Physicist Lee Smolin believes the universe is kind of an impossible object: it has an inside but no outside. This Möbius architecture presents a unique challenge for cosmologists, who find themselves in the awkward position of being stuck inside the very system they’re trying to comprehend and describe. We are always already part of the ensemble of systems we only every partially encounter. Such is the very character of entanglement.
Here are some excerpts from Smolin’s interview with Quanta Magazine:
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…
The fundamental ingredient [of Smolin’s new proposed theory of the universe] 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.
Lee Smolin studied at Harvard University and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he eventually became a founding faculty member at the Perimeter Institute.
Smolin’s hypothesis of cosmological natural selection, also called the fecund universes theory, is also fascinating in suggesting that a process analogous to biological natural selection applies at the grandest of scales. Smolin published the idea in 1992 and summarized it in a book aimed at a lay audience called The Life of the Cosmos.
Black holes have a role in natural selection. In fecund theory a collapsing black hole causes the emergence of a new universe on the “other side”, whose fundamental constant parameters (masses of elementary particles, Planck constant, elementary charge, and so forth) may differ slightly from those of the universe where the black hole collapsed. Each universe thus gives rise to as many new universes as it has black holes. The theory contains the evolutionary ideas of “reproduction” and “mutation” of universes, and so is formally analogous to models of population biology.