The Physics of Hope.

Okay, one more before I pack.  Since it came out in NF a long time ago:

I never liked physics much.

I’m not just talking about the math. I don’t like what modern physics tells us: that time is an illusion, for one thing. That we live in a reality where everything that ever was, and ever will be, always is: static timelines embedded in a “block universe” like threads in amber. I may remember scratching my head before writing this sentence, but that’s just one frozen slice of me with a bunch of frozen memories. An instant further along is another slice at t+1, with memories incrementally more advanced, and because it remembers the past it believes that it is moving through time. But in reality— seen from some higher-dimensioned overhead perspective— we exist on a tabletop where nothing changes, nothing moves, nothing goes away.

I hate that vision. My gut rebels at the grim counterintuitive determinism of it. But I’m no physicist, and we all know how misleading gut feelings can be. I don’t like it, but what do I know? I know nothing.

You can’t say that about Lee Smolin. Eminent theoretical physicist, co-Founder of the  world-renowned Perimeter Institute, author of the 2013 book Time Reborn. I’ve just read it. It gives me hope. It says my gut was right all along. We do exist from one moment to the next. This flow we perceive is no illusion. Time is real.

It’s space that’s bullshit.

Imagine the universe as a lattice of nodes; the only way to get from one place to another is to hop along the nodes between, like stepping-stones in a stream. The more dimensions the lattice has, the shorter the number of hops required to get between two points: Smolin invokes the analogy of a cell-phone network, which puts you just one step away from billions of “nearest neighbors”.

Well, sure, if this is how you represent a "higher dimension, then of course the cell phone collapses space...

Well, sure, if this is how you represent a “higher dimension, then of course the cell phone collapses space…

It takes energy to keep those higher dimensions active, though. In the early, hot universe— right after the Big Bang— there was energy to spare; dimensions were abundant and everything was one cell-phone-hop away from everything else. “Space” didn’t really exist back then. As the universe cooled, those higher dimensions collapsed; the cell network shut down, flattening reality into a low-energy mode where only those few locations adjacent in three dimensions could be considered “nearest”. Now, to get anywhere else, you have to hop a myriad low-dimensional nodes. You have to cross “space”.

The point is, space is not a fundamental property of reality; it only emerged in the wake of that energy-starved collapse. This is the story Smolin is selling: There is no time-space continuum. There is only time.

Physics is wrong.

According to Time Reborn, physics went astray at two points. The first was when it started confusing maps with the territories they described. Most physics equations are time-symmetric; they work as well backwards as forwards. They are timeless, these rules that do such a good job of describing our observations of reality; so, physicists thought, maybe reality is timeless too. When we first started drawing graphs of motion and mass on paper— each moment a fixed point along some static axis— we were being lulled into a Block-Universe mindset.

Smolin describes the second wrong turn as “the Cosmological Fallacy”: an unwarranted extrapolation of the local to the universal. Physics studies systems in isolation; you’re not going to factor in the gravitational influences of the Virgo Supercluster when you’re calculating the trajectory of a bowling bowl, for example. You ignore trivial variables, you impose boundaries by necessity. You put physics in a box and leave certain universals— the laws of nature, for example— outside. Those laws reach into the box and work their magic, but you don’t have to explain them; they just are.

Physics works really well in boxes. The problem arises when you extrapolate those boxy insights to the whole universe. There is no “outside” when you’re talking about all of existence, no other realm from which the timeless laws of nature can reach in and do their thing. Suddenly you’ve got to explain all that stuff that could be taken as axiomatic before. So you start fiddling around with branes and superstrings; you invoke an infinite number of parallel universes to increase the statistical odds that some of them would turn out the way ours did. If Smolin’s right, a lot of modern physics is an attempt to reimpose an outside on a universe that doesn’t have one. And because we’re trying to apply locally-derived insights onto a totality where they don’t apply, our models break.

Smolin’s alternative sits so much easier in the gut— and, at the same time, seems even more radical. Everything affects everything else, he says; and that includes the laws of physics themselves. They are not timeless or immutable: they are affected by the rest of the universe, just as the universe is affected by them.

They evolve, he says, over time.

Everyone agrees that reality was in flux during the first moments after the Big Bang: universal laws and constants could have taken entirely different values than they did when the universe finally congealed into its present configuration. The strong and weak nuclear forces could have taken different values; the Gravitational Constant could have turned out negative instead of positive. Smolin suggests natural laws are still not set in stone, even now; rather, they result from a sort of ongoing plebiscite. How the universe reacts to X+Y comes down to a roll of the dice, weighted by past experience. Correlations, initially random, strengthen over time; if X+Y rolled mostly snake-eyes in the past it’ll be increasingly likely to do so in the future.

Now we’re 15 billion years into the game. Those precedents have grown so weighty, the correlations so strong, that we mistake them for laws; when we see X+Y, we never observe any result but snake-eyes. Different outcomes are possible, though—just very, very unlikely. (Think of the Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, transmuting a missile into a sperm whale or a bowl of petunias.)

So much becomes possible, if this is true. Smolin’s concept of “Cosmological Natural Selection” for one, in which Darwinian processes apply to the universe at large— in which black holes, egg-like, spawn whole new realities, each governed by a different physics (those which maximize black-hole production outcompete those which don’t). Another mind-blowing implication is that if the universe were to encounter some combination of quantum events that had never happened before, it wouldn’t know what to do: it would have to roll the dice without any precedent weighting the outcome. (Something to keep in mind, now that we’re starting to play around with quantum computing in a big way.)

We may even find our way to ftl, if I’m reading this right. After all, the lightspeed limit only applies to our impoverished four-dimensional spacetime. If you pumped up the energy in a given volume enough to reactivate all those dormant cell-phone dimensions, wouldn’t space just collapse again? Wouldn’t every node suddenly get closer to every other?

Of course, all this hypothesizing leaves open the question of how the universe “remembers” what has gone before, and how it “guesses” what to do next. But is that any less absurd than a universe in which a cat is both dead and alive until something looks at it? A universe governed by timeless laws so astronomically unlikely that you have to invoke an infinite number of undetectable parallel universes just to boost the odds in your favor?

At least Smolin’s theory is testable, which makes it more scientific than this multiverse that everyone else seems so invested in. Smolin and his allies seek to do to Einstein what Einstein did to Newton: expose the current model as a local approximation, good enough for most purposes but not truly descriptive of the deeper reality.

...but this is how I envision going from 2D to 3, and I don't see how that extra layer gets Mary and Ted any closer...

…but this is how I envision going from 2D to 3, and I don’t see how that extra layer gets Mary and Ted any closer…

And yet I’m not entirely convinced. Even with my poor grasp of physics (or more likely, because of it), aspects of this new worldview seem a bit off to me. Smolin openly derides multiverse models— but then, where then do the black-hole-spawned “baby universes” of Cosmological Selection end up? And while I can easily imagine two points, three nodes apart, on a 2D lattice, I don’t see how adding a third dimension brings them any closer together (although it certainly opens up access to a whole bunch of new nodes). Also, if the laws of nature are affected by the objects and processes they affect in turn, wouldn’t that feedback follow certain rules? Wouldn’t those rules bring determinism back into play, albeit with a couple of extra complications thrown in?

These are most likely naive criticisms. Doubtless Smolin could answer them easily; I’m probably just pushing his metaphors beyond their load-bearing limits. But perhaps the most important reason that I’m not convinced is because I so very dearly want to be. Current physics leaves no room for free will, no room even for the passage of time. Every moment we experience, every decision we think we make, is a lie. It’s not just that nothing happens the way we perceive it; in the block universe nothing happens, period.

Who wouldn’t reject such a reality, given half a chance? Who wouldn’t prefer an uncertain future in which we make our own decisions and influence our own destinies? What I wouldn’t give to live in such a world. Smolin offers it up on a platter. And because it is so tempting, I must counter my desire with an extra dose of skepticism.

Then again, the most basic tenet of empiricism is that any of us could be wrong about anything. “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right,” Einstein once said. “A single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Maybe, before too long, Smolin will get his single experiment.

Stay tuned.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 28th, 2016 at 12:27 pm and is filed under astronomy/cosmology, ink on art. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

21 Responses to “The Physics of Hope.”

  1. AngusM

    “I’m sorry. Owing to the collapse of higher dimensions, your teleportation attempt cannot be completed. InstaTravel Inc. regrets any inconvenience that this may cause you, but reminds you that teleportation/faster-than-light facilities were end-of-lifed approximately 13.8 billion years ago, and all subscribers were notified of the discontinuation of service at that time.

    Thank you for your interest in rapid travel, and please contact our Newtonian physics department for information about solutions optimized for your three-dimensional lifestyle.”

  2. Steve Halter

    Thanks–I’m going to have to check that out. Interestingly, this came across the bows today:

    It turns out that the nucleus of the isotope, Barium-144 is asymmetrical and pear-shaped. This has all sorts of possible implications, one of which is that time has a direction.

  3. EthicsGradient

    I actually quite like the idea of a timeless universe, there is something quite aesthetically pleasing about the notion, a kind of neatness and order that isn’t present in a universe with an open future.

  4. John Rodriguez

    All that hope made me quite uneasy. I don’t want to be solely responsible for my life. That would be far too stressful!

  5. foresterr

    Additional dimensions can add shortcuts if the second layer (in this 2d to 3d example) is scrunched up. So, you take a sideways step, a small normal step, and another sideways step, and you end up in a place that would take a really long normal step to get to, if you couldn’t go sideways.

  6. Jeff B

    Thanks for writing about this, Pete. My gut also rebels at the “grim counterintuitive determinism” of the block universe. It makes me think nothing I do — or have ever done, really — is important, since my decisions have no real effect on our world or the larger universe. Statistically speaking, anyway.

    Of course, this thought could’ve been triggered and amplified by my narcissistic personality disordered mother doing what she’s always done. Which is make people around her feel utterly unimportant. Which in turn would simply describe the state of my own neurological existence, rather than the reality of the universe.

    Sometimes it’s a fine line.

    Sometimes not.

    I’ll be reading Smolin’s book soon.

  7. Deseret

    If space is bullahit, why is it that observation location/presence/absence alters what happens? Still seems like someone should be arguing for time. Can’t we walk and chew gum at once?

  8. Peter Watts

    Deseret: Still seems like someone should be arguing for time.

    I’m guessing you meant “arguing for space”, since Smolin just a whole book doing the other thing. And his position is that everyone and their dog has been arguing for space for generations, and it’s time time got some love.

    As for why we can’t have both? If I had to guess, I’d say we like our models as simple as possible, so if we can reduce one feature to a mere emergent offshoot of the other, we win the parsimony award.

  9. has

    “We may even find our way to ftl, if I’m reading this right.”

    Sure, if by “faster than light” you mean some grotesquely mutilated Sam Neill artfully rearranging your intestines into a delightfully Lovecraftian display presentation before you even realize it. All a bit UNnatural philosophy for my tastes, thankyouverymuch; best leave it to Stross.

  10. Deseret

    Meant that space prolly isn’t bunk, but good on Smolin for pointing out time probably isn’t either.

    You mean we prefer checkers to chess? We’re just headcheeses with legs.

    Bet the vamps could see both.

  11. Robert McMaster

    Time is a function of highly organized matter. If the structure of matter, that is the matrix of orderly relations that regulate matter then mutatis mutandis the expression of ‘time’ is correspondingly altered.

  12. cphlebas

    i’m so sorry. but you taught me this. absence of comprehension is not the same as uncertainty; uncertainty is not the same as the ability to influence.

  13. Phil T

    I see going from 2d to 3d a little differently. If diagram one is a mat, and you assume each line is inflexible and each dot is a joint, you could roll it up, which would place Mary and Ted closer together. In 2d along the hypotenuse they’re just over 6.3 squares apart. Rolled up, they’d be just over 3.5 squares apart (if my math is right – it probably isn’t but the principle seems correct even if the specifics aren’t). And this is assuming flexibility only at the joints, but if the lines are also flexible then the mat could be rolled tightly, bringing Ted and Mary even closer together, and closer still if you then roll the mat in the other direction (difficult to do with carpet, but quite possible with silk…).

    (Not having read any of the mentioned material, I’ve probably completely misconceived the issue, but that’s nothing new…)

  14. Ashley R Pollard

    Hi Peter, if only you could’ve been at this years Science in Fiction conference at Imperial College run by Dr. David Clements you would have I’m sure have been fascinated by the talk given by Dr. Tim Evans on network analysis, which pretty much talked about how we visualize data: and in particular the simplified data grids that can be drawn in a different manner – a flat grid into a circle that shows exactly the same connections. The following link is not quite right, but illustrates the principle:

    Which is not the illustration Dr. Evans used, but it’s the nearest I could find on a quick search, based on Stanly Millgram’s work.

  15. livens

    Determinism is BS. And our current view does not have to include it. At least not in my nonPhysics educated view. So yes, maybe the past and future are already there and have always been. Our minds are just riding some ‘Timey’ dimension of the universe to see things in a particular order.

    So lets say you are an hyper dimensional consciousness and happen to look down upon our Universe. You see everything that ever happened all at once. A big blob of moments. In a determinist view, that hyper dimensional entity could focus in on any moment, and ‘run the tape’ forwards or backwards. See our past or future. Everything is just a set of fixed positional coordinates.

    No. What you actually see is a big FUZZY blob of moments. Each particle/wave/unit of energy has a little annotation next to it. It has a probability map of where it ‘could’ be. So if that entity ‘ran the tape’, rewound it, ran it again… and so on, each time through things would happen a little differently. Most ‘dumb’ matter out there will run the same course each time, with maybe some minute quantum fluxuations that amount to very little. But not us, not intelligent beings. Our minds run on quantum calculations to a certain extent, and would make slightly different decisions each time through. Our thoughts determine our actions.

    That’s what I believe anyway. The first time I read about the double slit experiment is when I starting thinking along these lines. I could be completely wrong and am quite sure that I am wrong. I have no proof, no equations at all to back my thoughts up. But I felt the need to resolve our currently accepted view of the universe and the issue with determinism that troubles so many of us ‘free thinkers’. Smolin seems to have an interesting concept though, I will try to read a little of his book one day.

  16. benthor

    I have ontological problems with the whole concept of “free will” anyway. Neurologically, I just this second am merely the product of my genome plus past and present external stimuli and some synaptic weights noisily and lossily encoding representations those stimuli, all mixed together in a bunch of glorified feedback loops called consciousness. The result is an abstract representation of an idea which results in me hitting these keys, conveying my “thoughts” to similar beings. Right now, one of the aforementioned feedback loops is telling me that I could just as well close the tab in an act of free will. This supposed choice however is none. I’ll go on posting this, as this is the only coherent cause of action based on aforementioned criteria. (And I want to hear your thoughts on this, dammit)

    I suspect the entire concept of “free will” stems from the human tendency to imagine alternative outcomes based on incomplete information or rather our musings about “what if…”. Such musings are solely within the domain of mental feedback loops on echos of past stimuli and probably are not at all pertinent to the “real world”. Even if there are quantum processes somewhere within your synapses, it’d just add more noise to the outcome without buying you any predictive power or true capacity of “choice” as the layman would understand the term. (Sure, with supposed parallel universes, such quantum noise may lead to a different outcomes in each but in absence of universe cross-talk à la Anathem, each copy of you will fend for itself within each universe, rendering the point, for all practical purposes, moot.) Thus “free will” as a concept is incoherent because only one outcome is ever observed.

    I myself don’t care either way, my noisy mental processes let me envision more than one outcome and grant me a satisfactory illusion of non-determinism. What I eventually end up doing is the result of a process which takes everything that defines me as a person into account. And if I do not end up liking a result, this will change what I am and I’ll go on to make more informed (but still deterministic) choices in the future.

    Ask yourself: Suppose a fairy gives you some form of “free will” (not in the Anathem sense). How would that manifest? (My armchair ramblings above are basically a result of asking myself that very same question a few years ago…)

    I bet that upon plucking up your courage and looking for the monster under the bed, you’ll find that there was nothing to fear after all.

  17. Mr Non-Entity

    @Peter Watts, who wrote in part:

    We may even find our way to ftl, if I’m reading this right. After all, the lightspeed limit only applies to our impoverished four-dimensional spacetime. If you pumped up the energy in a given volume enough to reactivate all those dormant cell-phone dimensions, wouldn’t space just collapse again? Wouldn’t every node suddenly get closer to every other?

    I am certain I have read stories based on a theory that exactly what you posit was the desired outcome, so to speak. All of the nodes don’t so much get closer each to every other, they all pretty much superimpose, perhaps by only the tiniest bit in what we might think of as “touching but not overlapping”, yet they would probably all deform in some way. By the way that was a very astute observation. Apply enough energy and you’re pretty much back where the initial conditions were set. But having got into that state, and having moved from one node (as it were) to another keyed to your intended destination, how do you get back to the universe as you left it? Arguably, that would be about the most difficult thing possible. Also arguably, that level of precedent that you note is going to decompress things right back to where they were (again, so to speak) since that is where they like to be… except for your ship, which is who-knows-where. Perhaps the precedent inherent in its own internal cohesion forces will echo out to find it a location in one of the parallel universes that looks incredibly identical because of the nearly identical history.

    But does that matter all that much, if your tumor-brained monks of the Bicameral Order are right, and the laws of the universe aren’t quite the same everywhere, and it seems that it might be intention that’s making things a little different “over there”? Perhaps the intention isn’t some cosmic deity, but rather the history of a vessel large enough and powerful enough to make a jump, having arrived here with its own history of precedent that isn’t quite the same as that of the surroundings, into which the imported history of precedent is leeching…

  18. ebie


    A Wrinkle In Time, baby. Bring on the tesseracts.

    Or if you prefer more formality: “Space” (now with scare-quotes) being curved, overlay your 2-D models on a sphere or hyperboloid or other shape of your choosing. (Your model’s still 2-D until you acknowledge otherwise). Wielding the new dimension reveals Points A & B closer together than you’d thought.

  19. Enan Emoose

    I don’t know nearly enough physics to be able to comment on all that space and time stuff, but I generally like the idea of no such thing as free will. I feel it reinforces my belief in God in a certain way.

  20. Divided Loyalty

    Not to be the party pooper, but Smolin’s book seems to be universally panned by the Physics community. Besides crapping on Relativity (Time and Space are related by the Lorentz Simmetry, not something you can trivially dismiss) he goes on some pretty high-falooting tangents about the Truth According to Smolin, the Crysis in Physics, and those marble tower wizards that keep the Conspiracy going.
    No appreciation of (anti)simmetry or Quantum Field Theory? Huh.
    Kudos if it entertained you and got the lobes pumpin, I know I’ve read my fair share of PopScience (Magueijo’s book about Variable Speed of Light comes to mind).

    I’d rather stick to Richard Muller’s upcoming “Now: The Physics of Time.” He’s also fun to read on Quora. Linky link:
    Why aren’t you in Quora? There’s lots of Peter Wattses, but none that match your particular cephalopodophilia…

  21. Peter Watts

    Divided Loyalty: Not to be the party pooper, but Smolin’s book seems to be universally panned by the Physics community.

    Fair enough, and maybe they’re right. But Smolin is no Deepak Chopra; the guy’s got some serious credentials. And a lot of scientific breakthroughs get universally panned when first introduced (It took about ten years for Margulis’ endosymbiosis concept to go from heresy to textbook canon). I’m not competent to judge either way; but I do know that “resistance from the elders” doers not necessarily map onto “wrong”.

    Divided Loyalty: Why aren’t you in Quora? There’s lots of Peter Wattses, but none that match your particular cephalopodophilia…

    I’m not really on any social media other than facebook, and I’m only there reluctantly. For one thing, I don’t think the world is full of people who want to know what I ate for breakfast or what cute things my cats did yesterday, and if those people do exist they can find me on my blog.

    Also, twitter lynch mobs. Social media seems to be a toxic fucking cesspit these days. Much rather keep to the ‘crawl, where I have a modicum of control.