Claims about time

Alan Lightman relates some ideas from the new Lee Smolin book:

He [Smolin] goes on to propose a variety of revolutionary ideas to codify further his notion of “real time.” In one, he suggests that every atom in the universe is causally connected to every other atom in the universe, no matter how many light-years away. According to his notion, the failure of standard quantum mechanics to predict the behavior of individual atoms arises from the fact that it does not take into account the vast numbers of interconnections extending across the universe. Furthermore, this picture of the cosmos requires an absolute time (in violation of relativity), which he calls “preferred global time.”

One of Smolin’s most astonishing ideas is something he calls the “principle of precedence,” that repeated measurements of a particular phenomenon yield the same outcomes not because the phenomenon is subject to a law of nature but simply because the phenomenon has occurred in the past. “Such a principle,” Smolin writes, “would explain all the instances in which determinism by laws work but without forbidding new measurements to yield new outcomes, not predictable from knowledge of the past.” In Smolin’s view such unconstrained outcomes are necessary for “real” time.

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No science has ever propagated "forbidding new measurements to yield new outcomes, not predictable from knowledge of the past.”, nor will it.

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Someone should send him a copy of Hume's Treatise.

Damn - too late.

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The late Petr Beckmann claimed that the Earth is pulled toward a point 20 arcseconds ahead of the apparent position of the Sun -- i.e. where the Sun is, rather than where it was 8.3 minutes ago when the light was emitted from the Sun's surface. This implies that gravity travels instantaneously, which seems to be a violation of relativity. If this is really true, absolute time could also be possible.

I once proposed something similar to my science teachers back in the days, and was shouted down. Truth is, the Einstein-inspired model of velocity as a constant is getting long in the tooth, and I see this particle-wave duality version of absolute time is an attempt to challenge the standard model.

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General relativity has been tremendously successful in explaining the orbits of the planets. It may be that there is some evidence out there, waiting to be observed, that refutes GR, but you will have to look somewhere other than planetary orbits to find it.

In the full relativistic treatment of the Earth's orbit around the sun, no force pulls on the Earth in any direction. Rather, the sun's gravity creates curvature in space-time, and the Earth follows a geodesic in that curved space-time. Any changes in the sun's mass distribution create changes in space-time that propagate at the speed of light, as expected in a relativistic theory. If, on the other hand, you treat the problem in a weak-field Newtonian or post-Newtonian approximation, then you must calculate forces using the actual, not retarded, positions of the interacting bodies. To do otherwise would cause you to get different answers depending on whether you worked in the sun's reference frame or the earth's reference frame. This does not mean that gravity travels instantaneously. It just means that when making nonrelativistic approximations to relativistic phenomena, you have to be careful to approximate everything in the problem consistently.

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the failure of standard quantum mechanics to predict the behavior of individual atoms

Failures like the hydrogen spectrum?

I agree. Larger atoms are too complicated. The simple hydrogen atom is a success.

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If every particle is distinguishable then you reach the Gibbs paradox in thermodynamics. In other words, the definition of entropy gets screwed up if atoms have license plates. One thing I have learned to believe in is entropy.

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The closest I can come to what I think Smolin is trying to convey, and still talk about something concrete and testable, is my essay here: http://rjlipton.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/digital-butterflies-and-prgs/ (or Google "digital butterflies"). The relation is: more of Smolin's "connections" == fewer degrees of freedom than there could be == fewer bits of true randomness in the environment---which is what the hash-key scheme for board positions constitutes for a chess program.

Spoken as a true chess player, since chess is life, reducing every problem to a chess problem! Well done professor, check and mate! BTW check out (no pun) this book on the NP-complete problem of math, for a lay audience but surprisingly good: The Golden Ticket [Kindle Edition] by Lance Fortnow.

Lance is my wife's college roommate's husband's former officemate. He also is Chair of my senior blog partner's department, and remembers my appearance on Shelby Lyman in 1972. Glad you like the book! :-)

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I forgot that my original purpose was to add that an older version of the same quandary about connections/entanglements is David Bohm's Implicate and Explicate Orders. I find even http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicate_and_explicate_order_according_to_David_Bohm hard to comprehend, but maybe my hash-table analogy helps. The "explicate order" is the chess program the way you see it as an end-user, where you suppose that the hash table is not subject to any factors other than the standard "birthday paradox" analysis of collisions assuming independence of locations and choices. The "implicate order" is what's really going on under-the-hood, given that the 50,000 bits allocated to initialize the hashing scheme may not be truly random (like they can and should be---the many chess programs using pseudo-random generators to initialize them are just being "lazy" IMHO). They may instead be "entangled" in ways that are hard to see by simple computations, but which the intense computational process of a chess analysis (or a molecular simulation for developing a new drug) may trip on. To continue the chess theme, one of the progenitors of "digital physics" is the same Edward Fredkin who endowed the Fredkin computer-chess prizes: http://www.digitalphilosophy.org/

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Fancy ideas are great, but what's his empirical evidence?

Are the propositions " every atom in the universe is causally connected to every other atom" or "principle of precedence" testable and / or falsifiable?

Exactly right. This is unfalsifiable bullshit

The reviewer seems impressed though. And he's a " physicist, teaching at M.I.T".

Maybe we are wrong?

Read more about Smolin and his theories. His is very much into Popper, falsifiability, and believes that his current ideas (unlike multiverse and string theories) are falsifiable...

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"One of Smolin’s most astonishing ideas"

Sounds like a Jorge Luis Borges parody.

In the most popular translation of Borges's philosophical fiction, the word "astonishing" comes up a lot, such as in: "History, the mother of truth: the idea is astonishing." -- From "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."

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The principle behind Douglas Adam's improbability drive, no?

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Does quantum mechanics fail to predict the behavior of individual atoms? It seems like he is assuming that the universe must be deterministic.

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"Failure to predict" has always seemed to me to be a loaded way of discussing quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is not silent about the outcomes of the measurements in question: it says that that information does not exist in the way that you might naively expect that it does, and gives a good and perfectly self consistent description of what does happen when measurements are performed. Those predictions, needless to say, are verified every day by huge numbers of experiments. In contrast, the hidden variable people have had a very rough eight decades, with very little to show except some philosophical intuition and some tortured restatements of the Schroedinger equation, which is quite simple to understand without being restated.

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