How laws evolve according to Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

A review of Time Reborn by Lee Smolin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)

Years ago my now deceased sister and I would exchange letters, keeping each other abreast of daily life events–and debating the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Since neither of us had any training in physics beyond high school, I’m not sure how  much progress we made on the latter topic. What was clear is that we each had positions to defend. She wanted to reconcile her science-based medical training with her strong Christian beliefs; I had neither science training of any kind, nor her religion, only a study of ideas and culture across the ages, more broad than deep and therefore paltry in its own way.

How fascinating it was to me, then, to discover as I read Time Reborn that Smolin makes a similar case for the motives behind the thinking of some of the finest scientific minds. In fact, Time Reborn is, among other things, a cautionary tale. It’s not so much a case of scientists deliberately trying to shoe-horn their observations into their metaphysical spaces, but rather an inability to get beyond those beliefs to find better theories to explain their observations. One such belief, the anthropic principle, states that we can live only in a universe whose laws and initial conditions create a world hospitable to life. It’s not exactly circular reasoning, but it does limit the practice of science only to universes in which life is present–and it leads to other fallacious arguments or conveniently adjustable assumptions, which Smolin lays out in clear detail. The approach is reminiscent, on a larger scale, of one of my favourite British authors, Michael Frayn, who reveals a label one of his teachers coined to describe Frayn’s ideas: he called them “anthropocentrism run amok”–the idea that the “world has no form or substance without you and me to provide them, and you and I have no form or substance without the world to provide them in its turn.”

At least my sister and I would pause, and regroup, if the other could show that the “scientific method” had not been followed. To us that meant that hypotheses had to be tested by experiments that could be replicated, and by observation of things that exist whether we were there to observe them or not. So I got stories of the Bombardier Beetle that can emit hot noxious explosions to protect itself from attack. She asserted that small incremental steps could not possibly have produced two separate chemical chambers in the beetle’s abdomen, along with the ability to keep them under control with an inhibitor, and to add an anti-inhibitor at the last minute when ready to fire. I finally found a story that made both of us smile–Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question–and moved on to other topics.

Throughout history, false hypotheses have fooled many fine scientific minds. Progress in science would have happened more rapidly if imaginations hadn’t been thwarted by ideology. Evidence that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe was available as early as the third century BCE but Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for saying so. As Smolin says, after a survey of the ancients, their many contributions AND their many errors, “There is no antidote for our ability to fool ourselves except to keep the process of science moving so that errors are eventually forced into the light.”

Neither is it just the ancients who are prone to error. In a compelling first section of the book, Smolin reveals that those we’ve counted on to explain our universe by observation and experiment have not been able to get past an ingrained premiss that colours all their findings: that beyond our universe is another ideal world. Rather like a shelf where Einstein’s clock can sit to make his theory of relativity work, or where tools like mathematics can be placed alongside Plato’s ideal forms so that the world we perceive can be measured by something more perfect, something godlike. So while those of us who are “little Smatterers in Mathematicks” (as Newton called those scientific dilettantes who would bait him and question his results) can increase our understanding of Einstein’s theories of relativity and Newton’s method by reading books like Chad Orzel’s, How To Teach Relativity To Your Dog, Smolin positions their contributions more clearly. Newton’s method has “been applied to stars, planets, moons, galaxies, clusters of stars, clusters of galaxies, dark matter, atoms, electrons, photons, gases, solids, liquids, bridges, skyscrapers, cars, airplanes, satellites, rockets. It has been applied usefully to systems with one, two, or three bodies and systems with 10²³ or 10⁶⁰ particles.” The list doesn’t stop there, either. It’s so powerful as a method that it can be called a “paradigm.” But it’s still a method of doing “physics in a box,” as Smolin calls it, showing over and over how it applies to systems smaller than the universe as a whole.

What Smolin is forcing into the light in Time Reborn is the inadequacy of current theories of the universe and everything—something he and many others have spent their lives trying to develop. Pointing out how little progress has been made in cosmology in the twentieth century, he goes so far as to say that cosmological science is in crisis. Paradoxes arise as our best minds try to take the Newtonian paradigm as the basis of cosmology.  For more than two decades the research program based on “the timeless universe that embraces quantum mechanics and the multiverse as the final theory … has not yet produced a single falsifiable prediction for a currently doable experiment.” The notion of multiverses takes an especially hard hit. It’s a “cosmological dilemma”: if we can only observe one universe how are experiments to be repeated on others? It’s just too convenient to manipulate the assumptions when you are dealing with theoretical entities that are unobservable. All the great theories of the twentieth century rely on a division of the world into two parts, one that changes and one that is assumed to be fixed, like that shelf for Einstein’s clock. Smolin attributes these failures to a misconceived approach to a foundational problem in science: taking a method suitable for studying small parts of the universe and applying it to the whole of existence.

Time Reborn is strong medicine. It’s not often one reads “Einstein was wrong. Newton was wrong. Galileo was wrong. There is no relativity of motion.”

Smolin documents many of the debates he has had with colleagues. This is someone who read Einstein’s first paper on general relativity when he was sixteen having been intrigued by a book about it when he was eleven, dropped out of high school, showed up at a Relativistic Astrophysics Symposium when he was seventeen, dropped into university and stayed until he got his Ph.D. a mere seven years later, and was, early on, invited to work with two giants of modern physics, Stephen Hawking and Bryce DeWitt. Smolin was a co-discoverer of loop quantum gravity in the ‘80s and has many other accomplishments to his credit. He was invited to be a founding scientist to help with the establishment of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, with which Hawking is now also affiliated. Summaries of discussions with many other “names” in the field help make clear their many important contributions as well. But Smolin’s position is clear and unequivocal: while Einstein is a genius of the first order, his imagination finally failed him. To continue on the current track indicates that other imaginations are failing as well.

Smolin attributes much of the source of the current crisis to mistaken notions of time. Galileo and Descartes captured motion and time by creating graphs that represented time as if it were another dimension of space; Newton’s paradigm assumes that we can predict the future state of any system from its initial conditions and the laws acting on it and he extends this to a theory of the universe and everything; Einstein takes the definitive step in expelling time from physics by proposing spacetime, a timeless picture of the history of the universe in which there is nothing real about the present moment. Another related development, the relativity of simultaneity, “tells us that we cannot go back to separate time from space. We can only go ahead to the block-universe picture, in which the history of the universe is presented as a timeless whole.” Out of this comes the idea that time began with the Big Bang. And now cosmologists are applying this physics to the universe as a whole, thus losing all connections to observation.

Smolin argues convincingly that if we are to extend science to an understanding of the universe as a whole, we need a new theory, one in which the reality of time is an element. Even Einstein had some discomfort about his theories on this front. He is quoted as saying that “there is something essential about the Now which is just outside the realm of science.” Little wonder. If the purpose of science is to describe nature as it really is–what we believe would be true even if we were not here to see it–what could be more powerful and universal than our moment by moment conception of time?

Smolin’s lays out the principles for a new cosmology: among other things described in detail in the book, any new theory must contain what we already know about nature, must be scientific, should answer the questions “why these laws” and “why these initial conditions.” It should also satisfy the property of sufficient reason. There can be no chain of explanation that points outside the universe. It should also increase the number of questions we can answer.

With the principles in mind, Smolin asserts that it’s time to develop hypotheses that have a chance of leading cosmology out of its current state of crisis; hypotheses that will lead to theories that make testable predictions.

Cosmological Natural Selection is his contribution, developed in the late 1980s and published in 1992. None of the predictions he made back then have yet been falsified so he is encouraged to continue on this track. As the name suggests, Cosmological Natural Selection asserts that laws evolve over time. He attributes his breakthrough in thinking in this area to discussions and collaborations with Brazilian philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger. Although I find Unger next to impossible to read, he gave an interesting talk at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo a few years ago and Smolin’s paraphrases are helpful. A key contribution to this discussion is Unger’s observation that if time is real, then nothing lasts forever (except perhaps time itself?), not even the laws of physics.

Smolin also sent me back to reading Charles Sanders Peirce, something I hadn’t done for awhile but once was immersed in, having spent many hours in the Houghton Library at Harvard proof-reading his then-unpublished papers. Charlie, as we used to call him over drinks at the end of the day, wrote in 1891:

To suppose universal laws of nature capable of being apprehended by the mind and yet having no reason for their special forms, but standing inexplicable and irrational, is hardly a justifiable position. Uniformities are precisely the sort of facts that need to be accounted for … Law is par excellence the thing that wants a reason. 

Now the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature and for uniformity in general is to suppose them results of evolution.”

The universe we can observe has a history of evolving from the simple to the complex. And since complexity is improbable as a starting point–nothing jumps from the simple to the very complex without going through a series of small steps–it implies a sequence occurring over time. Cosmological Natural Selection, based on the methods of population biology, explains the increasing complexity of the universe over time and appears to offer a genuine explanation for why the parameters of the Standard Model appear to be tuned for a universe that is filled with long-lived stars that over time have enriched the universe with carbon, oxygen and other elements needed for the chemical complexity our universe exhibits. And as a bonus, the explanation involves maximizing the production of black holes, a consequence of which is to make our universe hospitable to life. That’s a reassuringly long way away from the anthropic principle.

All the arguments of Time Reborn point toward an unknown cosmological theory, one that is deeper than quantum mechanics, one that will be easier to make sense of.

Reading Time Reborn is a bit like reading a detective story. I found myself getting excited about what would come next. Smolin believes that all previous theories, while making enormous contributions in many cases, don’t qualify as a fundamental theory of everything. He advocates a “clean break” to allow for a theory that generates genuine physical predictions for cosmological observations. In other words, progress requires a revolution. Would Smolin conclude that a theory of everything is possible? Would he claim to have found it?? The answers are, respectively, “maybe” and “not yet.”

Smolin was in Guelph on November 8, 2013, giving the Guelph Lecture – On Being Canadian. He has said he thinks science is not so much a method as an ethic, a statement that becomes clearer the more you read of his work or listen to his talks. He connects his physics to his thinking in other fields as well, discussing economics and democracy and issues of concern for individuals. For example, he has said that his work has him asking such questions as: “Does the amount of freedom we have change as we get older?” The answer will be interesting–and the sense of the universe shifting with this new thinking is most interesting of all.

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