Explaining cutting-edge physics to non-physicists is a nearly impossible task. Compounding the problem is the fact that physics is grounded in mathematics, and because key concepts have to be put into layperson’s terms and illustrated with everyday analogies, much is lost in translation.
In his new book, physicist Lee Smolin puts forward a transformative and contrarian thesis, the outlines of which, at least, a general reader should be able to follow. The key precept is that time, a concept many modern physicists set aside in their modelling, must be reintroduced as a real and vital force. Mathematics, in this new dispensation, “will continue to be a handmaiden to Science, but she can no longer be the Queen.” The absolute, eternal laws of mathematics need to be replaced by laws of nature that evolve over time.
This is a Big Idea, and one with ramifications ranging from the Big Bang to the end of the universe. Bigness is important, because Smolin believes that for a theory of everything to be truly foundational, it can’t merely describe a timeless chunk of the universe, but must account for an entire universe that exists in time. This idea signals a radical turn “involving not just the invention of a new theory but a new method and hence a new kind of theory.” It marks what is, thus far, an admittedly speculative shift, though one Smolin believes will ultimately generate predictions capable of being subjected to experimental testing, as opposed to current models, which are criticized for being too metaphysical and mythical.
Whether or not you find the argument convincing, there is a lot here to mull over. Smolin engages with a number of current cosmological, scientific, and philosophical debates. The material is presented clearly throughout, though there are inevitable sticky passages and moments in which Smolin is forced to confess that certain concepts do not readily lend themselves to non-technical explication.
The main thread of the argument, however, is easily grasped, and stands as a provocative challenge to the present state of what we think we know about the universe.