GURU SPENDS QUALITY TIME WITH LEE SMOLIN
Being nicknamed the ‘New Einstein’ should turn a few heads. And physicist Lee Smolin certainly turned ours. We sat down to talk with him to find out what goes on inside the mind of a man with a planet-sized intellect. Smolin has some crazy ideas about the Universe, so prepare to have your mind blown.
When I was in primary school there was one teacher everyone feared – her name was Mrs Payne. She was a stern-faced lady with a frizz of grey hair and had a matriarchal presence that commanded the respect of all seven year olds. Her most feared punishment for bad behaviour was ‘clock watching’. The entire class would be forced to sit in silence and watch the second hand tick around the clock face for an entire five minutes; any talking or disruption resulted in the count starting again. I never understood why each minute felt like an eternity – and still don’t. It was a punishment that was utter torture for the attention-deficit pre-pubescent Dr Stu. For me, time is still baffling. Whether it drags or flies by, if I ever stop to contemplate what time actually is, then it isn’t long before my thoughts whip up into a windmill-spin. Time, and its very nature, is the main topic of physicist Lee Smolin’s new book, Time Reborn. A book written for a regular punter, and the most recent in a series of books to tackle weighty issues, I hooked up with Lee during his recent whistlestop trip to London. I wanted to find out more about what makes him – and our clocks – tick. Lee Smolin is an American-born theorist and adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, Canada. A highly respected academic in the Premier League of physics, he has been nicknamed the ‘New Einstein’. For a man with a planet-sized intellect, he didn’t have nerdy beginnings: “I was a high school dropout and didn’t discover physics until I was seventeen,” Lee told me. It was an interest in bricks and mortar that led him down the path to science. “I got interested in architecture because of reading about Mr Fuller, who was a visionary architect. He used to build these geodesic domes all over the place (see image). I was interested in the idea that if you stretch these spheres – whose surfaces were defined by triangles – you could make a curved surface that is not a sphere. [You could then make] something useful like a greenhouse or swimming pool cover”. This fascination was partly satisfied by trips to the library, but the adolescent Lee noticed a common theme in everything he read: “Every book that I took out of the library about the mathematics of curved surfaces had a chapter on [Einstein’s] relativity theory… so I got interested in relativity theory.” The 58-year-old’s journey into physics has been a long one, yet Lee seems to have been a deep thinker every step of the way. His fervour for science was a way for him to discover the “eternal truth” about nature and time. This truth is, he believes, “expressed in the language
of mathematics, which is a language outside of time”.
Time Reborn, reviewed in this issue, tackles the deepest, most difficult- to- answer questions that we would normally only contemplate when enduring a bout of insomnia. Specifically, the book makes one overarching claim: that time is actually real. This might not strike you to be an outrageous or controversial idea (and it isn’t to Lee, who asserts: “A normal person would say ‘I know that time is real! So what’s new?’”) But it is, at least to some. It might come as a surprise to learn that modernday physicists think that time is a mere illusion. The ticking of the clock and our understanding of the past, present and the future are just ways in which our mind makes sense of the world, they argue. But Lee thinks that scientists and philosophers have got it all wrong. “The book is a journey that I take the reader on,” explains Lee. “First I explain that in the seventeenth Century physics very systematically started diluting and then eliminating the concept of time from the physical description of nature.” From this ‘starting point’, Lee wants to explain to people that this modern worldview is a “dead exercise”. More importantly, if further scientific advancements are to be made, then the world’s scholars need to return to what the normal people think and “put time back in”. A man with a heart for what he does, Time
Reborn was written because Lee had a “very painful” change in his beliefs. Lee told me that, in the late 1980s, he started to realise that his core ideas about the nature of physics were wrong. The very essence of the physicist’s doctrine – the nature of time – was challenged. Lee’s current view of the universe also has profound consequences to those with religious leanings. He argues that there are no everlasting, unchanging ‘ laws’ of nature that govern our existence. It is heresy to physics and contradictory to any faith in a higher power. Thinking it would be a good opportunity to find out more, I probed Lee on his personal beliefs. Clearly it wasn’t up for discussion: “My religious views I take off the table… I have strong convictions but I don’t think they should be on public record”. What really interests Lee is what is scientific – that which is provable and testable. He considers his outlook to be dramatically different from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennet, who, he feels, make a point of opposing religion in every form. Lee asserts that “we must encourage and promote the widest possible diversity of points of view… because we don’t know what’s right, or from what direction the answer is going to come.” For a high-flying intellectual, he is remarkably tolerant and is “happy to live in a pluralistic society, no matter what crazy things you believe.” There is, however, a proviso to his open-mindedness: everyone, regardless of belief, should concede to the “areas where science has been successful: natural selection, the history of the Earth [and] climate change.” No dinner invites for a Young Earth fundamentalist, then. Lee knows not to take everything too seriously though. He told me he has “many friends who are not in science but who are interested, smart and have curiosity about nature [and] art. Some of them are artists, some of them are sales people.” And it is to these “critical thinkers” for whom Lee writes. He even insists on sending them copies of his work before mailing it to his editor. He feels that the content of Time Reborn is shocking, but is knows that it is not what he calls “shock-science.” Lee’s passion is that people will read his arguments – about things they don’t necessarily understand – and debate them among each other. For downtime, Lee gets out of the office to see art, go to theatre and do some sailing; “I’ve always had a personal life, I’ve always had girlfriends, I’ve always kept close friends and spent time to live with people. This idea that science is an occupation for autistic people is just wrong.” Everyone, therefore, should make sure they take time out for fun. Now there’s some timeless advice.