Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum by Lee Smolin

Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist who is dissatisfied with the state of theoretical physics. He is not alone in being dissatisfied. Physicists have two wonderful theories —  quantum mechanics (which deals with the very small) and general relativity (which deals with the very large) — that don’t fit together. Some of them have been trying for decades to reconcile the two theories. In addition, there is a lot about quantum mechanics that seems crazy or at least paradoxical. It’s been argued, therefore, that the theory is incomplete.

Smolin believes that there is a fundamental reality separate from our perceptions that underlies both quantum mechanics and general relativity. He would like to figure out what that reality is. He says this makes him a “realist”.

The first part of the book discusses what Smolin calls “anti-realist” views, primarily the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (sometimes referred to as the “shut up and calculate” view). He then outlines some competing views, such as Einstein’s, according to which quantum mechanics is incomplete.

In the final chapters, he offers the beginnings of his own theory. I won’t try to explain it, but he begins with an idea proposed by the brilliant German philosopher Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz (who died 300 years ago). Leibniz suggested that the universe is composed of an infinite number of simple substances called”monads”. The Wikipedia article on Leibniz says “each monad is like a little mirror of the universe”, i.e. a mirror reflecting all the other monads.

Near the end of the book, Smolin offers a one-sentence summary of his theory:

The universe consists of nothing but views of itself, each [view being from the perspective of] an event in [the universe’s] history, and the [universe’s] laws act to make these views as diverse as possible [271].

For Smolin, time is a fundamental feature of the universe. Space isn’t. Space emerges from events. Furthermore, the fact that space isn’t fundamental helps explain how two particles that are millions of miles away from each other can be “entangled”, so that an effect on one can immediately affect the other. That’s the idea of “non-locality” that Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”.

Smolin is sure that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he believes it’s worth trying to find them. If you’d like to know more, you’ll have to read the book or find someone else to explain it. There are diagrams and no math!

Where Does the Weirdness Go? (Why Quantum Mechanics Is Strange, But Not As Strange As You Think) by David Lindley

If you want an introduction to quantum mechanics, this is a very good book to read. I didn’t get some of it, but I don’t blame the author, who does an excellent job. He was a theoretical astrophysicist before he began editing science magazines. Since the book was published in 1996, some of it may be out of date, but not enough to make a difference to the general reader.

The title “Where Does the Weirdness Go?” refers to a puzzle. Since events at the quantum level are weird, why doesn’t that weirdness show up at the level of our ordinary experience? Reality looks fairly well-defined to us. We don’t see the things around us as probabilities. The chair you’re sitting on is right there under you; it’s not possibly there and possibly not there. Electrons and photons may be in an indeterminate state, possibly here and possibly there, but that probabilistic weirdness disappears when it comes to higher-level stuff.

I think the book’s subtitle (“Not As Strange As You Think”) refers to the puzzle’s answer. Lindley explains that, roughly speaking, quantum weirdness disappears when something called “quantum coherence” turns into “quantum decoherence”. When a quantum state is “coherent”, its properties are mere probabilities. But that can only be the case if the quantum system is isolated from other quantum systems. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

… when a quantum system is not perfectly isolated, but in contact with its surroundings, coherence decays with time, a process called quantum decoherence. As a result of this process, the relevant quantum behaviour is lost.

The quantum behavior referred to here is the weirdness (things like “is it a particle or is it a wave?” and “spooky action at a distance”). Since quantum systems (photons, electrons, paired particles) are rarely, if ever, appropriately isolated inside objects like chairs, clouds and chickens, those types of things don’t behave weirdly.  The constant atomic and sub-atomic turmoil inside everyday objects means that their properties are defined or definite, not probabilistic. The stuff we see around us doesn’t display any quantum weirdness because there are trillions upon trillions of quantum-level interactions occurring at every moment.

One thing the book makes clear is that there’s nothing special about quantum states being measured. Nor does human consciousness have any special role in quantum mechanics. In fact, measurement is an example of decoherence. When a physicist measures an electron, it is no longer isolated. In order to be measured, the electron has to interact with something else at the quantum level. That results in the electron’s possible position or momentum becoming real, not probabilistic. So when we hear about the importance of measurement in quantum mechanics, it only means that something at the quantum level is interacting with something else at that level. Most such interactions have nothing at all to do with us humans. 

Something (among many) I don’t understand: Once an electron has lost its probabilistic nature by interacting with some other quantum-level thing, do any of its properties ever become probabilistic again? If not, it would seem like every electron or photon in the universe would eventually have well-defined properties. 

I’ll say one more thing about the book. The author subscribes to what’s known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics. Apparently, most physicists do. The Copenhagen interpretation is a response to questions like “what’s really going on at the quantum level?” and “is it possible to explain why quantum events are so weird?” The answer given by the Copenhagen interpretation is: “Don’t bother trying to understand what’s happening. We can’t explain what’s happening and there is no sense in trying, because there is no definite reality to be explained at that level until measurement (or quantum-level interaction) occurs. This is just the way the world is.”

The author concludes by asking “will we ever understand quantum mechanics?” Here’s his answer:

But we do [understand it], don’t we? As an intellectual apparatus that allows us to figure out what will happen in all conceivable kinds of situations, quantum mechanics works just fine, and tells us whatever … we need to know….

[But] quantum mechanics clearly does not fit into any picture that we can obtain from everyday experience of how the world works… It throws us off balance… Physics, and the rest of science, grew up with the belief in objective reality, that the universe is really out there and that we are measuring it…. And the longer the belief was retained, the more it came to seem as it must be an essential part of the foundation of physics….

Then quantum mechanics came along and destroyed that notion of reality. Experiment backs up the axioms of quantum mechanics. Nothing is real until you measure it [or it comes into contact with something else!], and if you try to infer from disparate sets of measurements what reality really is, you run into contradictions….

A true believer might conclude that objective reality must still be there somewhere, beneath quantum mechanics. That’s what Einstein believed….[But] if quantum mechanics does not embody an objective view of reality, then evidently an objective view of reality is not essential to the conduct of physics…

[But] quantum mechanics, despite its lack of an objective reality, nevertheless gives rise to a macroscopic world that acts, most of the time, as if it were objectively real… And so, almost paradoxically, we can believe in an objective reality most of the time, because quantum mechanics predicts that the world should behave that way. But it’s because the world behaves that way that we have acquired such a profound belief in objective reality — and that’s what makes quantum mechanics so hard to understand [222-224]

Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist whose previous book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller. In this one, he tells a familiar story: the history of physics from ancient Greece to the present day. But he tells it in such a charming and enlightening way that the story feels new.

One of the lessons from the book that will stick with me is that, according to current physics, the universe isn’t infinitely divisible. At some point, you’ll get to the bottom where the quanta (or tiniest pieces) are. The surprising part of that idea is that these quanta apparently include the quanta or tiny pieces of spacetime. But these tiniest pieces of spacetime aren’t in space or time. They compose space and time. Here’s how he sums it up at the end of the book:

The world is more extraordinary and profound than any of the fables told by our forefathers…. It is a world that does not exist in space and does not develop in time. A world made up solely of interacting quantum fields, the swarming of which generates — through a dense network of reciprocal interactions — space, time, particles, waves and light….

A world without infinity, where the infinitely small does not exist, because there is a minimum scale to this teeming, beneath which there is nothing. Quanta of space mingle with the foam of spacetime, and the structure of things is born from reciprocal information that weaves the correlations among the regions of the world. A world that we know how to describe with a set of equations. Perhaps to be corrected.

The biggest puzzle Rovelli and his colleagues are working on is how to reconcile the small-scale physics of quantum mechanics and the large-scale physics of general relativity. They aren’t consistent. Currently, the most popular way to resolve the inconsistency is string theory, but Rovelli’s preferred solution is loop quantum gravity. Unfortunately, his explanation of loop quantum gravity was the part of the book where he lost me. Maybe a second or third or fifteenth reading of that section would clear things up.

The other idea that will stick with me is from quantum field theory: among the fields that make up reality, such as the electron field and the Higgs boson field, is the gravitational field. But the gravitational field is just another name for spacetime. Spacetime is the gravitational field and vice versa. That’s what Rovelli claims anyway, although he ends the book by pointing out that all scientific conclusions are open to revision given new evidence and insights.

A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time by Adrian Bardon

Someone thought it would be a good idea to call this book A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time, no doubt as an allusion to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The book’s focus isn’t historical, however. It’s a brief introduction to the philosophy of time, with chapters devoted to the nature of time, its direction, its passage, and a few other standard topics. Professor Bardon’s explanations of the issues are almost always clear and the book is relatively easy to read.

The most interesting aspect of the book is Bardon’s strong preference for the “static theory of time”. That’s the counter-intuitive view that the apparent passage of time is an illusion, or, more precisely, that it’s merely the result of our human perspective. The static theory isn’t new. The Greek philosopher Parmenides argued for it 2,500 years ago. J. M. E. McTaggart unhelpfully gave the name “B-series” to this conception of time, distinguishing it from the more familiar “A-series” or “dynamic theory of time” that most people accept, according to which time passes as events move from the future to the past:

The static theorist believes in change, but only understood in a way that doesn’t commit one to the passage of time: Change, on the static theory, is to be understood as merely referring to the world being timelessly one way and timelessly another way at a subsequent moment.  

The B-series places every event in the history of the universe on an unchanging timeline. On this view, it‘s appropriate to describe every event as either earlier than, later than or simultaneous with every other event. But there is no special significance to the present moment (the “now”). It’s no more descriptive to say that an event is happening “now” than to say that a location is “here” or a direction is “up”. The idea that some events are in the past or future compared to the present moment is an illusion. So far as our “block universe” is concerned, all moments in time are equally real, not just the present one.

The static view of time isn’t universally accepted, but it’s popular among physicists and philosophers. One reason Bardon accepts it is that he thinks McTaggart’s arguments for the static theory and against the passage of time are “devastating”.

I think they’re confused. For example, McTaggart and Bardon hold that it’s self-contradictory to say that an event like the 1960 World Series used to be in the future and is now in the past, since by doing so we are attributing contradictory properties (being past and being future) to the same thing (a particular event). But being past or future are relational properties that vary with time. Saying an event was future and is now past is akin to saying a person was married and is now divorced, hardly a contradiction.

Bardon also presents Einstein’s theory of special relativity as a reason for doubting that time passes. Physicists have confirmed that two observers moving at great speed relative to each other will perceive time differently. For this reason, there is no place in physics for saying that two events are truly simultaneous, or which of two events happened first, except from a particular point of view: 

If there is no privileged vantage point from which to determine the “truth” of the matter – and the whole point of relativity is that there is not – then temporal properties like past, present and future cannot possibly be aspects of reality as it is in itself. They must be subjective and perspectival in nature.

Yet the theory of relativity pertains to how events can be observed or measured, given the constant speed of light. It doesn’t tell us how reality is “in itself”; it tells us how reality is perceived. Just because we can’t always know when two events occurred doesn’t mean there is no truth to the matter. A truth can be unknowable.

Furthermore, if relativity implies that there is no objective A-series past or future, it also implies that there is no objective B-series “earlier” or “later”. Bardon tries to draw a distinction between relativity’s implications for the dynamic and static theories of time, but it isn’t convincing. Perhaps the book would have been better if Bardon hadn’t so clearly taken sides.

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg

The author is a professor of philosophy at Duke University who usually writes books for other philosophers and people who aspire to be philosophers. This one was written for a general audience. Maybe that’s why the book comes on so strong. Borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase, it’s philosophy with a hammer.

I assume Professor Rosenberg chose the title, but it’s a little misleading. Rosenberg derives his atheism from a more fundamental view called “scientism”. He defines that as the worldview according to which “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”. Unfortunately, there is no word that refers to someone who accepts scientism except “scientist” and you can definitely be a scientist without believing in scientism. Plus, a title like The Guide to Reality for People Who Accept Scientism isn’t exactly catchy. So “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” it is.

One way Rosenberg explains scientism is to say that physics fixes all the facts (except, presumably, for the facts of logic or mathematics). Physics says that all events in the history of the universe, except some at the quantum level, are determined by previous events and the laws of nature. Furthermore, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy ultimately increases in an isolated system) is the “driving force” behind evolution, which is the result of haphazard genetic mutation. Evolution gave us minds, but our minds are nothing more than the activity of our brains.

Rosenberg concludes that we don’t have free will, introspection is generally misleading and thoughts (whether conscious or unconscious) aren’t “about” anything (since what happens in a neuron can’t be “about” anything — it’s just a tiny input/output device). Furthermore, there are no purposes in nature, even in our minds, and there are no ethical facts. Morality is just another evolutionary adaptation. In addition, we can learn nothing from history or economics, since human culture is constantly evolving.

Rosenberg expresses his conclusions with an air of almost absolute certainty, which is odd for someone who believes in science (maybe it’s not so odd for someone who believes in scientism). For example, he says that “what we know about physical and biological science makes the existence of God less probable than the existence of Santa Claus”. Perhaps he’s being facetious in that passage, but many atheist or agnostic philosophers would agree that God’s existence is a metaphysical question beyond the reach of science. Natural processes don’t count for or against the supernatural. Besides which, there is no evidence at all for the existence of Santa Claus.

Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin

The theoretical physicist Lee Smolin has written 4 books. I’ve read 3 1/2 of them.

His first book, The Life of the Cosmos, applied the theory of evolution to cosmology. Smolin suggested that our universe might be a good home for life because universes breed new universes, which differ somewhat from their parents. Over time, a universe with lots of black holes will generate a number of new universes with lots of black holes, and universes with lots of black holes tend to be hospitable for life, since their fundamental constants (like the strength of their subatomic forces) have values that permit life to evolve.

His next book, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, was too technical for me, but I did finish his 3rd book, The Trouble With Physics. In that one, he argued that string theory is much too popular among physicists, since it isn’t a proper scientific theory. It’s too speculative and might never generate testable predictions.

Now there is Time Reborn. This is a kind of sequel to Smolin’s earlier books. He still subscribes to the evolutionary views presented in The Life of the Cosmos, but his principal thesis now is that time is real. In fact, time is more real than space. This contradicts the common view among physicists and philosophers that space and time are the four dimensions that make up “spacetime”. The standard view among physicists is that all events, whether past, present or future, are equally real. There is nothing special about the present moment. In fact, our perception that time passes is an illusion.

Smolin argues that this consensus view of the universe as a “block universe”, in which all moments are the same, is a mistake. He agrees that the laws of physics and the equations that express them can run forwards or backwards, but only on scales smaller than the universe as a whole. The planets could revolve the other way around the sun, just like clocks can run in reverse. But the universe as a whole has a history that is real and a future that isn’t determined. Smolin thinks that treating time as real might help resolve certain issues in physics, such as the “arrow of time”, i.e., the fact that certain processes always go in one direction (entropy tends to increase in isolated systems).

Professor Smolin tries to explain how his view of time fits with Einstein’s special theory of relativity (in which temporal properties are relative to an observer) and how something can act like a particle and a wave at the same time (as shown by the famous “double-slit” experiment). I don’t know if those explanations or some of his other technical explanations make sense. But it was reassuring to read a book by a reputable physicist who believes that time is real, physicists have overemphasized the importance of mathematics in understanding the universe, and there is a reality beyond what we can observe. Smolin also believes that there are probably more fundamental, deterministic laws that underlie quantum mechanics. I believe that’s what Einstein thought too.

Time Reborn veers into philosophy at times. There is much discussion of the Principles of Sufficient Reason and the Identity of Indiscernibles. The book concludes with some comments on subjects that aren’t physics, like the nature of consciousness. Smolin’s philosophical remarks are relatively unsophisticated. I assume his physics is better.

Even if he’s wrong about the reality of time, however, I enjoyed the book. For one thing, I can now see how two particles at opposite ends of the universe could be “entangled”, such that a change to one would automatically result in an immediate change to the other. Space might have more dimensions than we recognize. In another spatial dimension, the two entangled particles might be very close neighbors, making what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” (“spukhafte Fernwirkung“) less mysterious. That makes me feel a lot better.

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

Journalist and former philosophy grad student Jim Holt sets out to answer that long-standing philosophical/scientific question: Why is there something rather than nothing? 

His principal method is to interview a number of well-known philosophers (Adolph Grunbaum, Richard Swinburne, John Leslie and Derek Parfit) and scientists (David Deutsch, Andre Linde, Alex Vilenkin, Steven Weinberg and Roger Penrose). He also talks to John Updike, who is surprisingly knowledgeable about both science and philosophy.

Nowadays, when people ask why the world exists they are generally asking why the Big Bang occurred. Unfortunately, nobody knows. The most common answers are that there was some kind of random quantum event that made it happen or that God made it happen. Some people think that our universe is just a small part of reality and that somehow the existence of a vast, possibly infinite, collection of other universes explains why ours is here and/or why ours is the way it is. The philosopher John Leslie thinks that our universe might exist because it’s good.

As soon as a particular cause or reason for our universe to exist is suggested, it is natural to ask why that cause or reason is the explanation, rather than some other cause or reason. Why are the laws of quantum mechanics in effect? Where did God come from? This is why the answer provided by a Buddhist monk at the very end of the book is my personal favorite: “As a Buddhist, he says, he believes that the universe had no beginning….The Buddhist doctrine of a beginning-less universe makes the most metaphysical sense”.

Perhaps the reality that exists (the super-universe, whatever ultimately caused the Big Bang) has always existed and always will. It simply is. It never came into existence, so no cause, reason or explanation is necessary or possible. Perhaps it’s cyclical. Perhaps it’s not. But it’s eternal, with no beginning or end.

This book is worth reading, but not as good as it might have been. Mr. Holt writes well and seems to accurately present the ideas of the thinkers he interviews. But his own thoughts on the subject, and other subjects, such as consciousness and death, aren’t especially interesting or profound. In particular, his attempt to prove the existence of an infinite yet mediocre universe is completely unconvincing. His travel writing — where he stayed, what he ate, his strolls through Oxford and Paris — is also a bit much. He doesn’t just bump into a philosophy professor at a local grocery store; it’s a “gourmet” grocery store. He has excellent taste in food and drink as well.  (9/8/12)