When I heard Lee Smolin talking at SciBarCamp something struck me: this gentleman from the “hard sciences” distanced himself from all the pop science theorizing that made physics and maths popular in the late 90s: He wasn’t extolling the virtues of one Grand Unified Theory over another, nor was he gushing about the strange and magical mathematical tools we’ve developed of late to solve some (sometimes inconsequential) problems. He was excruciatingly humble about his own obvious prowess, and kept claiming that he was ‘befuddled’ (this being, I concluded, his favorite word).
Ahem. Befuddled? You don’t go about telling the lay population that mathematicians / physicists can be befuddled! They’re supposed to be damned sure of themselves and know everything! They’re supposed to peer down their noses at us!
Time is befuddling
Take the issue of time, for example. After spending so long evoking a geometric concept of time to replace the old-fashioned, linear constructs already embedded in the collective consciousness, it’s almost a crime to come along now and say that maybe our old-fashioned ideas about time were uhm… better. Or at least more satisfying.
It seems the more we poked and prodded at the concept of time, the more abstract it became. Some proposed that time was simply an emergent property, a nifty phase-transition-like outcome of uhm… the way things are. Others posited something more akin to a strange ether that existed even before the big bang, a remnant of an ancestor universe. And of course the geometric views: time as a line, time as a sheet or surface, the fourth dimension in addition to the familiar 3 of space, and so on and so on.
It seems that there may be scientists who would much rather have time become ‘real’ again, whatever that means. Certainly Smolin seemed to draw the line at going along with the idea that time was simply an illusion, a mere figment of our imagination. So apparently the abstraction got that far!
Unified Theories… not.
Smolin’s other beef seems to be with universal theories. There’s too many of them gadding about, apparently. Supersymmetry this and String Theory that. And they’re as plausible and implausible as each other. What to do? Get rid of ’em, Smolin seems to hint. They’ve been a somewhat fun distraction, and we’ve all learned some things along the way, hanging onto the coattails of theoretical physicists as they dive into the worlds of the very big and the very small. But perhaps we haven’t really solved anything, in spite of all the funding and research effort that got thrown at these (faddish?) ideas.
Towards the end of the talk Smolin hinted at something profound. It was a very off-hand comment and I’m not sure whether he was positing the idea as his own or whether it was another of those popular ideas that left him ‘befuddled’. He mentioned the idea that perhaps all these “competing” unified theories were doing exactly that: competing. In a darwinian sense. I can tell you I sat up right there and then.
Evolving universal systems! Holy canoli. Every SF writer in the room (including Robert Sawyer, I’ll have you know) surely took a mental note of that one.
Imagine: A few sets of physical laws instants after (or even before?) the big bang; those that are most able to spawn a stable universe survive and prosper; eerier ones die off, or persist alongside their betters but in fewer (unreachable, non-macro-scale) parts of the universe.
I’m sorry but this has to be THE single BIGGEST idea that I’ve come across in the longest time. How cool is that? 500 sci-fi epics waiting to be born, with that one.
piccie: based on a Hubble one. What else?!
Lee smolin’s books / website : http://leesmolin.com/