Think About Nature


A conversation with Lee Smolin in Edge:

The main question I'm asking myself, the question that puts everything together, is how to do cosmology; how to make a theory of the universe as a whole system. This is said to be the golden age of cosmology and it is from an observational point of view, but from a theoretical point of view it's almost a disaster. It's crazy the kind of ideas that we find ourselves thinking about. And I find myself wanting to go back to basics—to basic ideas and basic principles—and understand how we describe the world in a physical theory.

What's the role of mathematics? Why does mathematics come into physics? What's the nature of time? These two things are very related since mathematical description is supposed to be outside of time. And I've come to a long evolution since the late 80's to a position, which is quite different from the ones that I had originally, and quite surprising even to me. But let me get to it bit by bit. Let me build up the questions and the problems that arise.

One way to start is what I call “physics in a box” or, theories of small isolated systems. The way we've learned to do this is to make an accounting or an itinerary—a listing of the possible states of a system. How can a possible system be? What are the possible configurations? What were the possible states? If it's a glass of Coca Cola, what are the possible positions and states of all the atoms in the glass? Once we know that, we ask, how do the states change? And the metaphor here—which comes from atomism that comes from Democritus and Lucretius—is that physics is nothing but atoms moving in a void and the atoms never change.