Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Time

Posted by M ws On Saturday, September 10, 2011 2 comments
“Time” is the most used noun in the English language, yet it remains a mystery. We’ve just completed an amazingly intense and rewarding multidisciplinary conference on the nature of time, and my brain is swimming with ideas and new questions. Rather than trying a summary (the talks will be online soon), here’s my stab at a top ten list partly inspired by our discussions: the things everyone should know about time. [Update: all of these are things I think are true, after quite a bit of deliberation. Not everyone agrees, although of course they should.]

1. Time exists.

Might as well get this common question out of the way. Of course time exists — otherwise how would we set our alarm clocks? Time organizes the universe into an ordered series of moments, and thank goodness; what a mess it would be if reality were complete different from moment to moment. The real question is whether or not time is fundamental, or perhaps emergent. We used to think that “temperature” was a basic category of nature, but now we know it emerges from the motion of atoms. When it comes to whether time is fundamental, the answer is: nobody knows. My bet is “yes,” but we’ll need to understand quantum gravity much better before we can say for sure.

2. The past and future are equally real. 

This isn’t completely accepted, but it should be. Intuitively we think that the “now” is real, while the past is fixed and in the books, and the future hasn’t yet occurred. But physics teaches us something remarkable: every event in the past and future is implicit in the current moment. This is hard to see in our everyday lives, since we’re nowhere close to knowing everything about the universe at any moment, nor will we ever be — but the equations don’t lie. As Einstein put it, “It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.”

3. Everyone experiences time differently.

This is true at the level of both physics and biology. Within physics, we used to have Sir Isaac Newton’s view of time, which was universal and shared by everyone. But then Einstein came along and explained that how much time elapses for a person depends on how they travel through space (especially near the speed of light) as well as the gravitational field (especially if its near a black hole). From a biological or psychological perspective, the time measured by atomic clocks isn’t as important as the time measured by our internal rhythms and the accumulation of memories. That happens differently depending on who we are and what we are experiencing; there’s a real sense in which time moves more quickly when we’re older.

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2 comments to Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Time

  1. says:

    BH Naturally everyone experiences time and sees time differently, though time in itself is a constant. We can even see that we are more aware of time as we grow older and as we get nearer to "the end of our time".

    One way of looking at time is to see it as the period of consciousness between two points of a continuum.

  1. says:

    walla For those getting on in age, time reduces to pockets of memories.

    They remember some things only. As they grow older still, their memory of those memories fades, and that creates in them the impression that their time, an increasingly precious commodity, is moving faster and faster.

    What younger people can do is to fill the time of their elders with more experiences which can qualify as good memories.

    And by some magic from the Master Strategist upstairs, the elderly happen not to need expensive things to give them happy memories.

    Just love, care, affection and understanding.

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