Skip to main content

Time Reborn – Lee Smolin *****

As I write this we are a third of the way through 2013 (time is important here) and I can say with hand on heart this is the best popular science book I have read all year.
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.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…