https://www.quantamagazine.org/were-stuc...-20190627/

EXCERPT: The universe is kind of an impossible object. It has an inside but no outside; it’s a one-sided coin. This Möbius architecture presents a unique challenge for cosmologists [...] It’s a situation that Lee Smolin has been thinking about for most of his career.

Smolin often finds himself inspired by conversations with biologists, economists, sculptors, playwrights, musicians and political theorists. But he finds his biggest inspiration, perhaps, in philosophy — particularly in the work of the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz [...and his...] fundamental ingredient ... the “monad,” a kind of atom of reality, with each monad representing a unique view of the whole universe. It’s a concept that informs Smolin’s latest work as he attempts to build reality out of viewpoints, each one a partial perspective on a dynamically evolving universe. A universe as seen from the inside.

Quanta Magazine spoke with Smolin about his approach to cosmology and quantum mechanics, which he details in his recent book, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

[...] You have a slogan: “The first principle of cosmology must be: There is nothing outside the universe.”

[...] The statement that there’s nothing outside the universe — there’s no observer outside the universe — implies that we need a formulation of physics without background structure. All the theories of physics we have, in one way or another, apply only to subsystems of the universe. They don’t apply to the universe as a whole, because they require this background structure.

If we want to make a cosmological theory, to understand nature on the cosmological scale, we have to avoid what the philosopher Roberto Unger and I called “the cosmological fallacy,” the mistaken belief that we can take theories that apply to subsystems and scale them up to the universe as a whole. We need a formulation of dynamics that doesn’t refer to an observer or measuring instrument or anything outside the system. That means we need a different kind of theory.

You’ve recently proposed such a theory — one in which, as you put it, “the history of the universe is constituted of different views of itself.” What does that mean?

It’s a theory about processes, about the sequences and causal relations among things that happen, not the inherent properties of things that are. The fundamental ingredient is what we call an “event.” Events are things that happen at a single place and time; at each event there’s some momentum, energy, charge or other various physical quantity that’s measurable. The event has relations with the rest of the universe, and that set of relations constitutes its “view” of the universe. Rather than describing an isolated system in terms of things that are measured from the outside, we’re taking the universe as constituted of relations among events. The idea is to try to reformulate physics in terms of these views from the inside, what it looks like from inside the universe.

How do you do that?

There are many views, and each one has only partial information about the rest of the universe. We propose as a principle of dynamics that each view should be unique. That idea comes from Leibniz’s principle of the identity of indiscernibles. Two events whose views are exactly mappable onto each other are the same event, by definition. So each view is unique, and you can measure how distinct one is from another by defining a quantity called the “variety.” If you think of a node on a graph, you can go one step out, two steps out, three steps out. Each step gives you a neighborhood — the one-step neighborhood, the two-step neighborhood, the three-step neighborhood. So for any two events you can ask: How many steps do you have to go out until their views diverge? In what neighborhood are they different? The fewer steps you have to go, the more distinguishable the views are from one another. The idea in this theory is that the laws of physics — the dynamics of the system — work to maximize variety. That principle — that nature wants to maximize variety — actually leads, within the framework I’ve been describing, to the Schrödinger equation, and hence to a recovery, in an appropriate limit, of quantum mechanics.

[...] It reminds me of a lot of work that’s going on now in physics that’s finding surprising connections between entanglement and the geometry of space-time.

I think a lot of that work is really interesting. The hypothesis that’s motivating it is that entanglement is fundamental in quantum mechanics, and the geometry of space or space-time emerges from structures of entanglement. It’s a very positive development.

You’ve said that these ideas were inspired by Leibniz’s Monadology. Did you just happen to pull out your Monadology and reread it?

I first read Leibniz at the instigation of Julian Barbour, when I was just out of graduate school. First I read the correspondence between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, who was a follower of Newton, in which Leibniz criticized Newton’s notion of absolute space and absolute time and argued that observables in physics should be relational. They should describe the relations of one system with another, resulting from their interaction. Later I read the Monadology. I read it as a sketch for how to make a background-independent theory of physics. I do look at my copy from time to time. There is a beautiful quote in there, where Leibniz says, “Just as the same city viewed from different directions appears entirely different … there are, as it were, just as many different universes, which are, nevertheless, only perspectives on a single one, corresponding to the different points of view of each monad.” That, to me, evokes why these ideas are very suitable, not just in physics but for a whole range of things from social policy and postmodernism to art to what it feels like to be an individual in a diverse society. But that’s another discussion! (MORE - details)

EXCERPT: The universe is kind of an impossible object. It has an inside but no outside; it’s a one-sided coin. This Möbius architecture presents a unique challenge for cosmologists [...] It’s a situation that Lee Smolin has been thinking about for most of his career.

Smolin often finds himself inspired by conversations with biologists, economists, sculptors, playwrights, musicians and political theorists. But he finds his biggest inspiration, perhaps, in philosophy — particularly in the work of the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz [...and his...] fundamental ingredient ... the “monad,” a kind of atom of reality, with each monad representing a unique view of the whole universe. It’s a concept that informs Smolin’s latest work as he attempts to build reality out of viewpoints, each one a partial perspective on a dynamically evolving universe. A universe as seen from the inside.

Quanta Magazine spoke with Smolin about his approach to cosmology and quantum mechanics, which he details in his recent book, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

[...] You have a slogan: “The first principle of cosmology must be: There is nothing outside the universe.”

[...] The statement that there’s nothing outside the universe — there’s no observer outside the universe — implies that we need a formulation of physics without background structure. All the theories of physics we have, in one way or another, apply only to subsystems of the universe. They don’t apply to the universe as a whole, because they require this background structure.

If we want to make a cosmological theory, to understand nature on the cosmological scale, we have to avoid what the philosopher Roberto Unger and I called “the cosmological fallacy,” the mistaken belief that we can take theories that apply to subsystems and scale them up to the universe as a whole. We need a formulation of dynamics that doesn’t refer to an observer or measuring instrument or anything outside the system. That means we need a different kind of theory.

You’ve recently proposed such a theory — one in which, as you put it, “the history of the universe is constituted of different views of itself.” What does that mean?

It’s a theory about processes, about the sequences and causal relations among things that happen, not the inherent properties of things that are. The fundamental ingredient is what we call an “event.” Events are things that happen at a single place and time; at each event there’s some momentum, energy, charge or other various physical quantity that’s measurable. The event has relations with the rest of the universe, and that set of relations constitutes its “view” of the universe. Rather than describing an isolated system in terms of things that are measured from the outside, we’re taking the universe as constituted of relations among events. The idea is to try to reformulate physics in terms of these views from the inside, what it looks like from inside the universe.

How do you do that?

There are many views, and each one has only partial information about the rest of the universe. We propose as a principle of dynamics that each view should be unique. That idea comes from Leibniz’s principle of the identity of indiscernibles. Two events whose views are exactly mappable onto each other are the same event, by definition. So each view is unique, and you can measure how distinct one is from another by defining a quantity called the “variety.” If you think of a node on a graph, you can go one step out, two steps out, three steps out. Each step gives you a neighborhood — the one-step neighborhood, the two-step neighborhood, the three-step neighborhood. So for any two events you can ask: How many steps do you have to go out until their views diverge? In what neighborhood are they different? The fewer steps you have to go, the more distinguishable the views are from one another. The idea in this theory is that the laws of physics — the dynamics of the system — work to maximize variety. That principle — that nature wants to maximize variety — actually leads, within the framework I’ve been describing, to the Schrödinger equation, and hence to a recovery, in an appropriate limit, of quantum mechanics.

[...] It reminds me of a lot of work that’s going on now in physics that’s finding surprising connections between entanglement and the geometry of space-time.

I think a lot of that work is really interesting. The hypothesis that’s motivating it is that entanglement is fundamental in quantum mechanics, and the geometry of space or space-time emerges from structures of entanglement. It’s a very positive development.

You’ve said that these ideas were inspired by Leibniz’s Monadology. Did you just happen to pull out your Monadology and reread it?

I first read Leibniz at the instigation of Julian Barbour, when I was just out of graduate school. First I read the correspondence between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, who was a follower of Newton, in which Leibniz criticized Newton’s notion of absolute space and absolute time and argued that observables in physics should be relational. They should describe the relations of one system with another, resulting from their interaction. Later I read the Monadology. I read it as a sketch for how to make a background-independent theory of physics. I do look at my copy from time to time. There is a beautiful quote in there, where Leibniz says, “Just as the same city viewed from different directions appears entirely different … there are, as it were, just as many different universes, which are, nevertheless, only perspectives on a single one, corresponding to the different points of view of each monad.” That, to me, evokes why these ideas are very suitable, not just in physics but for a whole range of things from social policy and postmodernism to art to what it feels like to be an individual in a diverse society. But that’s another discussion! (MORE - details)