Smolin: Time Reborn

I’ve been reading science texts almost as long as I’ve been reading anything. Over those years, many scientists and science writers have taught me much of what I know about science. (Except for a Computer Science minor, and general science classes, most of my formal education was in the Liberal Arts.)

Recently I read Time Reborn (2013), by Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist whose personality and books I’ve enjoyed. I don’t always agree with his ideas, but I’ve found I do tend to agree with his approaches to, and overall sense of, physics.

However in this case I almost feel Smolin, after long and due consideration, has come around to my way of thinking!

I had high hopes for this book based on things I’ve seen in interviews, and it didn’t disappoint. I grinned right off the bat, when in the Preface, Smolin writes:

More to the point, I no longer believe that time is unreal. In fact, I have swung to the opposite view: Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.

Which is what I’ve been saying for a long time. (See all these posts.)

He paints his view as radical, and within science today it rather is. The first half of the book explores this view of time as not real or fundamental in modern physics. A key aspect Smolin explores is how the Newtonian view created a timeless physics that has pervaded our view of reality.

The book, in the context of time, also explores cosmological theories; how we create them, and how we should view them. A third aspect explores a relationist viewpoint Smolin feels is fundamental (he and I diverge a little on this, but his ontology does implicitly feature objects with relations).

In the Introduction Smolin writes:

The notion that our universe is part of a vast or infinite multiverse is popular — and understandably so, because it is based on a methodological error that is easy to fall into. Our current theories can work at the level of the universe only if our universe is a subsystem of a larger system. So we invent a fictional environment and fill it with other universes. This cannot lead to any real scientific progress because we cannot confirm or falsify any hypothesis about universes causally disconnected from our own.

This is a point of view I wish was more widespread. Multiverse theories are science fiction. They may be well-grounded science fiction, but they’re still fiction. Theories can be so interesting and exciting that it’s easy to forget this a little.

(Smolin does still favor the cosmological natural selection idea he presented in his first book, The Life of the Cosmos. What does make it different from most multiverse ideas is that it’s serial, not parallel. Its value, in fact, comes from that. Smolin is fine with other serial multiverse ideas, such as the conformal cyclic cosmology due to Roger Penrose.)

Subsystems are a key aspect of this argument. Science reduces reality and studies subsystems in as much isolation as humanly possible. But no real system functions that way. Everything real is affected by, and in turn affects, everything around it. Our theories don’t acknowledge that.

Worse, our view of subsystems is part of what contributes to the notion that time isn’t real. Our abstraction of reality into a simplified subsystem creates something timeless, something Platonic.

We invent the curves and numbers of mathematics, but once we have invented them we cannot alter them.

Or perhaps we discover them, and as Smolin much later in the book discusses, the “unreasonable effectiveness of math” is because we derived it from the physical world. Its regularities are the regularities of reality.


Smolin presents a very good analogy for a relationist view. He starts with the simple idea of the two neighbors to a house on a street. In one dimension, only two are possible. There can also be a neighbor behind and one across the street, so in two dimensions, four neighbors are possible.

From there he moves to an apartment in three dimensions and six neighbors are possible. The number goes up by two for each dimension added. In the real world, there are only three dimensions, so six is the maximum number of immediate neighbors.

Now consider a cellular network. In such networks, most nodes are just one logical step from each other. One phone can call any other phone. (Physical multiple hops occur, and in most networks the path through the network is created anew for each connection, if not each packet of information.)

In such a system, everyone is a neighbor to everyone else. Reality is defined by the active connections from moment to moment. “Distance” is an entirely virtual concept, and there are as many dimensions as there are connections.

I’ll note that in both examples, living abodes and cell phones are the primary object — the relations are consequential. And as Smolin concludes:

The relational revolution is already far along. At the same time, it is clearly in crisis. On some fronts, it’s stuck. Wherever it is in crisis, we find three kinds of questions under hot debate. What is an individual? How do novel kinds of systems and entities emerge? How are we to usefully understand the universe as a whole?

Note the importance of “individual” and “entities” — relations are important, possibly even fundamental, but I can’t see them as primary.


There is a great deal in the book I’d like to share. I highlighted a lot of bits in the text. (I may need a bigger post.)

He starts by pointing out Heraclitus warned us that “Nature loves to hide.”

And indeed she does; consider that most of the forces and particles that science now considers fundamental lay hidden within the atom until the last century.

But each of us, as infants, learns about one very apparent and important part of nature: gravity. One of our most pervasive, vexing, and puzzling forces.

Smolin’s touch as a writer is expressed in part by how he frames this in the context of his own child’s question (one many parents have heard): “Why can’t I fly, Daddy?”

This leads to an examination of humanity’s ideas about motion and falling. The ancients knew about the parabola, but it wasn’t until Galileo in the early 1600s that humanity realized objects fall on parabolic paths. (Smolin points out it could have been discovered much earlier. Other civilizations had the same tools Galileo did, but humanity wasn’t ready for the analytical approach until that time. It was a way of thinking that led directly to the Scientific Revolution.)

Meanwhile, watching the heavens, we went from Ptolemy’s Earth-centric view to Copernicus’s Sun-centric view, both of which posited circular orbits. It wasn’t until (again) the 1600s that Kepler determined orbits were ellipses.

It then took Newton (late 1600s) to tie those two together. Parabolas and ellipses (and circles) are all conic sections. Suddenly the Heavens and the Earth were the same thing, and they were mathematical. And timeless.


I especially enjoyed Smolin’s take on the Block Universe Hypothesis (aka eternalism), which is quintessential timelessness. The BUH comes from a misapprehension of Special Relativity.

We’ll concern ourselves with two concepts from special relativity. The first is the relativity of simultaneity. The second, which follows from it, is the block universe. Each was a major step in the expulsion of time from physics.

Smolin spends a chapter exploring this, and comes to the same conclusion I did. And, indeed, the view has been a huge contributor to the notion that time isn’t real. [See: Blocking the Universe and Back to Block]

The TL;DR is that the relativity of simultaneity is better understood as simultaneity being virtual, rather than relative. It’s only valid locally. Simultaneity with causally separated events can only be determined once light from that event arrives.

A fundamental tenet of SR is that we cannot speak validly about any event outside our light cone until we receive light from that event.

[I’ll mention that everyone favoring timeless views quotes the letter Einstein sent as consolation to the grieving widow of a friend, but Smolin mentions an interview by Rudolf Carnap where Einstein expresses a different view. As Carnap put it, that “there is something essential about the Now which is just outside the realm of science.”]


Smolin uses the example of a tossed ball… on Oct 4, 2010, at 1:15 PM, on the east side of High Park in Toronto; thrown by Danny the novelist to Janet the poet he just met — physics is not isolated from real life.

But the physics analysis of that tossed ball is. It becomes data frozen in a table of numbers. Danny, Janet, the location, the time, even the ball itself, all become irrelevant. The ball’s flight is represented by a one-dimensional curve through a Newtonian spacetime that effectively spatializes time into a series of static snapshots.

This abstraction of isolated subsystems pervades physics and is just one of many implicit arguments physics makes that time isn’t real:

  • Phase space diagrams track the dynamics of a system in an imaginary space (such as momentum vs position), and either spatialize time or ignore it completely.
  • That the basic laws of physics work equally well backwards (which often leads to using entropy as time’s ratchet to explain time’s arrow).
  • Minkowski spacetime, used by Einstein in Special Relativity, ratifies the idea that time is spatial (and leads to eternalism).
  • Newtonian physics is seen as causally determined, which suggests time is irrelevant since any future can be known from the present. The Newtonian universe can never surprise us.
  • The notion that time began with the Big Bang.

Smolin argues that unreal time is a mistaken, limiting, and ultimately incoherent, view. The second part of the book is his argument why.


He folds in a cosmological argument (because time, after all, is a cosmological issue). One problem is that physics theories divide reality into two parts: a dynamic part, the system being studied, and an implicit static second part, the environment of the system — all the physical assumptions made about the subsystem — effectively the rest of the universe.

Smolin writes:

This division of the world into a dynamical and static part is a fiction, but it is an extremely useful one when it comes to describing small parts of the universe. The second part, assumed to be static, in reality consists of other dynamical entities outside the system being analyzed. By ignoring their dynamics and evolution, we create a framework within which we discover simple laws.

Other then General Relativity, nearly every other physics theory assumes a background of spacetime. On top of that, our theories, including General Relativity, are approximate theories known as effective theories (because they’re effective, but only in a specific — typically low-energy — context).

Smolin writes:

So the success of physics to this day is entirely based on the study of truncations of nature, which are modeled by effective theories. The art of doing physics at the experimental level is all about designing experiments to isolate and study a few degrees of freedom, ignoring the rest of the universe.

Which works great for small scale stuff. These theories have changed our world because they’re so effective, but (Smolin argues) can’t be usefully extended to cosmology with has no static outside. Cosmological theories cannot be bipartite. There is no outside.


Smolin extends this to small systems with his principle of no isolated systems.

Experiments deal with noise (which they try hard to eliminate), but they cannot deal theoretically with city-wide power failures, asteroids, terrorists, plane crashes, earthquakes, or expanding bubbles of spacetime destroying everything in their path at light speed.

Yet these things are possible (albeit unlikely) outcomes to an experiment. (In the MWI, this is one source of the preferred basis issue. A universal wavefunction needs to include all possible outcomes.)

And if relational theories are true, then isolation is all the more the wrong idea and, to the extent it’s successful, might actually be misleading.

§ §

I haven’t gotten much into the second part and his arguments for time as real, but this has gotten long. I’ll either come back for a second round or leave it for the interested reader.

(It might not be immediately. I’m reading Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality by Frank Wilczek right now. I’ve had it on hold at the library since May 14, and it finally came available. More people are on the waiting list behind me, so I want to get through it ASAP.)

I’ll just say that Smolin finds physics much more rational, explicable, and useful, if time is taken as real. I entirely agree.

Stay in real time, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

23 responses to “Smolin: Time Reborn

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Speaking of Wilczek, in the introduction to his book, Fundamentals, he also traces Galileo’s discoveries about falling objects, plus the Ptolemy-Copernicus-Kepler chain that led to orbital ellipses, and the joining of those two by Newton as the spark that set off the Scientific Revolution.

    Funny to read the same account, used for largely the same reason, by different authors.

  • Lee Roetcisoender

    “So the success of physics to this day is entirely based on the study of truncations of nature, which are modeled by effective theories. The art of doing physics at the experimental level is all about designing experiments to isolate and study a few degrees of freedom, ignoring the rest of the universe.”

    Touche for Smolin……. I would say this same principle applies to metaphysics as well. The failure of an effective and coherent metaphysics is also due to a truncation of nature where the phenomena we study appears to model effective theories which ultimately reduce to a few degrees of absurdity. Philosophers and metaphysicians should not ignore the rest of reality (the noumena).

    Easier said than done, because at a fundamental level all human beings, not just scientist are wired to rationalize exactly the way Smolin expressed it. 😜

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, there’s no question we’re limited by our perceptive framework. Whether we’re also that limited in our intellectual framework might be an open question. If even our most rational thinking is equally limited, there doesn’t seem much hope we’ll ever see the light. But (if as both you and I seem to think) if our intellect is more capable, more penetrating, more clear-eyed, then it’s possible we can think our way out of this. (Though I don’t hold much hope for it in a society I see as turning its back on intellect.)

      You might find much to like in Smolin. He has a more philosophical approach than many physicists.

      That said, I do sometimes have difficulty distinguishing metaphysics (and even some far out physics ideas) from good science fiction. When we build a machine from physical parts it’s obvious when the parts don’t fit or try to overlap. Build something out of only ideas, and it’s a lot harder to see if the structure is coherent. Creating a sensible rational world, whether for your characters to run around and have adventures in, or for us all to exist in, is hard.

      As you say: Easier said than done.

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        I pasted this quote from Schwitzgebel’s “Kant meets cyber punk” essay”

        “…Whatever we know about external things, apart from what is knowable a priori or transcendentally, appears to depend on how those external things affect our senses. But things with very different underlying properties, call them A-type properties (noumenal) versus B-type properties (phenomenal), could conceivably affect our senses in identical ways. If so, we might have no good reason to suppose that they do have (the) A-type properties rather than (the) B-type properties. Maybe if A-type properties are much simpler than B-type properties, and if we have reason to suppose that the underlying reality is relatively simple, then we can infer A-type rather than B-type properties. Or maybe A-type properties are closer to common sense and we ought to stick with common sense unless there is compelling reason to reject it.”

        Although I personally find this assessment compelling, Schwitzgebel himself doesn’t take his own rhetoric seriously, (I personally grilled him about this statement). At a fundamental level I think the underlying reality (noumena) is really, really simple, but the phenomena that make up the dizzying array of moving parts within our own reality is overwhelming to say the least.

        If the underlying Reality is both external-objective as well as internal-objective, then it becomes the job of intellect to discriminate the subjective from the objective and this essentially means not serving nor relying upon our own internal-subjective nature. And “that” is what becomes the challenge for intellect, because internal-subjective is the framework from which we all operate, and that framework is what has to change.

        So the question now becomes: Does intellect have the capacity to change itself? Not likely; that would be the same as asking whether the intellect of a cat is capable of changing itself to become the intellect of a homo sapiens. We will have to wait for the evolutionary process to do its thing.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        …maybe. If so, then we’re stuck, and, as you say, it’s up to evolution. As an optimistic cynic (I hope for the best but don’t expect it), I’d like to think it’s not a gap as huge as the cat dreaming it’s king, but a question of whether we can see past our own subjectivity.

        …at least a little. I also think (or want to believe) it’s not black and white, not a matter of can or can’t. We can, perhaps, find our way a few steps and build on that. (I’ve always loved the expression: The longest journey begins with a single step.) A key goal of science is escaping that subjectivity. A friend of mine quipped the perfect bumper sticker: “Science proceeds despite scientists.” (The process survives the humans driving it.)

        I do agree the base noumena seem simple. Reading Frank Wilzcek’s Foundations, and he mentions how there are fewer fundamental “particles” than letters in the alphabet, and far fewer than elements in the periodic table (118). Yet all of reality is written with that tiny set of primitives. (In terms of everyday matter, the alphabet is even smaller: Electrons, Up quarks, Down quarks. That’s all she wrote for everyday matter. Our experience is almost entirely in terms of just electrons and photons. The latter give us everything we see; the former account for everything else we experience.)

        The alphabet enables every text ever written. (Or that could be written. Ever read Borges’s The Library of Babel?) For that matter, every human past, present, and future, is defined by a genetic alphabet of just four letters. Simple building blocks create worlds. (I learned that as a kid playing with blocks!)

        Speaking of photons, Wilzcek blew my mind with this: No matter how close we sit to someone, we can never experience the same reality they do. Every photon that enters our eyes is distinct from every photon that enters their eyes. Each of us operates off an exclusive personal data stream of information (those photons and electrons) streaming off the noumena and leading to phenomena in us. We each perceive a different world.

        That we discover consensus between those views, for me, given I accept the reality of other minds, is the strongest argument I have for philosophical realism. We each receive a different data stream, but we seem to agree on what that data tells us. And while our perceptions may be mere wire-frame models we construct of data from noumena, that commonality is compelling to me.

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        Great informational anecdotes in this postings Wyrd. You are a walking, talking trivia machine, something that I find myself engaging in when ever I’m in a social environment. So yeah, thanks for your insights, I really enjoyed them.

        One thing I couldn’t help but notice is your usage of the words noumena and phenomena. Correct me if I am wrong, but It appears that you correlate noumena with the “real” world and all of that physical data which exists independent of anyone perceiving it and correlate phenomena with the representations of that “real” world within us.

        From a pragmatic evaluation of what our own experience of consciousness actually is, I would agree with that assessment. Because our experience is a conceptual one of the “real” world around us. However, according to Kant’s definition of those terms, noumena is the reality which we “supposedly” do not have access to (A-type properties) and phenomena is our “real” world and all of that physical data which exists independent of anyone perceiving it (B-type properties), including but not limited to the representations of that “real” world within us, like imagination and creative attributes for example.

        Having clarified that distinction, Kant’s definition of those terms in no way negates that our own experience of consciousness is a conceptual one of the “real” world around us and that everything you so carefully articulated is not accurate because it is. It was just your usage of those two terms that caught my attention.

        I am a philosophical realist myself in spite of the possibility that “real-ness” itself may be a context; and it is this notion of context that I find so compelling. Context swings that door to possibilities wide open, and that is a frontier that has not been explored.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No doubt I’m [take your pick: adapting/interpreting/misusing] Kant on, let’s face it, one of his more confusing and debated points. To the extent I use the terms, I do link noumena to external reality and phenomena with our internal experience of it. (I distinguish between phenomena and representations. Hallucinations are the latter, but not the former. Phenomena arise from real objects.) I agree with Kant we cannot access the noumenal properties of external objects, we have only our phenomenal experience of them.

        Even the photons and electrons that feed information about reality to us are part of the noumenal world. We don’t directly experience either, but only the phenomena they cause in our minds.

        That may be an over-simplification or adaptation on my part, but my views tend to be a patchwork of interesting bits and pieces I’ve picked up along the way. (In fact, I tend to avoid getting too deep into anyone else’s philosophy or thinking least it take over mine. I’m a thief, not a disciple! 😎)

        Glad you’re okay with the rambling. I never met a subject that didn’t have at least 27 interesting tangents. 😀

      • Lee Roetcisoender

        Yeah, I’m more than OK with ramblings because I do my fair share as well. It is interesting how our take on things is constantly in a state of flux, and for the most part when engaging is discussions we are forced to used common words that may have different meanings to different people. So it helps to nail down those differences.

        I can’t help but think of how my use of the word consciousness has evolved over the last three or four years. Its mainstream usage is like the wild, wild west and I’ve come to realize it is one of the most misused and abused words in the vocabulary of philosophy. In the beginning, I was forced to use terms that were common like panpsychism etc. to express my ideas but after spending a fair amount of personal capital with idealists as well as materialists I’ve found that these words form a circle of mutual definition that does not allow for anything new other than the same “old shit”.

        Needless to say, I’ve changed direction and have been experimenting with a new vocabulary to express these ideas and am constantly working on new metaphors. Like you said, us old guys need a hobby.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Honestly, I think if one’s view of the world isn’t always in flux, one has stopped thinking. It bemused me that politicians get slammed for changing their minds. The slam should be directed at those who’ve suffered calcification of thought.

        One of the reasons I blog (and look for interesting conversations like this) is to constantly explore the territory of my own views. As you say, these things constantly evolve. I look back at some of my earlier posts and see just how far I’ve wandered. (I’d like to think “climbed” but definitely “wandered.”)

        😀 One of my biggest teases to those furiously debating consciousness is pointing out that no one seems to have a reasonable definition for the word. How can y’all study something when y’all don’t even know what it is y’all’re studying? Silly people! 😉

        You might like this Smolin quote from the last chapter:

        Mathematics is a great tool, but the ultimate governing language of science is language.

        Just before that he wrote:

        So one of the most important lessons that follow once we grasp the reality of time is that nature cannot be captured in any single logical or mathematical system. The universe simply is — or better yet, happens. It is unique. It happens once, as does each event — each unique event — that nature comprises.

        Our tendency to try to reduce it all to math misses a lot.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I can definitely see Smolin’s views resonating with you. The only thing of his I’ve read quickly dismissed the multiverse and eternalism.

    Just a nit. Kepler was actually Tycho Brahe’s assistant, not Copenicus’. (Copernicus died decades before Kepler’s time.) Tycho Brahe was an extremely interesting character in his own right. He proposed a compromise system between Copernicus’ and Ptolemy’s with the Earth at the center and the sun going around, but most of everything else going around the sun. (Kepler himself was a Copernican even before Galileo’s observations.) Tycho also discovered supernovas and established that the celestial crystalline spheres didn’t exist when he saw comets crossing over their supposed locations. Oh, and he had a fake nose, having lost his real one in a duel over who was the best mathematician.

    I’ve always thought mining Einstein’s views from a letter to grieving friends was odd. I hope no one ever tries to recreate my philosophies from casual communication with friends.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      D’oh! You can see why history is one of my weaker subjects. Names and dates tend to muddle in my head. You’re right, of course. I went back to the text to see if I could figure out how I conflated them. Smolin goes from several pages about Copernicus then makes a quick turn to Brahe and right into Kepler. But he clearly says Brahe and Kepler conflicted over this. My mind must have just carried the Copernicus into that next paragraph. (Wilzcek’s text only talks about Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler, which might have strengthened the connection in my mind.)

      Indeed, neither I nor Smolin have much sympathy for (parallel) multiverse ideas or eternalism. They tend to be more metaphysics than physics. Most offer no possibility of validating, which makes them doubly unscientific.

      I protest that neither he nor I have “quickly dismissed” these. Our opinions are the result of considerable thought and are just as valid as views in favor. (In fact, given the lack of physical evidence, isn’t skepticism the more scientific view?) I don’t see Smolin (nor I) saying these things are impossible or shouldn’t be studied. They are and should be. It’s more that we (and perhaps Baggott as well) would prefer better warning labels — a better awareness of how speculative some of this is. (I always appreciated how Tegmark, in his book, was clear his idea was nuts (his word, IIRC), but just maybe might be true. Exactly. Contrast that with the evangelism of Greene or Carroll. We’re saying Tegmark’s is the better example.)

      That Einstein letter thing has bugged me forever. Every eternalist quotes it. Anyone denying time’s reality quotes it. But it’s the only bit of Einstein ever mustered in that service. So,… in his whole career he never wrote anything more supportive than in a personal letter to a grieving spouse? On that logic alone its hard to swallow. Add that his other writings all seem to favor a dynamic universe, and it’s even harder to believe Einstein was an eternalist.

      It reminds me of that “Eskimos have 50 words for snow” thing. That was a single source that turned into (incorrect) common knowledge, too. (I grew up with snow, and while there aren’t 50 words for snow, there are a lot of different phrases for snow: packed, fluffy, wet, light, heavy, yellow, icy, crystal-like, fine, course, banked, blowing, blinding, good for skiing, crunchy, sloppy, slushy, mushy, muddy, dirty,… I could probably come up with some more. So why couldn’t the eskimos, for whom snow was a huge part of their life, also have many ways of describing snow? I never saw it as a big deal they had 50 words.)

      (Brahe may have been the better mathematician, but he apparently wasn’t the better at dueling!)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On Smolin, I only meant he establishes his stance very early in the text. Naturally someone like Sean Carroll establishes his just as early.

        On warning labels, consider:

        The subject of parallel universes is highly speculative. No experiment or observation has established that any version of the idea is realized in nature. So my point in writing this book is not to convince you that we’re part of a multiverse. I’m not convinced—and, speaking generally, no one should be convinced—of anything not supported by hard data.

        Greene, Brian. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

        Granted, someone like Deutsch never makes this kind of caveat, but then I can’t recall Baggot ever allowing any of these theories might be possible. There’s stridency on both sides, neither of which I find warranted.

        With Brahe’s dual, from what I recall it happened in the dark, and alcohol was involved. It was with a relative and they later made up. Just without Brahe’s nose. (Or his full nose. It’s unclear just how much he lost.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Greene can be more moderate, and to the extent he’s a general science communicator, he usually is. But I also recall how he embraced and promoted string theory, which is what he’s most known for. Between The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, he had me convinced string theory was the new deal. It wasn’t until I started reading other accounts of it that I got a more balanced view. (I’m not sure, after reading Greene, I even had a clear idea that ST didn’t even occur in the context of our reality.) I wish he’d applied his statement about hard data to that a bit more.

        Do you see any difference in the emotional loading of the phrases “quickly dismisses” and “establishes his stance very early”? FWIW, I do. Often our choice of phrasing reveals our inner thinking.

        Stridency, even passion, is fine with me. And I’d say establishing one’s views early is the norm. (One then goes on to explain and support them.) It’s more the self-awareness of, exactly as Greene says, whether there is any hard data supporting a view. Given the usual course of science — Observe, Analyze, Theorize, Test — anything else needs exactly the label Greene rightly gave parallel universes. (As I’ve posted about a number of times, I think that’s especially important these days when the public seems to be losing faith in science. I can’t help but think some of that may be due to too much wild-eyed speculation.)

        I’m not familiar enough with Deutsch to have an opinion. I can say that when I reviewed Baggott’s book I was impressed by his six principles of scientific realism (Reality, Fact, Theory, Testability, Veracity, Copernican) and that the last line of the book is, “Come to your own conclusions.” I can’t recall him denying the possibility of speculative theories, but the phrase “fairy tale physics” is, I agree, both provocative and suggestive. (He may be trying to pull a Wheeler there. It may even be deliberately provocative.)

  • Michael


    Smolin is a favorite science writer of mine as well. Wish I had something intelligent to say, but I greatly enjoyed Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, Time Reborn, The Trouble With Physics, and Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. Been a while since I read the earlier ones so it was refreshing to hear your take on them.

    I think Smolin is pretty good at identifying ideas that are not working, and ferreting out some of the underlying reasons why. I have no idea what time is–ha ha–but I sympathize with the notion it is somehow at the bedrock of physical reality. And I’m a fan of his approach to “starting from scratch” in a sense with constructing a relational version of physics…


    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hey Michael, welcome back!

      As I mentioned in these posts, I enjoyed Three Roads and really enjoyed Time Reborn. I liked his Life of the Cosmos (although I have questions), but it was The Trouble With Physics that really turned me on to the guy. I read that back when I was just getting over the Brian Greene induced string theory hangover. I’d heard about Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong (which I still haven’t gotten around to reading), and here came Smolin (also in 2006) with a similar message. (Sabine Hossenfelder joined that little club in 2018 and wrote Lost In Math.)

      I’ve been a fan of all three ever since (along with others, Jim Baggott and Philip Ball, for instance, who also think theoretical physics has lost its way a bit; indulged in too much mathematical fantasy and not enough physical reality).

      [And once again I’m reminded of that stunningly pithy, accurate, and prescient, ten-word summary of modern culture due to Leon Wieseltier when he guested on The Colbert Report back in 2014: “Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.” It took me a while to appreciate the importance of his last clause.]

      I may not get around to writing a follow-up post exploring Smolin’s arguments in favor of time’s reality until I either check the book out from the library again or (and I’m considering this) buying it. I’d like to read Part II (the argument in favor) again; some of his arguments I found a bit convoluted. He mentions only briefly what’s kind of the jumping off point for my own view: Kant’s analysis that time is our most fundamental intuition; it frames every thought we have at a very basic level. I wrote a post arguing time is among our a priori truths. Our intuition of it requires only our minds and thoughts.

      The core argument is that axiomatic fundamental time just makes everything in physics a whole lot easier. All the hand-wringing over time’s supposed arrow and the ability of basic physics to work backwards — it all goes away. In fact there are multiple arrows (e.g. the cosmological one; the expansion of space), all of which become mere consequences of time’s reality.

      Another argument is essentially that, if the Big Bang really happened (which is the current consensus belief), then either it was a lawful event or a “magical” one. If the latter, then no “before” is implied, but if it’s the former, this implies a set of meta-laws and time in which this event could occur. The notion that the BB is the beginning of time, space, law, energy, and matter, is exactly equivalent to the religious notion of “Let There Be Light!” The only scientific view is one that explains the BB, and that requires time and meta-law.

      • Michael

        I actually bought the audio book of Time Reborn and listened to it on an 8-hr car ride. It was very enjoyable and made quick work of the ride, but it’s not at all good for going back and referencing. I’d like to read it again sometime perhaps. I also did read Peter Woit’s book, but it’s been so long I couldn’t tell you much about it. I like (and admittedly tend to enjoy generally) those who buck a trend or a fad and don’t march in step with the herd. Smolin strikes me as one of those. Not that bucking a trend “just because” makes any sense, but it’s worth noting when there are a few flies in the ointment.

        I met with physicist Mendel Sachs on this road trip, who agreed to meet with me at his home–though I was a perfect stranger!–and we had a great discussion about relativity theory and string theory and his career. He recounted a conversation he had with John Schwarz once at a conference–Mendel was never a fan of string theory–in which Mendel suggested to John it wasn’t even science really yet, because it made no new predictions, etc. And according to Mendel, John said, “Yeah… but it’s beautiful!”

        Mendel was not one of the huge popular physicists, etc., but he spent much of his career pursuing possible extensions to Einstein’s work. He told me Einstein had one foot in the past–too much respect for classical physics–and there were some symmetries he just refused to take out of relativity that, if he had, Mendel thought would have led to greater progress. I cannot follow Mendel’s work mathematically, but in essence he translated relativity into quaternion mathematics and created a formulation of it that recovered the basic equation of quantum mechanics as an approximation of relativity theory when local space-time conditions are essentially flat.

        I gather it was interesting, but not productive ultimately. But I once wrote to Sabine Hossenfelder’s site (she has a page where you can ask physics questions) and it was assigned to a grad student in Boston who did some research and then came back with a very dismal and uninformative reply. And that was that. I don’t think Mendel hit the nail on the head, but it always intrigued me that he’d come up with this formulation of relativity that “recovered” the basic equations of QM under certain conditions, much like Newton’s laws of gravitation are “recovered” under certain conditions or limits.

        I think Mendel’s work correlated with one or two observations in particle physics that had previously not had a rigorous basis, but in other areas his work didn’t match with experiment. And he said, basically, “I’m not nearly as smart as Einstein… it takes me a decade to figure out what he could fathom out in a few months…” And so for whatever reason his work is a dead-end. It was interesting to me that the grad student assigned to the case didn’t really have a good answer about what was wrong with it, but admittedly it may have taken him a few months of reading to trace it all down, and he didn’t have that kind of time…

        Makes me wonder. Like… I get that if he was ultimately right others would have picked up his thread. But maybe not? How do you know? There’s just so many papers and ideas and no one in the field actually reads even a fraction of them.


      • Wyrd Smythe

        My general inclination is to believe that science proceeds despite scientists. One does hear stories about those who publish only to discovered someone beat them to the punch, but their discovery was never picked up. There probably is a lot of rediscovery and lost effort, but I think there are too many scientists turning over every rock they can think of for much to escape us for long.

        Or not. As you say, who knows for sure. (But I tend not to believe that any discovery is unique to one individual. In fact, multiple discovery seems not uncommon.)

        I’d heard that quaternions had application in Relativity, but I’ve never looked into it. They are naturally four-dimensional the same way the complex numbers are two-dimensional, and Relativity is about 4D spacetime. That said, one natural application is rotation in 3D space, which might also apply somehow (a Lorentz transform is a kind of rotation). They’re a cool kind of number!

        The thing about fundamental theories is that they do need to recover our low-energy experience. Smolin mentions that, given the possible range of temperature, we exist in what is essentially a frozen reality at comparative absolute zero. Our experience is seriously low-energy, and many theories work great in that regime because they are approximations. It seems that even GR and QFT are approximations seeking a deeper fundamental theory. (If only we even knew where to start!)

        I just read an interview with Smolin where he mentions that string theory is stuck, and so is Loop Quantum Gravity, which he is one father of. Everyone is stuck right now. One can’t help but wonder if that’s because we’ve gone down a blind alley. Maybe we need to retrace our steps and try a different direction more than we realize. At the same time, the effectiveness of GR and QFT is compelling, and it’s hard to believe they could be all that wrong.

        Smolin, kind of keying off Wheeler’s 20-Questions game and “It from Bit” view, suggests an idea I toyed with back in high school. It’s a kind of idealism. The basic idea is that when we ask reality a question, the answer we get depends on whether that question has been asked before. Once reality answers a question, the answer is fixed, but if the question has never been asked, reality is free to given any plausible answer. This fits in well with the way quantum mechanics seems to work.

        Back in high school I had the example of August Kekulé, a chemist who ascribed his discovery of the benzene ring to a dream of a snake eating its tail. My thought was — since no one had ever asked reality about the chemical structure of benzene — what if his vision (whatever its source) is what made the benzene structure real? Under this theory, “miracles” might exist for people who see a reality in which they are real. I thought maybe science had fixed the world a certain way. (Many fantasy authors use the device of technology and science driving out magic.)

        I just hope I live long enough to see some real progress in fundamental physics. It really is kinda stuck.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I got a kick out of this recent interview with Lee Smolin by Ethan Siegel. Many interesting bits and well worth reading.

    Siegel asking Smolin about his stance on realism and locality:

    ES: Can you explain why reality should be independent of the observer?

    LS: Because I’m a realist, and for me the goal of science is precisely the description of nature as it would be in our absence.

    Which I think is as good a statement of philosophical realism as one could ask for.

    A bit that caught my eye:

    LS: Let me tell you about how I look at quantum mechanics these days, because it’s new and it’s been very exciting to me. Our realization, actually following down some quotes of Heisenberg which were very mysterious at first, you know that Heisenberg said that the wavefunction description does not apply to the past. Somehow, the wavefunction was about the future, and the classical description is about the past. And a few people said this. Freeman Dyson said this at length; Schrodinger said something like that, and even deeper and more mysterious.

    Interesting way to look at it! The past is classical, collapsed, but the future can have a wavefunction description full of possibilities.

    He goes on to say:

    LS: Recently I’ve been working on these questions with Clelia Verde, and we realized they were trying to say is that in the Copenhagen version of quantum mechanics, there is a quantum world and there is a classical world, and a boundary between them: when things become definite. When things that are indefinite in the quantum world become definite. And what they’re trying to say is that is the fundamental thing that happens in nature, when things that are indefinite become definite. And that’s what “now” is. The moment now, the present moment, that all these people say is missing from science and missing from physics, that is the transition from indefinite to definite. And quantum mechanics, the wavefunction, is a description of the future which is indefinite and incomplete. And classical physics is how we describe the past.

    Finally, regarding quantum gravity:

    LS: String theory is a beautiful set of ideas, which in my view has gotten stuck. And loop quantum gravity, which I’m fortunate enough to have had the experience of working on while it was being invented, but it’s also clearly gotten stuck. Both of them express the same idea: that there’s a duality between fields carrying forces, like the electromagnetic field, and quantum excitations of those fields can look like extended objects, like strings or loops, propagating. Both loop quantum gravity and string theory express in different contexts that fundamental conjecture.

    But both are stuck. That seems the growing consensus.

  • BB #79: Near Zero | Logos con carne

    […] struck me was the déjà vu. Lee Smolin had mentioned the same thing in his book, Time Reborn (see this post) so it was fresh in my mind. Yet another case of […]

  • Friday Notes (Sep 24, 2021) | Logos con carne

    […] of time, especially after reading Lee Smolin’s book, I think views of what time really is fall into three+ […]

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Another physicist, Fotini Markopoulou, weighs in on time being fundamental:

And what do you think?

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