The dissolution of Time

Every once in a while a persistent, esoteric notion rattles around in my brain and eventually I forget about it. It vanishes into the hazy remembrances I hold dear, and eventually, more time serves to totally extinguish the beleaguered idea forever. It is vanquished. How many ideas have lived and died in this head of mine? Who knows. Forty-seven years is a long time. If I could retrieve a list of mentally extinct ideas, what a tale they would tell. It’s like Microsoft Outlook’s function of retrieving deleted messages from the network. Is anything every really gone?

Occasionally, an idle notion that might have died a quiet and forlorn death is given new life because it is legitimized by someone else who articulates (usually much better than I) my exact thoughts. When this happens, I’m aghast that a stranger deconstructed the same path as my thoughts, my litany of expression, independently. It’s like encountering a mental doppelganger. In the past 5 years, ever since reading my first Brian Greene book, I’ve taken an avid layman’s interest in physics and cosmology. The concept which continues to perplex me most, the common underlying factor across all quantum and cosmological conjecture which is conspicuously vague and discarded, is the concrete description of Time.

Time is the ethereal glue that binds disparate physically tangible factors, such as distance and mass, together in one potpourri of cosmic nature. I’m fascinated by the elusive nature of Time and how it always seems to be lurking in the shadows of most equations and theories which seek to unravel the universe’s grand workings, yet it is never explicitly defined beyond the glaring abstraction that it is.

Over time, and after much rumination about Time (it’s become a semi-obsession of mine), I had reached an instinctual understanding of Time which was nothing but uneducated opinion, of Time’s nature. Lacking the background to articulate it in a meaningful and consistently academic, lucid manner. It was an understanding of Time I comprehended in a manner unspoken but still entirely cogent to my comprehension. It was like that moment of understanding which dawns when you interpret someone’s words for what they really mean even though they didn’t utter the meta-meaning explicitly (otherwise known as reading between the lines). My understanding of Time as a facet of physical reality had reached this point. It lurked, this understanding, and it might have faded into a obscurity and forgotten fancies, had it not been for my discovery of Julian Barbour’s theories of Time.

Barbour is a cheery British quantum physicist who questions the existence of “Time” in the respect we popularly conceive of it. In this passage from “About Time” by Adam Frank, a summary of Barbour’s doubts about Time’s putative definition to humans is explained thus:

“If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers,” says Barbour. “People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.” Barbour speaks with a disarming English charm that belies an iron resolve and confidence in his science. His extreme perspective comes from years of looking into the heart of both classical and quantum physics. Isaac Newton thought of time as a river flowing at the same rate everywhere. Einstein changed this picture by unifying space and time into a single 4-D entity. But even Einstein failed to challenge the concept of time as a measure of change. In Barbour’s view, the question must be turned on its head. It is change that provides the illusion of time. Channeling the ghost of Parmenides, Barbour sees each individual moment as a whole, complete and existing in its own right. He calls these moments “Nows.”

Barbour expresses with great detail and scientific precision his belief that Time does not exist, and furthermore, that our understanding of Time is merely an unconscious conception of ordering units he calls “Nows” into a sequential order that is determined by our limited cognitive parameters.

As I read of Barbour’s theory of the Nows, I couldn’t stop nodding in relieved agreement. Here was a trained physicist expressing exactly my self-arrived conception of Time. It was as if his superior knowledge somehow justified my conjectures.

As for Time, I thought of it like this:

Most of the physical denominators physicists assemble to elucidate their cosmological theories share the common but intangible measurement of Time. Time seems to be injected in most theory, it is also the least understood factor simply because it is so elusive and untouchable. Most intriguing is the fluid nature of Time as we know it. Time as measured by human clocks in the absence of an objective measurable unit of standardized time. All the available time we observe is a human construct compartmentalized by the rotation and revolution of the Earth within the galactic spread of our universe. We have absolutely no other comprehension of time. We measure it by proxy and by triangulating its value with adjacent measures of verifiable variables (such as distance). There is no elemental time-keeping device. As we approach the speed of light, our own personal march of time slows down from the perspective of an observer. From our own perspective, the clock is still ticking along normally, however, as long as the clock is moving with us. The relativity of Time in relation to external physical extremes always struck me as very revealing. Time seems to exist as a zero sum element within this large framework as we approach the speed of light. Conceivably, Time can come to a near standstill if the complementary nature of velocity “made up” for the lack of Time’s reality. In other words, I saw raw, pure reality as that in which the speed of light is the binding scheme of all reality. Einstein teased out space and time into a mutually explicable set of variables defining reality. Space and time battle in a sparring match of exertions which determine our reality. Time as I saw it, exists only as a void, as the surplus energy and reality which space at utter rest would require in order for existence to assume the value of “1.”

In this manner, I deduced that Time did not exist. I believe we created the existence of a surplus state (time) born of our human sensory limitations. We are small, we move slowly, but our minds are as big as the cosmos. We possess the sophistication to envision a state of ultra rapid velocity; we can imagine travelling as a photon for the sake of science though we are far from one in our life. We can thus envision quantum realities through relativistic lenses and thus, extract a sense of time. Time is the “filler” we imbue matter with and thus disseminate the props of reality over a procession called life and existence.

If only animals could talk; I wold love to hear their sense of time. I think it would be very revealing for the purposes of the discussion of Time. But of course, if they had the ability to talk, it might presuppose an intelligence necessary to construct Time, so it wouldn’t be very helpful. Did you ever notice dogs don’t respond to time, they respond to sounds and movements which we attach in accordance with our own sense of human time? A sense of qualitative time is a byproduct of our higher intelligence and sense of self.

Julian Barbour has a website and there is also this marvelous interview by a Dutch documentary crew in which he explains his theory.