Guru Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

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