The Language of Science Is Language: Lee Smolin and "Time Reborn"
and vanish into one another
according to necessity...
in conformity with the order of time.
-- Anaximander, On Nature
My second favorite book is called The Life of the Cosmos. Originally published in 1997, it details physicist Lee Smolin's ideas about cosmological natural selection, a mind-expanding intellectual panorama depicting the universe itself as a manifestation of deep laws that trigger self-organization at literally all scales. Beyond physics' usual fundamental forces and constants, Smolin's natural laws suggest that even the cosmos itself emerges from -- and resembles, though not exactly-- its predecessors.
Inspiring for reasons that are as poetic as they are scientific, Smolin's thinking bridges physics, biology, and even philosophy. With his latest book, Time Reborn (hardcover | Kindle edition), Smolin suggests a radical reconception of the nature of time. With his trademark sincere and curious reverence for nature, Smolin kindly entertained a few questions for Omnivoracious readers.
***How do you think about conveying your ideas to readers not instinctively drawn to science?
Everyone is interested in the question of what time is because how you think about time affects everything we think about our own lives. Are our futures determined already? Are our experiences of willing, choosing, imagining, and inventing all illusions because the future is already written? Or are they true and real and in fact deep hints as to the nature of reality? Is it already fixed what kind of life my child will have or how bad global warming will be, or does what we choose to do really matter? These are the questions my book addresses, and I offer a hopeful answer explained in a way that all can understand.
Science is about nature. It is very concrete. We use ordinary language to express its hypotheses and observations. As Neils Bohr said, science is a part of ordinary language we use to communicate our observations of nature to each other. Numbers come into observations but the world is not made of numbers.
What motivated your decision to join the Perimeter Institute after working at more established university research centers?
Many established academic institutions are to one degree or another dysfunctional. They are hard places to introduce new ideas or critiques. The best way to innovate the setting for academic science is to start new institutes. When the founders of the Perimeter Institute offered me the chance to be one of its first faculty members, I recognized that this was an unparalleled, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. How many scientists get the chance to contribute to shaping a major scientific institute? Like my friends, I am enormously proud of what we have achieved. Being part of the founding of something is also great fun.
You've published regularly both in peer-reviewed science journals and for a popular audience. Do the differences in the intended audiences color how you think about the ideas you put forward?
They are both essential parts of my scientific life. The scientific journals are the appropriate place for reports of progress in research (although they have as such been to some extent superseded by an online archive, arxiv.org). I use the books to think deeply and critically about the philosophical issues I find are blocking progress in the scientific fields I care about. Each informs the other.
Could you give an example?
One of the great unexplained mysteries of science is why time appears so directional, in that almost everything we do and experience is irreversible. This is a mystery because the laws of physics themselves, as we now understand them, would allow all the processes that could be gotten by running time backwards. So why does this hardly ever happen? While writing Time Reborn, I explained this question for the general reader, and this made me vividly realize the extent to which we don't yet have a good answer. The process of writing each book has changed my thinking in a way that resulted in a change of direction of my research. And without the research there would be nothing to write the books about.
***To learn more about Time Reborn, visit www.timereborn.com.
Browse Time Reborn Lee Smolin's other books at Amazon's Lee Smolin Page.
Lee Smolin's TED Talk: "On Science and Democracy"'