Time Reborn by Lee Smolin–Why Time Actually Exists

What is time?  Philosophically and scientifically, that’s a hard question to answer.  Can anyone even tell us how many books have been written about time?  Here are some of my questions: 

  • Is there one eternal now that exists everywhere, throughout all of reality, in this universe, and all the other universes of the multiverse? 
  • Is time just the 4th dimension?  Does the first three dimensions move through a fourth?
  • Does time actually exist, or is it just an illusion?
  • Why and how do we feel time?
  • What is the smallest unit of time? 
  • If something has been ticking since the Big Bang, what is that tick?
  • Is time mental or physical?
  • Will time stop if the average temperature of the universe reaches 0 degrees Kelvin?
  • Is time just change?  The motion of atoms, the turning of the Earth, our orbit around the sun, the unfolding of existence since the Big Bang?
  • Is the astronaut traveling near the speed of light, 300 hundred years ahead of us, time traveling?  How could two twins move into two different nows? 
  • Is the now of this space-time different from the now of another space-time universe somewhere else in the multiverse, or is there one universal now in all of reality? 
  • Are the past and future illusions? 
  • Is there a beginning or end of time? 
  • Is time travel possible? 
  • Are there beings that see all of time at once, as if we’re looking across a vast three dimensional space? 
  • Is there anything outside of time?
  • Do animals sense time?
  • Would time exist without us?
  • Is it possible to have two nows? 
  • If there is only now, does it matter what time it is?
  • If we didn’t measure time would we think it existed?

time reborn

Time Reborn by Lee Smolin, is a book about physics by a physicist who makes a scientific case for time to be real, and what that means philosophically and for physics.  If you are not a physicist, or a fan of popular science books, I’m not sure if I can recommend this book to you as fun reading.  It is hard to comprehend all the subtle implications involved with the physics of time.  However, if you have a philosophical bent, it might be worth considering.  Smolin is making a case that time exists, that it has a direction, and that reality is evolving. 

Classical physics always models the universe in mathematics, and quite often time either doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter, or the equations work regardless of the direction of time.  Ever since Einstein, scientists have searched for a grand unified theory of everything, hoping to find elegant equations that explained reality.  Smolin rejects this goal by making a case that the universe can’t completely be described in mathematics.

To the average person, with common sense, they will reply, “Duh!”  Isn’t it obvious that time exists.  Isn’t obvious that time has a direction.  Isn’t it obvious that mathematics can’t explain everything.  Our everyday reality is very far from Big Bang cosmology and quantum physics.  Physicists are trying to explain everything, and often it’s easy to ignore the immediate world.  When you’re number crunching complex equations to explain reality it’s easy to think time can be ignored, or even space.  But black box simulations of the universe aren’t modeling the real universe.

It’s hard to know exactly what Smolin is saying because he gives us so many possibilities to consider, but the epilogue suggests why he wrote the book, to make a philosophical statement.  What I got out of the book might not be what Smolin intended, but here’s how I read him.

Smolin wants us to accept time.  He wants us to reject the siren song of the timeless.  He warns us to be wary of timeless concepts of the universe, whether it’s religion, whether its a mathematical expression, whether it’s a simulation, or even Platonic ideals.  Mathematics can approximate some features of the universe, models can simulate some features, but ultimately, people like Max Tegmark and Juan Maldacena are wrong.  And reality is neither a creation of God or solipsistic dream.

If time is real, and the universe is evolving, either from the Big Bang, or earlier causes in the multiverse, and there is a universal now, with a past and a future.  Smolin doesn’t say it directly, but reality isn’t about us.  He’s against the anthropomorphic principle.  Realty would have existed without us.  We just accidently happened to evolve in a universe that is suitable for life – it wasn’t created for us.

Ultimately, there are limits to what science can see or detect, and to understand.  We can’t know why there is something rather than nothing.  We have a lot more we can learn about this universe, and we may even learn something about the multiverse, but the ultimate cause of existence is probably beyond physics.  To say that time exists does not mean we can prove time origin and end.

That’s the problem with humans.  Our religious and philosophical natures want timeless answers to the big ontological questions.  Physicists want timeless equations to explain everything.  The implication is, if time really exists, then timeless answers don’t.

Ever since I’ve finished this book I’ve tried to meditate on time.  To slow my thoughts and focus, hopefully to catch the ticking of time passing.  But I can’t.  All I can do is notice the slightest changes of things around me.  I feel if nothing moved, time would stop, but there’s always something moving.  We live in an eternal now. 

We have no recollection of events before our existence, nor will we be aware of things after we’re gone. 

We can only be here now.

JWH – 3/31/14

Studying Science in My Retirement Years–Breaking the Science Barrier

I am listening to From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll and although I can understand his words I doubt I understand what he’s trying to tell me.  The book is about time and entropy, and how they are seen from classical physics, relativity, and quantum physics.  I read and listen to a lot of science books, but I believe there’s a science barrier that I can’t break through.  I’ve also been reading Brian Greene and Lawrence M. Krauss, whose books often overlap what Carroll is covering.  These books are fantastic, both in the quality of writing and research, and in scope of topic.  They take the reader to the edge of space and time and describe the cutting edge of scientific knowledge.

The fruits of my study show a murky comprehension at best.  I can understand science at the level Galileo and Newton understood it, but 21st Century science is magical and closer to science fiction, lots of razzle-dazzle.  I’d like to truly see where science is pointing.  I’d like to grasp the experimental logic of how scientists got there.


I’m sixty years old and I never stopped trying to understand reality.  The older I get the more sure I am that religion has nothing to say about the nature of reality.  In recent years I’ve come doubt the validity of philosophy.  Logic and rhetoric can be very seductive, but also deceptive.  I am quite confident that science is the only system that explains reality. 

But I’m not sure I can understand science’s explanation!

What’s hilariously ironic, is we believers in science must take so much of what we’re taught about science on faith.


I struggle to make sense of quantum physics.  I wish they’d stop talking about cats and talk about actual experiments.  When science writers try to convey quantum physics they end up talking in metaphors that just don’t make a lot of sense.  Black holes and cosmology have a conceptual reality that makes sense, even though I can’t understand why information won’t be destroyed if it fell into a singularity.  I was very lucky to read The Information by James Gleick before reading these books, because information theory does make sense to me, just not at the quantum mechanics level yet.

When little kids ask their mommies where everything comes from and their moms answer “God created everything” – that’s a big convenient cheat.  Moms really don’t know or don’t want to take the time to explain what science has learned about the nature of reality.  The truth is out there, at least part of it, and it’s not what Fox Mulder and Dana Scully discovered with the help of Chris Carter, or anything you can learn from prophets and their religions, or even from Plato and Aristotle, and their philosophical descendants.


If you want to know the truth you have to study science.  It’s the only game in town.  Trust me.  I’ve read hundreds of books searching for the truth, and it all distills down to that.  Religion and philosophy can take you down years of blind alleys.

How badly do you want to know the truth?  Bad enough to study math?  Yeah, I thought so.  At 60, I don’t think I can go back and pick up where I left off after my B in Calculus I.  Without being a math whiz, how close can we come to really understanding science?  Without math, how close can anyone get to understanding what science has to teach?  I don’t want to accept science on faith.  Nor should anyone else.

In school and college I studied physics, chemistry and biology.  I know a fair history of science and great experiments, and how we gained the scientific knowledge we have up until around Einstein.  This is classical science.  It’s the science at the world’s eye view of things, where most experiments can be repeated in the classroom.  I’ve explored the larger world of astronomy with telescopes and books, and the mechanical universe makes sense too.  It’s when cosmology melds with particle physics and the quantum reality that my mind fails to grasp what’s going on.

Since I never had my own personal atom smasher, I’ve never really understood how scientists know what they know about the zoo of sub-atomic particles, much less quantum physics.  Because this world is invisible, and exploring it is so mathematical, science writers often resort to analogies, metaphors, similes, and thought experiments to explain this frontier of reality.  These stories sound wonderful, but they don’t help me see what’s really happening.  Classical experiments in gravity, optics and electricity have a immediate truth to them that doesn’t work when studying particle physics.  Chemistry is abstract, but models of molecular bonds help picture it.  The microscope gives biology a direct view.  Animations of the sub-atomic world help me picture things, but I’ve been told my whole life these animations are wrong.

What I need to do is go back to the 1600 and retrace all the experiments that were done to set the stage for particle physics.  That might help me conceptualize quantum mechanics.

I did find Following the Path of Discovery – Repeat Famous Experiments and Inventions – Hands on Activities for High School and College Students.

I once bought a CD-ROM copy of Scientific American’s “The Amateur Scientist” but I can’t find it now.  Too bad, it’s out of print and selling for $852 used.  But it contains the complete run of the “The Amateur Scientist” from Scientific American.  That would be a great way to spend my retirement years, doing those experiments myself.  But DIY science has gone out of fashion.  SciAm dropped “The Amateur Scientist” in 2001.  Heathkit and Edmund Scientific gave up on budding scientists years ago.  Make Magazine has rekindled the old DIY craze, but it’s not quite the same.

The big movement in Education now-a-days is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  Maybe it will reignite a rediscovery of science learning through teaching classic experiments.

PBS should create a television series on historical science experiments.  There’s lots of stuff on the net about fun science experiments, like what Steve Spangler does, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  PBS NOVA comes close sometimes, but they don’t follow an experiment step-by-step, but instead create a historical summary of it.

And I might not need to see historical experiments performed to understand particle physics.  Studying the history of quantum mechanics from the beginning, starting with Michael Faraday, might do the trick.  I’m reading 21st century books when I might need to read 19th century books first, or good histories of that period.

I’ve often wondered if I should start a reading program that covered the history of science.  My problem might be I’m reading about modern science without enough historical foundation in science.

If I was an ambitious blogger I’d create a timeline of science history, and then link the best science books I could find to the timeline.  Maybe someone has already done that?  So far I haven’t found such a timeline, so I might get to work on it.  It would be a great retirement project that could take years.

Here’s an example.  In 1838, Michael Faraday noticed a strange light arc between the cathode and anode in a glass tube.  It took science until 1897 to discover this light was electrons.  At the time science thought atoms were the smallest bits of matter.  What are the best science books that cover those years and experiments?  How would I arrange such books on a timeline?  What other science experiments were going on between 1838-1897 that should go on the timeline too.  What books cover their history?

I’m rearranging my books right now, so this gives me an idea.  I want to start a reading project that starts with 1600 and moves forward in time.

JWH – 8/22/12

How Will the Future See Us in the Art of Our Times?

When I go to a museum, like the National Gallery in Washington, DC, I look at their collection as a doorway into time.  I know when I look at a Titian or Rembrandt I’m not seeing an actual view of the past, but an artistic view.  Art works on many levels, but the level that is most important to me is what it communicates across centuries.

What I want to see when I look at a great work of art is communiqué from the past  .  When you look at this painting what does it say to you about 1659?  Scroll through Rembrandt’s paintings on Google Image Search, or his gallery at the Google Art Project, or read his entry at Wikipedia.  The more you study, the more you are pulled into the past.  If you become hooked you’ll even start reading history books.

[Click on photos for larger views.]


Rembrandt’s self portrait says so much.  He’s looking at us looking at him.  He knows we’ll see his world through his eyes, the ones that stare eternally from this painting.

Here is a photograph by Miru Kim.  In four hundred years what will people make of it and our times?  Will they think that was when humans discovered their cruelty to animals?  That early the 21st century was when we began to identify and empathize with our fellow creatures?


But what does this work by Mark Handforth say about our lives?


Now I’m not criticizing modern art.  Contemporary art is very successful, as Morley Safer reported on 60 Minutes recently, and written up as “Even n tough times, contemporary art sells.”  If the future will look into our souls from the art we leave behind, what will they see?

In our times art is about about how much it’s worth in dollars.  Art speculation is big business.  That’s a dimension of art that I’m not interested in, nor want to analyze.  I doubt “Vespa” will survive 400 years to be seen – pop sculptures look fragile to me.  I tend to think contemporary painting has been overshadowed by photography and film.  The future will know us through our documentaries.  But I think the Miru Kim photograph will communicate something to humans centuries from now if it survives.

Today I was reading in Anna Karenina, at the part where Anna and Vronsky are visiting the Russian artist, Mikhailov living in Italy.  They study his painting of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate.  Mikailov is trying to capture history, but tell the story from his unique time and place.  This scene allows Tolstoy to express his views on art, and he sends a literary message across time about the timeless of art.

Most of the art that Morley Safer showed us on 60 Minutes won’t last no matter how much people pay for it.  It either doesn’t send a message or sends the wrong message.  I’m not even saying it has to be a coherent message, it just needs to convey a piece of our collective soul in some way.  I think this one says a lot, but I can’t put it into words.


Then we have the problem of science fiction art.  It’s about the future, but is really about the present.  What do you make of this Richard Powers painting?  What does it say about the 1950s?


When I looked at the 60 Minutes piece I felt tremendously disappointed by most of the art is saw.  I worry that the future won’t look kindly on us because our art is so lacking in beauty and imagination, and it says so little about our times.  Like Mikhailov in Anna Karenina trying to paint something that’s been painted thousands of times before, the struggle to be unique is a dangerous quest.

Which takes me back to Rembrandt.  Why don’t artists paint more faces?  Why is the 20th and 21st century so faceless?


The art I like best features people.  Modern art seems to have moved away from people.  I guess painters think photographers have people covered, but I actually preferred painted people.  Here’s one of my favorites.


JWH – 4/12/12

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