Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Lee Smolin: Time Reborn

An incredible pile of unscientific gibberish

There's one aspect in which Lee Smolin's newest book is less irritating than his previous book, The Trouble With Physics: the main purpose of the new book isn't to mindless attack and lie about the best results of the contemporary theoretical physics research. Instead, if we ignore the mega-arrogant and super-dishonest subtitle "From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe", "Time Reborn" tries to attack physics from the times of Newton and "constructively" present Smolin's own ideas about physics – or something he apparently calls "physics" – and it's a stinky junk of the most despicable kind, indeed.

You may read some reviews before you decide whether you want to buy this tome or not. But let me summarize some basic points and some characteristic elementary mistakes that may serve as examples of what this pile of paper is all about.

If one suppresses the actual atrocious content of the book, its main thesis may be summarized by the slogan "time is real". What does it mean? Smolin opposes the idea that time may be emergent or the spacetime is doomed – without offering a tiniest glimpse of evidence for his prejudices. Everything must be a slave of time. You may recall his delusions about time-dependent laws of physics – this preposterous and ill-defined concept is given some attention, too.

You might think that the book is therefore a sequence of inconsequential quasi-philosophical babbling that is entirely disconnected not only from the advances in physics of the last 40 years – which was the case of "The Trouble With Physics" – but it is also unrelated to the physics research of the 20th century and probably physics as we have known it for 300+ years. And you would be mostly right. Most of the book is composed of scientifically meaningless words of the author who knows nothing about science but who can't resist to preach about his medieval philosophical prejudices.

But it would be just a part of the truth.

In fact, he does mention some things related to modern physics but almost always negatively so. He makes it very clear that he wants physics, science, and Nature to obey the prejudices of this super-arrogant would-be thinker and he wants to pay no attention whatsoever to what Nature and science research are actually telling us. He is clearly the polar opposite of a good physicist – or an honest human being, for that matter.
Off-topic – surely unrelated to Smolin because related to experiments: LHCb published its paper on the first observation of CP-violation in the decay of \(B_s\) mesons. Via Joseph S.

Dark matter: Some new papers incorporate the three highly persuasive events from CDMS. Frandsen et al. use a Kundera-inspired title to make the remarkable claim that this light dark matter is not ruled out by XENON, thus strengthening the "dark matter is seen" alliance in the dark matter wars. Del Nobile et al. are more negative in their halo-independent analysis. See also an older 2010 paper by Fox, Liu, Weiner. Via Neal Weiner's tweets.
How does it influence his proclamations about physics? For example, he predecides that time has to be fundamental but he also predecides that space is not. He seems to think that he is being told such insights directly from Heaven. However, we've known since the 1905 discovery of the special theory of relativity by Einstein that space and time are related by a symmetry – the Lorentz symmetry – so when it comes to certain properties such as their being "real" or "fundamental", they must have the same properties. How does Smolin deal with this fact?

He simply ignores (and spits on) all the evidence in favor of relativity. The scientific evidence – empirical facts and/or credible observations – never play a role in decisions about his portrait of the world. Well, more precisely, they do play a role – a negative one because Smolin seems to be obsessed with writing gibberish that contradicts the maximal possible number of scientific results.

It's not just relativity that gets spitted upon in this way. All these negative statements are being extrapolated to downright pathological dimensions. So you will find an almost literally endless tirade attacking the concept of symmetries in physics. Symmetries has to be destroyed, Smolin preaches. Every theory that has too many symmetries in it has to be banned. Given the importance that symmetries have played in physics for a century, we can only say one thing: What an amazing imbecile!

Needless to say, Smolin – who has no clue why relativity is not only right but an important finding about Nature – has no chance to understand quantum mechanics which is arguably much more inaccessible to the eternally hopeless laymen such as himself. So there's another endless tirade in which we "learn" that quantum mechanics has to be wrong as well and it will surely be replaced by a hidden variable theory. There isn't a glimpse of evidence supporting this bold claim, either. And all the evidence proving that this statement by Smolin is demonstrable bullshit are completely suppressed.

Even this theme isn't enough for Smolin so it gets generalized. Everything about physics has to be wrong. Moreover, he seems to assume that as soon as he convinces you to agree that something about the current picture of physics will be modified in the future (which is conceivable), you will have to accept his delusions instead (which is not conceivable). No suggestion that his delusions could be wrong as well can ever be found in the book. He behaves like a fungal cell that conspires to eliminate the good bacteria from your guts and instantly wants to occupy their place. Fungi may be hard to fight with but at least some imperfect fungicides and fungistats exist. I am not sure whether there exist efficient enough Smolinocides. At least in the institutions that are supposed to do science, they're badly needed.

The diversity of "obviously right and important" insights of science that Smolin can't resist to attack because they contradict his medieval dogmas is unbelievable. For example, he tells you – without any apologies – that electrons in the Universe are not indistinguishable. To "prove" this point, he says that one electron may be on Earth and another electron may be on the Moon so they're distinguishable.

He both misunderstands what the identical nature of particles means; and why it's true. Or he at least pretends to misunderstand both of these things. Location may effectively distinguish two or several electrons but the point is that if two or several electrons share the same region or come to occupy "states" that are not separated from each other by a "gap", e.g. during a collision or in the atom, we can't say "which one is which one" and connect the electrons in the initial state with those in the final state. For example, in terms of Feynman diagrams, we must sum over all the histories including the possible permutations of all the electrons to get the right result (the right probability amplitude). He can't possibly understand any of this basic undergraduate physics about (anti)symmetric wave functions. Or he understands it but finds it OK to hide all the evidence known to him that unequivocally implies that this whole book is a pile of shit.

If someone writes hundreds of pages of an incoherent text that dismisses not only the Lorentz symmetry, quantum mechanics, and (of course) quantum field theory and string theory (the only other known framework that is capable to reproduce and surpass the successes of QFTs: all these essential facts are totally censored in the book) but also any symmetry and probabilities and almost every other important result of the 20th century physics – such as the indistinguishability of particles – don't you agree that a "hardcore crackpot" is a very accurate description of the person? I don't believe that there exists a competent physicist who doesn't agree that Lee Smolin is a hardcore crackpot – although there may be folks who, probably for egotist reasons, try to hide this understanding of theirs.

The last three chapters resemble a speech of an Islamic fundamentalist preaching before the execution of a heretic who is being stoned to death. There isn't a trace of science in those chapters. It's pure religion and screaming that everyone must act to agree with Smolin's unscientific delusions. Lots of the book is dedicated to would-be arguments that physics shouldn't be studied using mathematics which is apparently "limited" for him.

I originally forgot but Phil Gibbs reminded me about an unbelievable claim in the book – that the best studied approach to quantum gravity is... loop quantum gravity. A somewhat honest crackpot might think various bizarre things, e.g. that loop quantum gravity is more correct, but the fact that string theory is more studied than loop quantum gravity by orders of magnitude is undoubtedly well-known to Mr Smolin so this proclamation has to be a deliberate lie.

The book is so terrible that it got a very negative review from Smolin's other most notorious fellow sourball, too.


  1. I would like to say I don't believe what I am reading. In this day and age, somebody holding a physics degree should not be capable of publishing a piece like you describe. Unfortunately, I know a few examples where this is true...
    You got me so rattled that I want to by the book just to better shoot it down...

  2. The idea of space-time with space and time mixed into a unity without a clear distinction between time, as record of change of position in space, and space, as difference in position, has corrupted modern physic and it is encouraging to see that there is at least one physicist who seeks to come to grips with this unfortunate state of affairs.

  3. Sorry, Claes, but you're a complete moron. The unification of space and time into a whole - relativity - is one of the two or three most important things that *define*, not "corrupt", modern physics.

  4. Maybe before a student gets a physics related B.Sc. there should be a six month required course on particle physics data and special relativity together. It is impossible to make heads or tails out of particle data without special relativity. Without it it would be like living in an Alice in Wonderland world.

    One of the reasons I keep inserting bubble chamber pictures in relevant answers I give in is that they really ground one on the reality of particles, and that reality cannot be rationalized without special relativity and quantum mechanics.

  5. A less-than-favourable review by his number one fan - I'm astonished!

  6. Pompous arrogance and unjustified self-confidence to have the nerve to patronize much smarter people (such as physicists) by telling them what they are allowed to do and think about, how they should do their work, etc is anti-correlated to the education and intelligence of the pompous fools who state such garbage comments as the one to which I reply.

  7. HAHA. Holy moley Lubos...I watched the Perimeter lecture on this crazy thing, and if the goal was to shock and amaze me, and make me laugh and cry, it sure succeeded.

    I actually think this is a really good development. Now this amazing piece of work will forever be associated with The Trouble With Physics, and all the semi-physics-literate people who didn't understand enough before not to accept his assertions as facts might be a little wiser about the quality of the insights he's prepared to offer. I'm especially thinking about the physics students who seem to get turned off to the whole field of high energy physics by some of these shoddy "word-level arguments" floating around, before they even get a chance to undertake learning about it themselves. Almost every B.S. physics student must have either the knowledge or the logical clarity to discern what to do with this book. Even a mildly-sophisticated layman must have enough of a bullshit alarm to be set off by this...

  8. Anna, at the end of the day, there will always be an imperfect correlation between nailing courses and genuinely understanding the material.

  9. I do like to form independent judgments and the book is cheap ... But ... As LM said and linked to , the reviews suggest I purchase Charmin toilet rolls as a better value.

  10. Aaha haha... I want to chant, Ali, Boumayé! Ali, Boumayé! But the truth is, this crackpot doesn't last anywhere near long enough for a Rumble in the Jungle. By the time the spectators have settled into their seats the fight is OVER!

  11. I’ve got to ask, Lubos; did you enjoy reading the book?

  12. I was going to say "Aside from that, Lubos, what did you think of the book?"

  13. I'm especially thinking about the physics students who seem to get turned off to the whole field of high energy physics by some of these shoddy "word-level arguments" floating around, before they even get a chance to undertake learning about it themselves

  14. If you don't see a difference between space and time, then you have a serious problem, and it does not go away by screaming and yelling, which does not belong to scientific discussion.

  15. Dear Dilaton, a glance at today's Amazon Germany best-seller lists reveals a rare conjunction, a syzygy of stupidity, that is breathtaking.

    No. 1 in "Time in Physics" books: the cracked porcelain pot in Ontario.

    No. 1 in "English-language Astronomy" books: the cracked porcelain pot in Ontario.

    1 in "Theoretical Physics" books
    : the schoolteacher in Munich.

    It's enough to make you despair of humanity! To cheer myself up, I re-read your scathing review on Amazon of the schoolteacher's book... nicely savage, I almost said "Amazonian" ;)

  16. Dear Claes, be sure that I see differences between space and time or between spacelike and timelike intervals - the only difference is a sign and its consequences - but I also see the symmetry allowing one to mix space and time with each other, and if you don't see this symmetry, you don't have a clue about modern physics.

  17. Dear Gene and Jason,

    I haven't finished it yet - various things make me busy. Just after Chapter 6 and I think it's extremely witty - astroturfally, sort of - and very intelligent, too. Recommended.

    Best wishes

  18. Oh, so you suddenly see a difference between space and time, but still you can mix the two? Yes, I have a problem with illogical unphysical modern physics where things are believable just because they are not understandable. I miss the clue to this sort of science.

  19. You miss the point. It is not pompous patronizing to simply point out contradictions or apparently meaningless statements. It would be better to meet the criticism in discussion than simply dismissing it because it is "pompous". This is not a scientific argument.

  20. Which book are you talking about above--not the Smolin one, I hope. ? Aaronson's.
    Smolin's sounds dreadful. I took a short course on special relativity in first year, and had read it in high school. It was perhaps the easiest course amongst the many I eventually took. If Smolin can't understand that and its importance, or that hidden variable theories in QM are verboten, or the incredible importance and power of symmetry and mathematics, he is a moron and a crank. GAWD.
    I read the Amazon reviews---it didn't even need one from you :) I liked one comment: "Proof by blatant assertion."
    A problem is that by his snake-oil, Elmer Gantry skills in sucking in the media, this will likely be hailed as another great book from "a leading expert".
    If physics had evolved along Smolin's lines, we would still be living in caves, if at all.

  21. Regarding PW, I checked his post today and it seems funny to me that he praises QFT and SM and on the other hand he rants against M- theory; the only existing natural extension of QFT/SM that could include Gravity and respect all their principles by taking into account all the lessons learned from QFT.

    And you have to include Gravity rather you like it or not.

    You want a proof? Besides String theory and related work nothing much is happening on hep-th.

  22. Thanks for the compliment about my review Eugene :-)

    I think such rankings of books by popular knownothing media are very useful for me today, the No. 1, 2, 3, etc entries point out stuff from which I should stay away by all means :-P. If popular media, newspapers, journalists, etc like a "theoretical physics" book today this is a very bad sign today, meaning that one should buy cheaper toilet paper ...

    I hint that a book I am considering reading is a good one is for example, when people like Witten and colleagues and other people who know what they are talking about, have written a positive comment on the back cover indicating that they like it .. :-)


  23. Claes , please stick to F=ma this is the ultimate theory of the universe .

  24. Lubos , you should remove the ads from your page that distribute crackpot ideas .Some crazy guy propose spheritons to be the theory of everything

  25. An AI program would not perhaps realize just how "not Lubos" that sounds if taken literal. But regardless LM may not mean it, Lee Smolin may now add that post to the dust jacket.
    It won't make the content any less crackpot but perhaps Lubos can then someday also have a lawsuit story - like Scott Aaronson opens his book with.

  26. I just watched the video at Perimeter.

    This is one of the biggest amounts of garbage which has ever been published in the name of physics.

  27. Stephen Paul KingApr 25, 2013, 5:26:00 AM

    Dear Lubos, I love ya man, but if you insist that space is not emergent you are just wrong. Kevin Knuth has presented a very powerful argument how space is not only emergent but that your beloved relativity is inevitable. See:

  28. I have seen differences between space and time since I was 2 and I have understood the symmetry between space and time - and the reason why everything you write is crap - since I was 8.

  29. Good for him or her. I've never seen an ad for spheritons and I am not sure whether I would be even able to locate the necessary IDs that would be needed to ban the ad.

    After all, this very article promotes another crackpot as well so spheritons aren't any special.

    It's my strict policy not to interfere into the ads etc. There are potentially 1 million consumers who could place ads anywhere in the network and lots of them actually appear and it's just crazy from the viewpoint of time to try to censor them on a one-by-one basis. It's crazy especially if one realizes that a reduction of revenue could be the only tangible outcome of such censorship.

  30. A crackpot paying for TRF (albeit only a tiny fraction) via advertising is the ultimate in cosmic justice.

  31. Exactly - although the justice would be even more cosmic with some extra zeroes at the end. ;-)

    I am not afraid of random crazy folks paying for ads. In some sense, this amplifies their being detached. I am much more afraid of crackpots who have apparently intruded into the system.

  32. He said the opposite, actually.

    Claes must have put the whammy on ya? ;-)

  33. Lubos wrote that "Smolin opposes the idea that time may be emergent or the spacetime is doomed..."

    Where did you read what I can't find that you think you read?

  34. Hmmm, I often comment that Lubos misses irony, but I see I did it in this case.

  35. It is of course of little or no consequence what I think or feel but I just felt it to be a little bit saddening and slightly concerning that a competency-certified professional mathematician, such as you Claes, have begun to complain about an experimentally proven (to be near enough perfectly predictive - hence correspondingly true) mathematical way of modelling how matter-energy behaves; How can you (do you) justify, to yourself, that you 'campaign' against a theoretical method that so nicely and smoothly (workably) merges our most simple sensory-derived notions about What Is going on???

  36. That may be a great question. However,

    1) I am no oracle and I am afraid no one else is an oracle, perhaps except for Warren Buffett

    2) even if I were an oracle, I don't know how to measure the percentage. It requires to give each insight or principle or belief or equation a weight; and to nicely define whether it's really changed.

    There are certain things I feel sure won't change, like the postulates of quantum mechanics, but they may be combined with some other things in ways that we can't imagine today. In a similar way, I am sure that the principles of relativity will remain as important and true as today but they may be incorporated into some broader set of principles.

    I am actually sure that in 150-200 years, quantum field theory will still be used for "most physics" and string theory will remain the only used framework (by serious physicists) that is superior to quantum field theory.

    Within QFT or string theory, many new examples, organizing principles, corrections to approximate laws, relationships but also solutions, applications, selection principles etc. will be known.

    I am not saying that totally "groundbreaking" revolution won't occur. I am confident it will. But it will look nothing like what the crackpots like Smolin would like to suggest. Something may change but it's probably not true that everything will change and one must still use rational arguments, and not general screams that "something should change", if he wants to replace some parts of the engine of physics by new components. Smolin has never used rational arguments in his talk about important things in physics.

  37. Luboš, as you yourself just suggested, no one knows much about the future of physics, and yet you *insist* that Smolin is out to lunch in this respect. Granted, he is not proposing much in a more 'tangible' way, but why do you ridicule *so vehemently* his view of the future of physics (even if it is not backed up with the appropriate formal machinery)?

    You think that the core of modern physics will be preserved (a very conservative view) while he doesn't think so. Yet some of his intuitions may turn out to be correct and young researchers need to hear them.

  38. Dear Lev, I vehemently oppose his kind of talking about physics because it leads to (or encourages) totally idiotic opinions like your among the laymen.

    Physics - and science - is not being studied with the goal of makind every possible claim equally likely, sensible, or valuable. The purpose of science is to learn the truth i.e. to separate, as sharply as we can, right claims from wrong claims.

    And Smolin's claims are just pure shit. They're in no way "equally valuable" as my comments - which is *exactly* what you're trying to suggest. Science just doesn't work in this way.

    One may say lots of things but if he doesn't have any evidence and, on the contrary, evidence seems very strong that he's wrong, his proclamations are just worthless feces from the scientific viewpoint. Can't you understand this simple fact?

  39. No Luboš, I can't "understand this simple fact", because, to put it bluntly, Smolin *is* concerned about his scientific reputation to a much larger extent than you are about yours, and he does have some reputation to be concerned about. ;-)

  40. Lev, I say that the fundamental degrees of freedom are little pink elephants. Who knows, maybe in 200 years I will be proven right.

    Sorry Lubos but such questions are not great but plain idiotic..

  41. Lev, I am a mathematician and not a physicist, but I can still tell that Smolin is out to lunch because he is trying to tell physicists that they shouldn't be doing physics. He completely fails to appreciate the accomplishments of modern physics, both in the practical sense that experimental results follow it and he has no alternative which experiment follows better, and in the theoretical sense that quantum mechanics and general relativity, the two greatest contributions ever to our understanding of how the world works, are being reconciled by work that he also has no better alternative to. I would like the mathematics involved to be better explained, and I would like to see better philosophical interpretations, but I don't want physicists to let either of these desires stop them from getting the physics right. (My hope is that progress in physics will be enabled by such progress in mathematics and philosophy, as it has been in the past, but I wouldn't dare presume to tell them they are doing something wrong when they are both consistent with experiment and making theoretical progress.)

  42. He should have been concerned about 30 years ago, now it's too late. He's just a crackpot. Every genuine physicist knows that. If you don't, it's because you are a brainwashed moron who has nothing to do with science.

  43. Joe, I'm reasonably sure that the core of the disagreement comes to the answer to this question:
    Are we experiencing an unrecognized but historically unprecedented scientific 'crisis' and are at the threshold of an unparalleled transitional period in science?

    For obvious reasons---as has historically always been the case---the vast majority of scientists cannot deal with the "yes" answer and are permanently blind to such possibility. But *very few* are more sensitive to the present situation and have more scientific guts to answer "yes".

  44. There's obviously no scientific crisis (unprecedented, WTF!?) but even if there ever were an "unprecedented scientific crisis", abandoning of the basic principles of the scientific method wouldn't do anything good to improve or solve the crisis.

    I reject your idiotic screaming that those talking about "scientific crises" have "guts". They're fucked-up immoral bastards, cowards, and scum. When at least 10% of these folks are executed - and they surely deserve it - you can (perhaps?) return back to discuss whether they're brave. But so far, you can't and I have put you on the black list so that your spamming of my blog with this incredible junk stops.

  45. Smolin has a point that the universe as a whole cannot be evolved through a time that exists independently and outside of the universe--it must be a part of it.

    Lubos had a point that, to an observer cycling around the Andromeda galaxy, our past, present and future will variously be in the cyclist's plane of simultaneity. But this does not affect *when* I am--that I am now and not in my future or past. Thus Presentism survives special relativity.

  46. I have seen two of the Perimeter lectures of Smolin and I can hardly find words ....
    It seems to me that he is trying to do some kind of "tabula rasa" with physics.
    I just can't buy that and prefer to follow this good old advice:
    “Bear in mind that the wonderful things that you learn in your schools are the work of many generations…. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it on to your children.”
    - Albert Einstein talking to a group of school children, 1934

  47. So you didn't enjoy Smolin's book? Reading between the lines I get the impression that you may have some reservations about it...

    I think you're too far one way and he's too far the other. It would be a pity to deny either the recent achievements of physics, or the present crisis in physics. But you talk about honesty, and the real test of that is often attitudes to time. Those who admit the problems there will help progress, and those who don't may hold it back. Phil Gibbs recently decribed Smolin as 'confused', but that's because he's been on the front line, struggling with the issues relating to time. Others will sweep them under the carpet. Paul Davies said that after writing his book about time, he felt more confused than before he started.

    Smolin always had the courage to tackle the difficult questions - perhaps that's part of why he has more of a sense of failure than some others.

  48. PS. It was Lawrence Crowell, not Phil Gibbs who called Smolin 'confused'.

  49. well. I just watched the economist, while keeping a straight face, interview this guy on youtube.

    Half way through I paused the video and googled "lee smolin is a crackpot", this page is the number one hit.

    Glad to know that with despite physics education barely beyond classical my BS detector is still functioning.

    Did he collaborate on the film "what the bleep do we know?" because he'd fit right into that to those new age religion guys wrapping themselves in pseudo science for profit.

  50. Hmmm...I'm still trying to figure out if you liked the book or not?

  51. What do you mean by "symmetry" "between" space and time. Relativity ties them together in structures that treat them symmetrically or path integral formulation allows treating on a par fashion etc. There might be, and I think there is, a fundamental difference between them. I think recent ideas about emergence of space-time from "events" is an interesting view and points to a one parameter "time" as being a primitive and space-time as emergent but these are speculations.

    I have "crackpot" ideas of my own, we all do, but I always call them speculations. It is true that string theory was well motivated and has had some successes but it has elements of speculations. I am sure you know the arguments and it is not just Smolin who has made them.

    I think causal set theory is a legitimate path to think about also well grounded - equivalent classes that emerge in general relativity etc- But much of its further development is also speculative in a sense that like string theory, it is driven by its own mathematics.

    How much of the universe is born out of dynamic primitives and how much of is structural-geometric ? We are seeing interesting ideas about "events" being primitives but then results like "Amplituhedron" surprise us. I think there is a fundamental theory but we are far from it.

    btw I agree that indistinguishably is too fundamental of a result to be thrown away so haphazardly and there is no evidence whatsoever that physical laws "evolve". If I had those ideas I would always qualify them as "wild speculations". Roger Penrose somehow manages to speculate and not sound like he is doing anything more. I don't know if you have heard his ideas about infinite expansion = singularity = big bang?

    Perhaps there should be a journal called "speculations" where people like Smolin can entertain their ideas without the fear being wrong. I don't if you realize how afraid academicians are to be wrong or be labeled a crackpot. That is also not healthy.
    -take care.