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The time of your life

A discussion with Lee Smolin.

I’ve got only a few minutes of Lee Smolin’s time, and they’re probably not his greatest ones. He just lost five hours on the journey from Toronto to London. He has to give a public lecture in an hour at the Institute of Physics. Here, now, time is not on his side. What makes it worse is that he no longer has the consolation of viewing time as an illusion.

Smolin, who is based at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada, used to side with the mainstream view that our sense of passing time is all in the mind. This is the legacy of Galileo, Newton and Einstein: to physics, all of time – future, present and past – exists as one monolithic block. There is no universal “now”, and time passes at different rates for objects and people moving in various ways through the universe.

“I now see that as absurd,” Smolin says. His new book, Time Reborn (Allen Lane), makes that clear. It is a controversial (to physicists) reimagining of time as – wait for it – a real phenomenon.

Smolin is no stranger to controversy. His last book, The Trouble With Physics, argued that many of his fellow physicists were self-indulgent, arrogant and appallingly unaccountable in the way they carried out their research. The backlash lasted about two years and was “very unpleasant”, he says.

His reworking of time is more likely to leave him ignored than vilified. He is unconcerned. The new approach is for the greater good, he says, and will help us engage with the present crises of humanity.

After The Trouble With Physicswas published, Mike Brown, a former Microsoft CFO, took him out to dinner and told him there was similar trouble with market economics. “He told me it was all going to collapse in about six months,” Smolin recalls. Part of the problem, in Smolin’s diagnosis, is that most mathematical models for economics ignore time: they are constructed as if every action and reaction happens instantaneously. Smolin has since been helping Brown and others put a little time into economic theory.

Time Reborn also touches on climate-change issues. By reinstating the passage of time as a scientific notion, we can fight the insidious notion that the future is already determined – that the predicted climate apocalypse is inevitable, he says. “It inspires a change in the way of thinking; the human future is much more open, much more accessible.”

Smolin sees his new project as a partner to the technophilosopher Jaron Lanier’s manifesto You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier wants people to stop and think whether they should live ever more of their lives in digital spaces. Smolin wants people to resist the fashionable scientific notion that everything in the universe is just mechanised, processed information. This is withering our appreciation of being human, he says; your brain can’t be analysed with principles from computer science.

There is bad news, however: Smolin’s reworking of time rules out the possibility of escaping its tyranny. Time travel is remotely possible in Einstein’s universe; in Smolin’s, there is no going back and adjusting the past – we just have to face our demons. “There are things about life that are wonderful, but there are also things about life that are terrible – death, mortality, disease, and war,” he says. “Of course, there’s a desire to transcend time, and while I wrote this book I felt very acute anxiety about closing off the consolations. But they’re replaced by a more hopeful point of view: we can choose the future.”

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians