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.

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