Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Richard Muller: Now: The Physics of Time [2016]

This book, though it has the overall theme of explaining what time is in light of the dominant current views of contemporary physicists, actually amounts to a fairly wide introduction to relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and other central components of modern physics. However, as is often the case with books on physics and cosmology, towards the end of the book it also goes pretty far afield and gets into the philosophy of science, philosophical speculation in general, and even promoting religion. Our group had quite diverse opinions of it, and our ratings—on a scale of 0 to 10—ranged from a couple of 1’s and a 2 at the low end all the way up to a 7, 8 and a 10 at the high end. Our group averate was in the middle: 5.44.

Vicki found the author’s frequent use of pop culture in his presentations useful, though too much of that can be annoying. She felt that some of the writing was off topic and unnecessary. When it comes to the main issue, “what time is”, it often seemed like we were getting somewhere but then there was a letdown, with no clear and solid answer. Vicki docks Muller one point in her rating because of his defense of the existence of the soul, but still rates the book a 6.

Rosie, though, gave the book just a 2. “Oy! What a slog to get through it!” She also commented that this is yet another of so many books our science book club has read where the author gets crazy at the end of the book. She felt the writing style was confusing. But she did slog all the way through it and did get a little more out of it than many other books on this general theme which we’ve read. Nevertheless, she really didn’t like it much.

Kevin read about half the book. He agreed with Rosie’s comments and said he didn’t get much out of the book. As far as the writing style goes, he felt that this was no way to communicate with people on this topic. Kevin rated it just a 1.

Kirby, however, felt bad about the reviews that preceded him. He thinks this is one of the two best books he’s ever read on the topic of physics and time. Muller “explained a lot of concepts I’ve been unclear about for a long, long time.” Kirby seems to have disagreed with Muller about time itself, though, and added “I don’t really believe in time.” Kirby remarked that Muller writes well, and for the most part he’s quite understandable. When it came to the religious stuff, Kirby just ignored that. “I just said to myself ‘Oh, crap!’ when I came to his comments about God.” But for the first time some of the physics, such as about quantum mechanics, seemed to make sense to me. He rated the book an 8.

Scott views all present-day “cosmology” (and much of contemporary physics more generally) as basically an absurdly speculative, quasi-religious enterprise which for the most part is not really science at all. This book, he says, is a fine example of that, though perhaps not quite fully representing the most typical “party line” within that bizarre field in all respects. Scott had previously told himself that he was done reading any more of this crap! But nevertheless he is glad he read this “one final book” on the topic. In Scott’s opinion Muller really is pretty good at presenting short summaries of major doctrines or themes in modern physics, such as time dilation in relativity theory, what entropy is all about, the weird stuff in quantum mechanics (or quantum physics as he prefers to call it), and so forth. While there really wasn’t much new for us in all these chapters, or stuff we haven’t read about many times before, it was still in many respects quite a good summary of contemporary physics theory.

Yet, in the end the book does indeed turn out to be just more crap, more bullshit, especially when it comes to his idealist philosophical theories and utterly nutty promotion of the existence of the soul and (implicitly at least) God. While he says these things are not “part of physics” or any other science, he claims they are not opposed to science and science is not opposed to them. (This is totally incorrect: For example souls and gods are imagined to be conscious entities which do not depend on complex organizations of matter, such as material brains. This idea goes directly against modern cognitive psychology.)

Muller is surprisingly honest at times in his admissions that quantum physics is deeply flawed. He especially focuses on the “measurement problem” in this respect, and its connection to the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment. He admits that physicists have never so far had a good answer to this de facto logical refutation of the dominant Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. His own attempt to salvage the theory by claiming that “somehow” the universe measures itself (and thus collapses the quantum wave function spontaneously at some point) is no solution at all; it is just further idealist philosophical nonsense.

Scott thinks that Muller is actually correct to dismiss entropy as any sort of “explanation” of the “arrow of time”. But in Scott’s view no physics explanation of “now” and the “arrow of time” is even necessary. To put it bluntly: Constant change is a basic characteristic of the world. That is just a fact of nature. Human beings (or other intelligent beings living in the universe) have necessarily evolved to recognize this constant change. From this change, and the regularities of certain important cyclic changes (day and night, the seasons, etc.) we necessarily develop not only the concept of time but also ways to measure the passage of time. If physics supposedly can’t expain the arrow of time, then common sense certainly can! In this context to argue about whether “time really exists” or not, or to try to explain “now” in terms of abstract physics theories (quantum mechanics or whatever) is just plain stupid!

Because of its deeply philosophical idealist/religious essence and goal Scott wanted to give the book a zero (despite the fact he sort of enjoyed reading it!), but reluctantly he admits there are a few points of positive interest in it, and so raises his rating all the way up to 1. (Scott also thought that Muller does some rather distasteful self-promotion in the book, attempting to show how he personally had a major hand in various research which led to Nobel Prizes for his students and associates.) But Scott also says that after reading 6 or 8 books on the physics of time and a bunch more on quantum mechanics, cosmology, and such, he really is completely done with all that crap now. No more of this endless B.S. for him!

Ron was another of our book club members who really liked this book, and rated it an 8. Time, the physics of relativity, quantum mechanics, all these things ... “just don’t make sense, but there it is!” There are some things in the book, says Ron, “that I’ve never agreed with”. But weird things eventually get resolved. Ron sees Muller as building up all his arguments in the direction of his final theory, that “time gets created” just as space does, all because of the Big Bang. It’s a mind-boggling theory that at every moment “more time gets created”. Ron also thought that Muller’s explanation of the space-time stuff was done pretty well.

John also rated the book fairly high, a 7. “I liked the book too. It’s not really about time; instead it’s a summary of physics. I felt I understood Muller’s explanation of the breakdown of the wave function. I liked the idea that space is not ‘nothing’. But I don’t like his theory that space and time are always being created anew.”

Barbara said that she read the whole book with real zeal and anticipation. “I was able to understand it ... and got a better understanding of quantum physics. [Muller] had the spirit of God in his writing. I liked the last part of the book because he talked about God.” She rated the book a 10.

Rich was more middle of the road about the book and rated it a 6. “We’ve read a lot of similar material in the past, but this is a better account.” Rich liked Muller’s writing, but was disappointed with the religious stuff at the end of the book.

So there you have it folks; various opinions of the book from various perspectives!

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