The flow of time is central to human experience. Why isn’t it central to physics?

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Gene Tracy writes: The flow of time is certainly one of the most immediate aspects of our waking experience. It is essential to how we see ourselves and to how we think we should live our lives. Our memories help fix who we are; other thoughts reach forward to what we might become. Surely our modern scientific sense of time, as it grows ever more sophisticated, should provide meaningful insights here.

Yet today’s physicists rarely debate what time is and why we experience it the way we do, remembering the past but never the future. Instead, researchers build ever-more accurate clocks. The current record-holder, at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Colorado, measures the vibration of strontium atoms; it is accurate to 1 second in 15 billion years, roughly the entire age of the known universe. Impressive, but it does not answer ‘What is time?’

To declare that question outside the pale of physical theory doesn’t make it meaningless. The flow of time could still be real as part of our internal experience, just real in a different way from a proton or a galaxy. Is our experience of time’s flow akin to watching a live play, where things occur in the moment but not before or after, a flickering in and out of existence around the ‘now’? Or, is it like watching a movie, where all eternity is already in the can, and we are watching a discrete sequence of static images, fooled by our limited perceptual apparatus into thinking the action flows smoothly?

The Newtonian and Einsteinian world theories offer little guidance. They are both eternalised ‘block’ universes, in which time is a dimension not unlike space, so everything exists all at once. Einstein’s equations allow different observers to disagree about the duration of time intervals, but the spacetime continuum itself, so beloved of Star Trek’s Mr Spock, is an invariant stage upon which the drama of the world takes place. In quantum mechanics, as in Newton’s mechanics and Einstein’s relativistic theories, the laws of physics that govern the microscopic world look the same going forward or backward in time. Even the innovative speculations of theorists such as Sean Carroll at Caltech in Pasadena – who conceives of time as an emergent phenomenon that arises out of a more primordial, timeless state – concern themselves more with what time does than what time feels like. Time’s flow appears nowhere in current theories of physics. [Continue reading…]

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