May 24, 2013 6:37 pm

No more rules

A physicist argues that time is the only constant

Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, by Lee Smolin, Allen Lane, RRP£20 / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$28, 352 pages


The world of money is a frustratingly unpredictable place. So when some economists decided in the middle of the last century that they could apply mathematics and physics to explain the movement of markets, it seemed like a thrilling development. At a stroke, it became possible to predict economic events just as Sir Isaac Newton had once measured the impact of gravity – or so at least the financiers hoped.

Today, we need few reminders that their optimism was misplaced. But could it be that the effort to apply scientific laws to economics was itself wrong? Indeed, could it be foolhardy to think that universal, timeless laws of any type exist, be that in physics or elsewhere?

These are some of the questions raised by Lee Smolin, an American theoretical physicist and writer, in his book Time Reborn. Smolin, who has worked for several decades at the cutting edge of cosmology, conducting research into areas such as quantum gravity and string theory, argues that it is a mistake to view scientific laws as universal. Rather, they are “path-dependent”, or a function of what occurred before.

“Some might see the disavowal of eternal laws as a retreat from the goals of science. But I see it as a jettisoning of excess metaphysical baggage that weighs down our search for truth,” he writes. “Just about everything we now think is fundamental will also eventually be understood as approximate: gravity and the laws of Newton and Einstein that govern it, the laws of quantum mechanics, even space itself.”

Thus Smolin calls for a radical mental flip: just as Galileo revolutionised our vision of the world by noting that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around, we need to recognise that the only constant is time.

The lay reader may find it difficult to work out exactly why Smolin feels so confident in making such claims. Nevertheless, the implication is clear: if he is correct, we need to drop our assumption that we will ever find a single formula that explains what makes the universe “tick”. We also need to stop assuming that science is somehow radically different from other disciplines.

“People on one frontier of knowledge hardly know what seekers on the other frontiers are talking about. Our conversations are siloed,” Smolin laments. “Most physical scientists don’t know much about the breakthroughs in biology, let alone what’s happening on the forefront of social theory, and don’t have a clue about what questions influential artists ask each other.”

And, as Smolin takes the opportunity to point out late in Time Reborn, this has serious implications for economics. For if there are no timeless truths, then the premise of orthodox economics – or, at least, the efficient market hypothesis – is also wrong. Economies do not have a “natural balance”; nor do they operate according to timeless “rules”. Rather, they too are “path-dependent”, in the sense that humans always react to each other and to what has happened before.

This assertion will come as no surprise to behavioural economists, who have been vociferous in their criticism of classical economics since the 2007 crisis; nor will it shock many western policy makers, who often argue that it is wrong to presume that there is any single “rule” to how economies should work. But to hear a physicist attacking the concept of timeless truth is nevertheless unnerving. For that reason alone, this book deserves to be debated widely; indeed, given the west’s current predicament, the discussion it provokes is – dare I say it – timely.

Gillian Tett is an FT assistant editor and columnist. She is author of ‘Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe’ (Abacus)

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