than ever.