Ross Harper plunges into Lee Smolin’s new book, Time Reborn – a mind-bending tome that addresses some heavy philosophical issues. But does it make for a triumph in popular science writing, or an unreadable muddle?
Author: Lee Smolin Publisher: Allen Lane (23 April 2013) Price: £12.80, $19.07 (Available from Amazon UK/USA; eBook versions available) Rating:
Now and then, we all come across a book that makes an impression on us. However, rarely do we get caught up in whether we came across it now or then. In Time Reborn, Lee Smolin neatly blends philosophy and science to provide a detailed account of time, and the multiple cases for and against its reality. He argues that time is not an illusion, but real, and is essential to us understanding the fundamental laws of nature. Smolin writes for a general audience, skillfully condensing complex scientific concepts into bite-size pieces, without distorting them beyond the point of accuracy – a big achievement for such a tricky subject. However, while the book is accessible to readers from any background, you’ll need a certain level of academic interest to get through the more physics-heavy chapters. But don’t let that put you off. For a book that advocates the importance of time, it is conveniently structured, moving chronologically from the ancient Greeks, through Galileo, all the way up to the physicists of today. Smolin begins by making us aware of the current scientific consensus – that our perception of time is an illusion. He then takes us on a voyage through history, where we hear how space and time can be unified into a single ‘fabric’ of ‘space-time’ (of which the time element is just another dimension – on top of the three dimensions in which we see the world around us). This destroys any absolute notion of time, and leads to even bigger claims that there is no real distinction between past, present, and future. From there, things only get more outrageous. I reached for the pillow during the disturbingly reasonable suggestion that our universe is in perpetual flux between different moments in history. If this is the case, everything that will ever happen is already mapped out; we are simultaneously carefree children and decrepit seniors – and both are equally real! When the universe ‘adopts’ a moment in which we exist, we gain the illusion of time passing from the last moment we remember. But it’s all a trick of the mind because the Big Bang – or a catalogue of alternative moments in history – may have happened in between. Wait... what? Just when our minds begin melting away like something out of a Salvador Dali painting, Smolin intervenes. By pointing out areas of physics that remain conflicted, he calls for time’s rescue. He asserts that time should be central in a new universal ‘theory of everything’. He then poses a controversial idea whereby the laws of nature are not timeless and set in stone, but evolve over time. According to this idea, there exist multiple universes that ‘reproduce’ through black holes, each ‘ child’ operating under a slightly different set of laws. The most virile universes are those with the most black holes, creating a competitive system where a universe will out-perform others if its laws favour the creation of black holes. Smolin’s scenario flips upside-down what physicists believe, making time fundamentally real and leaving everything else to exist within it. Laws of nature are not fixed, but ever-changing. He summarises this most powerfully in the statement, “E may equal mc squared now, but that was not always the case”. Take that Einstein! For me, Time Reborn was an emotional journey. First, my perception of the world crumbled around me; then, I became lost in the void; and finally, everything was restored in a curious new context. The book is packed full of information and will give any reader a well-rounded knowledge of the field. It is an absolute must-read for the philosophically inclined, and academically interested – but with a strong warning to anybody who already has difficulty sleeping at night.
Ross Harper recently graduated from Cambridge University having studied Biological Natural Sciences. He spent the last year running his somewhat unconventional advertising business,
BuyMyFace.com, and is now trying his hand at app development with his new company, Wriggle Ltd. No matter what crazy scheme he’s currently working on, Ross makes sure to devote a bit of time to keeping with the latest in science news. Feel free to say ‘hi’ to Ross on Twitter (@ refharper).