Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Time Just an Illusion?

Will the British physicist Julian Barbour join the ranks with Albert Einstein in redefining the ultimate nature of time?

By: Vanessa Uy

When Albert Einstein proclaimed that time is just another dimension – similar to that of height, width, and depth – and went on to declare that it can be stretched and warped like a sheet of rubber. He single-handedly started a revolution that became an indispensable part in shaping 20th Century physics via his General and Special Theory of Relativity. Einstein’s offbeat view of time – since proven through careful observations with the aid of sensitive instruments like ultra-precise atomic clocks – has received it’s share of serious scrutiny when in 1963 an equally more radical view of the true nature of time was put forth.

British physicist Julian Barbour first began to doubt the reality of time as far back as 1963 while on board a German train. The riddle behind in defining the true nature of time has always fascinated Barbour. Then in 1986, he took strides to tackle the problem in earnest. Barbour had serious doubts about the existence of time because there is no real physical way to get hold of time. Plus – according to Barbour – time is invisible; “you can’t really get your hands on it. So what it is really?” In short, there wasn’t any good answer. Even though physicists work with time all the time, they never define precisely what it is.

As part of the on-going trial-and-error method via mathematical means in discovering a differential equation that describes the “Theory of Everything” – i.e. the Holy Grail of modern physics. An American physicist named Bryce De Witt – using Julian Barbour’s concept of unreal or illusory time – had “managed” to meld general relativity with quantum mechanics into a single consistent theory. Even though there are still doubts whether Bryce De Witt had truly achieved this major goal of modern physics, he did it by removing time from the equations. Though many in the theoretical physics community had since reached a consensus that the mere thought of using Barbour’s concept of illusory time to solve the greatest problem plaguing modern physics to be just a mere mathematical trick with no basis in reality.

Julian Barbour’s concept of illusory time centers on the idea that every “moment” we experience is real. And according to him, these moments exist only for that brief instant, during which time – according to Barbour – literally stands still. Thus – Barbour concludes – that the passage of time is as illusory as the sense of movement created by the succession of still frames in a motion picture.

Barbour says that there may even be a way to test his concept of illusory time experimentally. A consequence of Barbour’s theory is that the universe would be filled with more black holes and neutron stars – super-massive celestial bodies oft used to describe the concept of dark matter – than experts believe. Even though most scientists are just too wary of abandoning the orthodox (Einsteinean?) concept of time, Barbour’s idea is already taken quite seriously by such respected physicists like Penn State’s Lee Smolin and the University of Alberta’s Don Page.

Unlike Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem that deals primarily with the social construct – i.e. man-made – of formalist logic, Julian Barbour’s time-is-but-a-mere-illusion concept has to face up tangible tools. Like the latest in ultra-precise atomic clocks mentioned before. Plus noting that how our current Internet infrastructure is very dependent on how actually we can measure and control time-measuring devices, Julian Barbour’s concept of an illusory time could be easily relegated by an overwhelming majority of us as mere “descriptive time”. From my perspective, it looks like Julian Barbour's theory of illusory time is fast becoming like an obsolete Victorian-era idea. Not unlike the one astronomer’s used to describe the advancing perihelion of the planet Mercury’s orbit around the Sun – i.e. planet Vulcan – before Einstein’s general relativity explained this apparent celestial discrepancy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

2009: Unluckiest Year Ever?

Despite of the on-going global economic downturn, will 2009 be remembered as the unluckiest year ever for containing the most number of Friday the 13th s?

By: Vanessa Uy

As a concept of time - which has a less rigorous definition that it even deserves classification under descriptive time, nothing raises more irrational mysticism and awe than the superstitious aura behind Friday the 13th. As years go, 2009 probably qualifies as the year that contains one of the most number of Friday the 13th s. On average, a typical year contains a single or a couple of Friday the 13th s. But 2009 contains three of them. We had one last February 13, 2009 – which is Friday the 13th. Those that are yet to come are March 13, 2009 and November 13, 2009. But what is it about Friday the 13th that almost all of us find fascinating?

Though not a part of official Christian canon and doctrine, it was widely believed that the Fall of Man – i.e. when Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise for disobeying God’s first commandment – happened on a Friday the 13th. During Medieval times, The Inquisition believed that practitioners of black magic, sorcery, and other form of the black arts find Friday the 13th as an auspicious day to practice their “evil” craft. Thus making Friday the 13th, together with a black cat crossing your path, the ace of spades, and walking under a ladder one of the prime examples of bad luck signs or an unlucky omen. Given that we had progressed so much, can the superstitious mysticism behind Friday the 13th really give us bad luck?

Older acquaintances of mine used to tell tales that back in the days when teen-agers used to covet the Ibanez electric guitars endorsed by Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. A computer virus known as the Friday the 13th computer virus was wreaking havoc during the infancy of the Internet every time Friday the 13th rolls around – especially during 1992 when there was a couple of then – March 13, 1992 and November 13, 1992. Now in the era of Web 2.0 the Friday the 13th computer virus – or any of its 21st Century incarnations – seems almost unheard of. Given that the global economy has been in dire straits since the last two weeks of July 2007, the three Friday the 13th s of 2009 still awaits to be used as a convenient scapegoat for calling this year the unluckiest year ever. Friday the 13th could be one of the contentious subjects of descriptive time.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is Singapore on Permanent Daylight Saving Time?

Though many ex-pat workers had observed that at 6 in the morning Singapore is kind of dark when compared to Hong Kong’s. Is this a sign of a permanent Daylight Saving Time?

By: Vanessa Uy

Given that longitudinally, the island nation of Singapore should have been in sync with Bangkok, Thailand’s standard time. Why is it then that Singapore chose to follow Hong Kong’s time zone? Are the reasons economically driven – rather than geographical – like the standard-time boundaries of the United States, which are designated by the Interstate Commerce Commission? But first, let us examine the concepts behind a country’s geographic location and it’s designated time zone.

The local time for any place on Earth depends upon its geographic longitude. The local time is set less advanced than that of Greenwich Mean Time by 1 hour for each 15-degree of longitude west of the Greenwich 0-degree meridian. This is so because it takes 24 hours for our Sun to “circumnavigate” – due to the Earth’s rotation – across the globe. Which turns out to be 360 degrees given the circular circumference of our planet. Dividing 360 degrees by 24 hours works out to 15 degrees per hour or each time zone is 15 degrees wide. Barring the now mandatory “occasional” leap-second corrections via the now widespread use of ultra-accurate atomic clocks, longitude west of Greenwich is determined by subtracting the local mean solar time – obtained by astronomical observation – from Greenwich Mean Time obtained from radio time signals.

To avoid continuous changes in time with longitude, Earth is divided into 24 zones. Within each zone, the same standard time is kept. Minutes and seconds are kept identical in all standard-time zones; only the hours differ. The time zone boundaries over land areas quite often zigzag in order to avoid inconvenient changes of time within geographic borders legally defined by various nation-states.

In some areas, time zones are used wherein the time may differ by 30 minutes – like the Indian Standard Time. Or by an odd number of minutes and seconds of Greenwich Mean Time – these are not considered standard time zones, however. While countries very near the north and south poles where the meridians converge and there is no single time zone, they customarily default to Greenwich Mean Time.

Given that since her independence, Singapore’s stock exchange has always operated in sync with Hong Kong Standard Time – rather than that of Bangkok, Thailand which supposedly is where Singapore’s geographic meridian is in parallel with – the probable expense of syncing with Bangkok Standard Time could prove to be too costly. Thus Singapore had always stuck with Hong Kong Standard Time – in spite of the “gripes” of the island state’s resident’s circadian rhythms and Old-School Feng Sui practitioners. Which is kind of disconcerting since Singapore’s near-equatorial location doesn’t allow the island state to have seasonal variations like that of lands located further up north the need to save energy intended for use in lighting purposes – the supposed raison d’être of Daylight Saving Time.