Lee Smolin is something of an iconoclast when it comes to theoretical physics and cosmology. His book The Trouble with Physics outlined why there are fundamental problems with quantum theory and its wild speculations about strings, extra dimensions, multiple universes and the like, not the least being that these various claims can not be tested. Quantum mechanics explains a whole lot, but not everything. According to Smolin, there are fundamental things that it is still “hiding”.
Smolin’s new book Time Reborn counters some of quantum theory, and much of recent theoretical physics by arguing for the centrality of time, which has been relegated to only a dimension of space-time, and, more so, has been described as relative and merely a emergent property of the birth of the universe. Of course Einstein’s physics is largely responsible for Time’s demotion (in that distance and speed matter as to whether events are simultaneous or not, squashing ideas of universal time across the universe), and quantum theory goes so far as seeing it as mere illusion. Smolin argues instead that despite Einstein’s relativity we (read: theoretical physicists and cosmologists) can only make progress if we see time as more fundamental than theories currently allow.
His book has all the mind-bending theory, despite its accessible language, just like the work of Brian Greene (below) or Paul Davies. Some of it was over my head. But absolutely fascinating, as he interrogates the fundamental nature of the universe.
Part of his problem with current theories is that we think we can use methods for interrogating subsets (small pieces) of the universe to investigate the universe as a whole. He writes about the way we measure things against a fixed point, but that the universe as a whole has nothing against which we can measure it. He writes about the “laws” of the universe and how an abstract property like this can interact, as it were, with matter. He notes that we are so used to the idea of mathematics describing reality that we don’t think to ask how something (mathematics) outside of time, and that can make no account of time, can accurately describe something that unfolds in time. He talks about what differences extra dimensions make as to whether we can interact with the things around us, and argues that it is space, rather than time, that is an emergent property. (In the same way that thermodynamics is something that can be seen at the macro level but is not present in the micro level – atoms have no temperature, they create temperature.)