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on 13 October 2017
A really cool idea and a fun read in basic English
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on 21 December 2014
Physics has encountered a tough problem in explaining why the fundamental constants which define the masses, charges and interactions of particles have the values they do. This impasse, decades in duration, was analysed by Lee Smolin in his 2006 book, "The Trouble with Physics".

Foremost among attempts at its resolution are schemes containing a plethora of universes, possibly an infinitude, of which our local one just happens to be the way it is; if it weren't we would not be here to wonder about these things. Hardly a falsifiable proposition, and therefore not scientific, as Smolin points out.

Mind you, his preferred scenario is also replete with universes, though in his universes a selection mechanism is at work which zones in on our particular cosmic environment as a fruitful one for propagation of more universes via black holes. Cosmic "genes" (fundamental constants, initial conditions) that are good for production of black holes are good also for galaxies, stars, planets and, ultimately, us. This theory is at least capable of making predictions which are falsifiable (or not) using available data sources.

Time is implicit in his hypothetical process. But universal time is associated with the concept of simultaneity which is ruled out by relativity. Smolin and his associates are working on a resolution of this conflict which might, as a bonus, explain non-local aspects of quantum entanglement without invoking the notorious hidden variables which have themselves been pretty well ruled out by clashes with Bell's theorem.

So far, nothing has come of this approach, though the reality of time is supported by the emergence of complexity in a universe which should by rights be heading for equilibrium. The discussion of how this happens through the intervention of gravity and the effective re-setting of entropy's clock when stars light up is fascinating and rewarding to read.

But, apart from a few such illuminating insights, this book makes tedious reading. It suffers from poor style, lack of conciseness in presentation of ideas, sloppy diagrams and a great deal of repetition. The epilogue is a rambling discourse upon life, the universe and everything, including subjects as diverse as ecology, economics, moral values, the origin and nature of consciousness - even global warming. Read this section first and you might save yourself an awful lot of time.
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on 26 March 2017
Really enjoyed this book, written in a way that makes it easy to understand and entertaining to read. Check it out.
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on 6 October 2014
In this remarkable book Lee Smolin carefully builds the case for adopting time rather than space as the fundamental property of the universe. The principal models which describe the physical behaviour of material, Newtonian, relativistic and quantum mechanics agree very well with experiment but do not give completely consistent accounts of experimentally observed reality because they model isolated systems. A truly fundamental description of physical reality must take into account the rest of the universe in which we exist. By considering the dynamic behaviour of material in an unbounded universe Professor Smolin concludes that there is good reason to expect that a consistent account of reality can be achieved if we accept the reality of absolute time and space as an emergent property. The case for this approach is beautifully made without recourse to mathematics and the author shows that it leads to experimentally testable conclusions. Despite the absence of maths the book is not an easy read because the arguments are detailed, but the writing is lucid. I find the book both enjoyable and exciting because it offers the hope of progress in deepening our understanding of reality.
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on 16 January 2014
Lee Smolin is a researcher at the Perimeter Institute in Canada and considers low level issues in physics like why it's so hard to formulate gravity in a quantum framework. He's also a bit of an outsider because he thinks modern physics hasn't really progressed in 30 years. Sure we have light emitting diodes and smartphone but there's been no change in fundamental physics. For example, the theoretical under-pinnings of the recently discovered Higgs boson were written down 50 years ago.

So in the book Smolin advances his view of a possible alternative formulation of fundamental physics which he believes will allow progress to be made. Core to this alternative formulation is our perception of time as an eternal, outside constant. This is why the book has the name it does. He's not proposing to rewrite general relativity or quantum mechanics he's just suggesting looking at these pillars from a different perspective.

If you are into physics and want a non-establishment view of current ideas and research in physics this will be a good read for you.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 June 2013
Lee Smolin's book is largely accessible (more on this later) and simply mind-boggling in its scope. What he does here is take on time, and specifically the position of time in physics. Even taken as a simple book on time this is brilliant. The fact is, the majority of books that claim to be about time tell you nothing. It's striking that A Brief History of Time tells us that amongst a list of deep scientific questions that have answers suggested by `Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies', is `What is the nature of time?' But you can search the book from end to end for any suggestion of what time is or how it works. There is plenty on how we observe time, and how interaction with matter can change these observations, but nothing deeper.

Smolin gives what is, for me, the best analysis of the nature of time from a physics viewpoint in a popular science book I have ever seen. He goes on to describe how most physicists consider that `time does not exist', and comes up with an approach where time becomes real in physics. Now I do have one issue with Smolin here. He says that amongst his non-scientific friends `the idea that time is an illusion is a... commonplace.' This is garbage (or at least his friends are non-representative). The vast majority of people who aren't physicists or philosophers would say `Of course time exists.' However, Smolin sets off to first persuade us it doesn't, using the most common arguments of current physics, and then to show how this is a mistake.

In fact, I think the reason most people wouldn't agree is because it isn't really true that modern physics says time doesn't exist. What it says is that the idea of time as a moving present that heads from the past into the future isn't real, and that there are plenty of concepts in physics like natural laws that appear to be outside of time, and so time isn't as fundamental as people think. Nor, relativity shows us, is it absolute. This isn't the same as something not existing or being an illusion, and I think the physicists who use this label have spent too much time talking to philosophers. Dogs aren't fundamental to the laws of physics, but this doesn't mean they don't exist.

Nonetheless, current mainstream physics does prefer time to be kept in a box - and this is where Smolin breaks out. He shows us that pretty well all of physics is based on the idea that we are dealing with closed systems, where in reality there is no so such thing - meaning that it is quite possible that pretty well all existing physics is just an approximation. And he comes up with a mechanism where time, something that actually ticks by and has a universal meaning, can exist (though at the expense of space being quite so real as we thought).

In doing this, Smolin will have irritated a whole lot of physicists. Some will simply not agree - any string theorists, for example, would dismiss his loop quantum gravity viewpoint. Many others will simply not be able to cope. Physicists are, on the whole, a fairly conservative bunch (with a small `c') - they aren't very good at coming with radical shifts in viewpoint like this. Of course this doesn't make Smolin right, but it is a fascinating bit of speculation.

The book isn't perfect. Smolin's writing style is workmanlike, but suffers from too academic a viewpoint - he doesn't have the common touch. Oddly, it's not so much that he baffles us with science, but rather he baffles us with labels which don't have enough science attached. He has a tendency to use terminology and then say effectively `but you don't need to know what that's all about.' I think popular science is much better if you avoid the jargon and instead explain what lies beneath. Also he uses really scrappy hand-drawn illustrations that I suspect are supposed to make them look more friendly and approachable, but actually makes them practically incomprehensible.

These are minor moans though. Whether or not you agree with the physics, this is a book to get you thinking, awash with ideas and totally fascinating. It isn't the easiest popular science book to understand - it is very much of the `read each sentence slowly, and some times several times' school, yet it is a superb contribution to the field that really puts that cat among the pigeons. Three cheers for Lee Smolin who is, for me, apart from lacking that common touch, the nearest thing we have in the present day to the late, great Fred Hoyle.
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on 24 May 2013
Lee Smolin has truly made a book that does make you think very differently about time. His arguments are provocative and perhaps controversial but that is a good thing. I love that his emphasis is always on making his theories as amenable to experiment as possible. Having read the book I am especially swayed by his arguments about trying to build a cosmological theory that is not based on what he calls the "physics in a box" theories which always involve boundary conditions. The most important thing about this book is that it is easy to read and engaging. Another reviewer was horrified that he was promoting a nonlocal hidden variables theory, but at least he has made a justification for it and his focus is always in trying to build such a justification for a new theory that will be experimentally falsifiable. I also rather like his ensemble-interpretation of quantum physics because it at least is trying to make the theory based on real-ensembles. Almost throughout the book this falsifiability is his main commitment, and if it was throughout the whole book then I would have given it 5 stars. However, he recapitulates in the epilogue and claims that there are things that are probably "intrinsic" and "essence-like" and seems to hark back to dualist and unfalsifiable theories of consciousness. Though this is a tiny section of the book it scares me that he would build such a wonderful relational justification for the universe and then discard it because he can't "see" how consciousness would fit into it. He drives a difficult path through the mire and then seems to jump on an easy one at the end for a bit of light relief! It is difficult to imagine a relational and heterophenomenological theory of consciousness, but just because it is difficult to imagine is no argument against it, and certainly should justify believing in essences! He was admittedly coy about even delving into this topic and I just wish he hadn't. It seemed to come out of nowhere. In the rest of the book he argues very well that people have been stuck in a rut and think about physical theories in a dubious way, and I think is argument is important and should be well-read. I also like his arguments for things having an actual history and evolving being a very important criteria in science - as else we are effectively presuming timelessness. His main thesis is certainly very palatable, and deserves serious attempts to falsify it. One of the most exciting sections of the book is the section on shape dynamics - theories which are equivalent to general relativity but in which size is not absolute, but relative, yet which also has a preferred time slicing. A wonderful idea. In summary: read this book, just be careful with the epilogue!
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on 1 January 2017
Physics has a curious relationship with time. Most laws are time-reversible; famous ones that aren’t, like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, are approximate and emergent from underlying reversibility; in relativity a universal time cannot be defined consistently, and instead provides us with a static space-time. It’s almost as if physics doesn’t believe time exists.

Smolin is having none of that. For him, time is the fundamental property of the universe, whatever else may emerge. We are not flies caught in the amber of a static space-time; time itself is real.

How can he say this, when all the physical theories seem to point in the other direction? His argument is that those theories are local, and cannot be simply extended to apply to the entire universe. Those theories assume that crucial parts of the process must be outside the region they describe. This is what Smolin dubs the traditional Newtonian paradigm of doing “physics in a box”. It rests on some underlying assumptions: (1) the configuration space is timeless; (2) the forces, and hence the laws the system is subject to are timeless. If all the possible states of the system are predefined, and the laws under which the system evolves are predefined, then time does seem to be nothing more than an accounting variable: which of those states the laws say the system is currently occupying. What if the possible states of the entire universe aren’t predefined, because its laws aren’t predefined?

Smolin argues that this Newtonian paradigm, powerful as it is, cannot be extended to provide a theory of the entire universe. It is not a simple task to make a truly universal theory: one that doesn’t just apply to every part of the universe, but that applies to the whole universe at once.

He also argues that our current theories are approximations: physicists pretend that the system inside their box is an isolated system, unaffected by the rest of the universe, and they go to a lot of experimental effort to make that approximation as good as possible. Good approximations make effective theories, but they are only as good as their assumptions (energy ranges, for example). These approximations inevitably break down whenever a theory is extended to encompass the entirety of the universe.

So the timeless nature of isolated, local, approximate theories cannot be taken to imply that the universe itself is timeless.

Having argued that the laws cannot be extended naively to imply a timeless universe, Smolin also argues that there is no reason to assume that the laws themselves are timeless: "To make laws explicable, we must consider them as much a part of the world as the particles they act on. This brings them into the purview of change and causality."

Smolin explicitly links this view with his proposal for an evolutionary universe, where a new universe is born in each black hole, with its laws of physics being a mutation of its parent’s laws, as explained in his earlier work, The Life of the Cosmos. Smolin is a Leibniz fan: as well as following Leibniz’ relational view, he uses the Principle of Sufficient Reason: that everything must have a reason or cause, to show that the laws must also have a cause, an explanation. I wonder: do random mutations to the laws of physics obey this principle? (In passing: I was amused to discover that Smolin was introduced to Leibniz’ ideas by Barbour, but has come to rather different conclusions!)

This mutational view does not mean that Smolin thinks the laws, despite being changeable by mutation, are set at the beginning of the universe, and fixed thereafter. He gives an example of how a quantum system might be free to choose a result in a situation for which there is no precedent. Smolin suggests that this principle of precedence could be subject to experimentation, by preparing some genuinely novel quantum states, and measuring them. I’m not sure of the scope of the system’s freedom, however. What about all those more advanced alien races who have already done these experiments? Do those set precedents? Also, the second time a measurement is done, there is only a single precedent from which to select randomly; this seems to imply determinism.

I like his idea of explicable evolving laws; although I still wonder, does a random choice fit with the principle of sufficient reason? And I must admit, I’m not sure why these “principles”, of sufficient reason, of precedence, of whatnot, are allowed to be timeless and universal, when nothing else is. He mentions the need for meta-laws, laws to say how the laws change, but doesn’t go into this as deeply as I wanted. Are the meta-laws timeless? If so, why? If not, what governs their change? I didn’t get the answers here: Smolin refers his book with philosopher Unger, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time; maybe the answers will be there. For the time being, I have a few new ideas for student projects: growing cellular automata or graphs with rules that depend on configurations, and only deciding on the rule when a new configuration is seen.

Smolin finishes up with more social concerns. He explains that our notion of the fundamental laws of nature as being timeless leads to a damaging distinction between the timeless natural (hence good and right being changeless) and the ephemeral artificial (hence bad and wrong being change). Rather, everything changes and evolves, and we should embrace that fact.

This is a clearly written and thought-provoking book. It makes plain some issues with physics, and its thesis, about time and change, opens up some fascinating possibilities. Well worth the read.
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on 16 April 2015
A boy writes his telephone number on a tennis ball and throws it to a stranger, who catches it. If you want to know more, you'll need to buy the book. The story exemplifies Smolin's easy fluent narrative style. This is a book with no formulae, and the easiest way into special relativity that I've seen in a pop science book. At the same time, Smolin is generally true to science, and he lets you know when his ideas are reaching into conjecture and metaphysics.

The parable of the tennis ball elegantly shows the two views of time that Smolin contrasts in this book. The flight of the ball follows a parabola, following Newton's laws of motion, which Einstein's General Relativity generalises. These laws treat time as another static dimension. There is no "now" or flow of time, or even a direction -- a movie of a tennis ball in flight would look the same run forwards or backwards. This static timeless view of the world is what this book is arguing against.

What happens at the ends of the ball's flight exemplify the other view of time, which Smolin is trying to bring back into physics, a view that gives time direction and flow, and cannot simply be treated as another dimension. The boy who writes the phone number is deciding to change his future, and is transmitting information forward in time.

Conventional physics has only the second law of thermodynamics to offer, that disorder increases, but this law leaves many questions unanswered, such as why everything was so well-ordered in the first place, or the apparent direction of causality, or the strange time-asymmetric "collapse" of the wavefunction in quantum mechanics. In particular, if there is such a concept as "before the big bang", time has to be more than just some emergent property of the known universe.

Smolin does not so much answer these questions as pose them, but I think he does well to do so. He criticises the multiple universes or Goldilocks theory on the grounds that it is unverifiable. However, some of his own conjectures strike me as being metaphysical in the same way. Surely the way to determine whether the universe is finite or closed is through experiment, rather than metaphysical argument.

I find Smolin rather too vague about the detail of what he means by time that is independent of space -- a time that can exist before the Big Bang, and which could define the ordering of the two ends of a EPR experiment. (I do not think it is necessary to define an ordering in that case, and the concept of direction of causation is all he needs in general. But what do I know.)

Smolin's theory of the evolution of universes via black holes, though contentious, does have the benefit of being testable. If it proves true, it surely wins Smolin a Nobel prize, and also confirms him as one of the most visionary physicists of our generation.
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on 19 April 2015
This is a deep and thought provoking book by an expert in the subject who is also something of a heretic (since he has doubts about certain implications of General Relativity). At the same time I found it lacking in certain respects. Smolin does not really go into what (our notion of) time is and in particular does not distinguish sharply between time as succession and time as duration.
The disappearance of time in modern physics is alarming from the human point of view since it endangers the very concept of personal liberty and choice (because In the GR block-universe model everything that can happen has in some sense already happened). But Lee Smolin deliberately skips these aspects and implications, precisely those that would interest the general reader the most. The book is a wide ranging non-mathematical but nonetheless strictly scientific study. There is little questioning of science itself as the one and only path to firm knowledge. It is dreadful to think we are in some sense dependent on a small elite of mathematical physicists for what we can know about reality (including the 'future' which is no longer the future). The implications of General Relativity are even worse than those of Quantum Mechanics, almost I prefer the latter since there is at least uncertainty. But while registering some reservations, Lee Smolin does not really show what's wrong with the GR block universe picture which I can only hope to God is not completely true. Galada
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