MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
What if you're a physicist who loses faith in the underpinnings of physics? That's what happened to Lee Smolin, who's written a book called "Time Reborn." Physicist and NPR blogger Adam Frank says it's important to know all physicists are actually romantics.
ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Don't laugh. It's true. In our youth, we all fall deeply in love. We fall in love with a beautiful idea that is beautifully simple to state: Beyond this world of constant change lies another world that is perfect and timeless. This eternal domain is made not of matter or of energy but of perfect, timeless mathematical laws. Finding those exquisite eternal laws or better yet a single timeless formula for everything is the holy grail we dedicate our lives to. Unless, of course, we lose faith in that grail.
Which is what happened to Lee Smolin, author of the new book "Time Reborn." I used to believe that my job as a theoretical physicist was to find that formula, writes Smolin, a highly regarded scientist. Now, I see my faith in its existence as more mysticism than science. For Smolin, there is no timeless world, and there are no timeless laws. Time, he says, is real, and nothing can escape it. Now, time, of course, seems real to us. We live in and through time.
But to physicists, time's fundamental reality is an illusion. Ever since Newton, physicists have been developing ever more exact laws describing the behavior of the world. These laws live outside of time because they don't change. That means the laws are more real than time. Now, before you can say that's crazy, remember that every modern miracle of physics from jet planes to GPS is built using these laws. But according to Smolin, when it comes to cosmology, the ultimate study of the universe as a whole, faith in timeless laws has led physics astray.
The idea of timeless laws works fine when it's applied to parts of the universe, like jet planes and GPS satellites, but Smolin argues it falls apart when we attempt to apply it to the universe as a whole. Instead, Smolin tells us that to understand the history of this one observed universe, we must take that history and time seriously. Making time so real that nothing can escape it leads Smolin to his greatest heresy. The laws of physics, he says, evolve just like species in an ecosystem.
The laws, too, must live within time and must therefore change. In essence, Smolin says, there are no laws of physics. There never were. Is this book for everyone? Well, at his best, which is the first half of the book, Smolin offers compelling arguments for why the bias for a timeless world of physical law is baggage that can be tossed aside. The rest of the book, however, asks a lot of a lay reader where it becomes difficult to distinguish between pure conjecture and scientific reasoning. As a physicist, though, it was a fun bone to chew on, and maybe, just maybe, he's onto something.
BLOCK: The new book from Lee Smolin is "Time Reborn." It was reviewed for us by Adam Frank. He teaches astrophysics at the University of Rochester. You can find this review and others online at nprbooks.org. And for more news about books and authors, you can like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. That's @nprbooks.