Does Time Exist? Why Our Gut Feelings Are No Match For Physics
Physicists' ideas about the nature and existence of time may seem incongruent with our experience of it, but author James Gleick makes a case for why we need to keep an open mind.
James Gleick was born in New York City in 1954. He graduated from Harvard College in 1976 and helped found Metropolis, an alternative weekly newspaper in Minneapolis. Then he worked for ten years as an editor and reporter for The New York Times.
His first book, Chaos, was a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist and a national bestseller. He collaborated with the photographer Eliot Porter on Nature's Chaos and with developers at Autodesk on Chaos: The Software. His next books include the best-selling biographies, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton, both shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, as well as Faster and What Just Happened. They have been translated into twenty-five languages.
In 1989-90 he was the McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University. For some years he wrote the Fast Forward column in the New York Times Magazine.
With Uday Ivatury, he founded The Pipeline, a pioneering New York City-based Internet service in 1993, and was its chairman and chief executive officer until 1995. He was the first editor of the Best American Science Writing series. He is active on the boards of the Authors Guild and the Key West Literary Seminar.
James Gleick: There is a sort of funny things that you hear people say that time doesn't actually exist. And it's something that physicists argue about, I mean physicists actually have symposia on the subject of is there such a thing as time, and it's also something that has a tradition in philosophy going a back about a century. But I think it's fair to say that in one since it's a ridiculous idea. How can you say time doesn't exist when we have such a profound experience of it, first of all? And second of all, we're talking about it constantly. I mean we couldn't get – I can't get through this sentence without referring to time. I was going to say we couldn't get through the day without discussing time. So obviously when a physicist questions the existence of time they are trying to say something's specialized, something technical. Einstein offers, Einstein or maybe I should say more properly Minkowski, his teacher and contemporary, offers a vision of space time as a single thing, as a four dimensional block in which the past and the future are just like spatial dimensions, they're just like north and south in the equations of physics.
And so you can construct a view of the world in which the future is already there and you can say, and physicists do say something very much like this that in the fundamental laws of physics there is no distinction between the past and the future. And so if you are playing that game you're essentially saying time as an independent thing doesn't exist. Time is just another dimension like space. Again, that is in obvious conflict with our intuitions about the world. We go through the day acting as though the past is over and the future has not yet happened and might happen this way or it might happen that way. We could flip a coin and see.
We tend to believe in our gut that the future is not fully determined and therefore is different from the past. But physicists will say, and it's certainly true that a lot of things that we feel in our gut turn out not to be right. We feel in our gut that we're sitting on a flat plane on a surface of something that's immobile. And if a scientist came along and told you that no you're actually on the surface of a giant spear that's spinning at high speed and hurtling through space, and by the way there's no difference between up and down except any illusion that's created by the force of gravity, well you'd have to do some radical readjustment of your understanding of the universe to accept that your first intuitions weren't correct. And so if a physicist comes to me and says do some readjustment. Face it, the future looks different from the past to you but actually physics tells us it's the same, I at least acknowledge that I have an obligation to take that seriously to listen to it. And physicists do argue about these things and it's fair to argue about it. And it's an argument that I take a position on in my time travel book because I felt I had to or maybe I had a position and yet it's got to be a qualified position. And that's what I recommend to readers of science fiction and to physicists to remember that your views of these things are provisional.
Physics often makes a fool of our gut feelings. James Gleick, author of Time Travel: A History makes this point using the most elemental example. You, sitting or standing to read this now, your gut feeling and experience tells you that you’re sitting or standing on a flat plane, on an immobile surface. Science has some news for you though, in Gleick’s words: "You're actually on the surface of a giant sphere that's spinning at high speed and hurtling through space, and by the way there's no difference between up and down except an illusion that's created by the force of gravity."
Radical readjustments of accepted perception is central to the nature of physics – even if something isn’t proven, our mind has to stay open to the possibility that maybe, things aren’t as we see, feel or intuit them to be. This is particularly relevant to the debate surrounding time. Does time exist, or doesn’t it? Is time only inside our minds, or is it a force acting upon us? It might seem ridiculous to question the existence of something that radically shapes our lives – our days, hours, minutes, our life span, our grandparents, our grandchildren.
Einstein’s teacher and contemporary Hermann Minkowski offered his vision of space-time as a single thing, a four-dimensional block in which the past and the future are just like spatial dimensions, with a north and a south. Some physicists say there is no distinction between the past and the future, and that time is a dimension just like space.
This seems at odds with what we feel, which is that the past has happened and the future is not yet determined. The future and the past are different to us, but in physics they’re the same. Gleick’s realization in the face of the multiple hypotheses on time is that just as our feeling about the stability of the surface we walk on is not so simple, our perception of time may also be radically more complex than we think. At this point, every expert’s ideas in this debate are provisional, but we have an obligation to take these ideas seriously.
James Gleick's most recent book is Time Travel: A History.
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- The lake might contain water, with salt preventing them from freezing.
- The presence of water may indicate the existence of microbial and other life forms on the planet.
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"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
A strange weakness in the Earth's protective magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- "The South Atlantic Anomaly" in the Earth's magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- The information was gathered by the ESA's Swarm Constellation mission satellites.
- The changes may indicate the coming reversal of the North and South Poles.
Is the Magnetic Field Reversing?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e3e0b16dac3b05dab808a4ddf04d198b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/51usJ74pPP8?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Crows have their own version of the human cerebral cortex.
Action-packed pallia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NzkyMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNzk1NzM1OH0.Tjb3zulFW2gwhteR124F9HGbmdnCqNqQFOBQouieTJ8/img.png?width=980" id="2bbc9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2907e4035e553565f4446e968ee73d92" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Fun with Ozzie and Glenn<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0Njk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzY4Njc2MX0.ZgpsPMCK6qOj2o0kErvVPjdua1EnMCIwCuHHGrb3LiY/img.jpg?width=980" id="acbeb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e286fecbb228a5ca8aa26fcd19f95a2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="two crows in a tree" />
Ozzie and Glenn not pictured
Credit: narubono/Unsplash<p>The kind of higher intelligence crows exhibited in the new research is similar to the way we solve problems. We catalog relevant knowledge and then explore different combinations of what we know to arrive at an action or solution.</p><p>The researchers, led by neurobiologist <a href="https://homepages.uni-tuebingen.de/andreas.nieder/" target="_blank">Andreas Nieder</a> of the University of Tübingen in Germany, trained two carrion crows (<em>Corvus corone</em>), Ozzie and Glenn.</p><p>The crows were trained to watch for a flash — which didn't always appear — and then peck at a red or blue target to register whether or not a flash of light was seen. Ozzie and Glenn were also taught to understand a changing "rule key" that specified whether red or blue signified the presence of a flash with the other color signifying that no flash occurred.</p><p>In each round of a test, after a flash did or didn't appear, the crows were presented a rule key describing the current meaning of the red and blue targets, after which they pecked their response.</p><p>This sequence prevented the crows from simply rehearsing their response on auto-pilot, so to speak. In each test, they had to take the entire process from the top, seeing a flash or no flash, and then figuring out which target to peck.</p><p>As all this occurred, the researchers monitored their neuronal activity. When Ozzie or Glenn saw a flash, sensory neurons fired and then stopped as the bird worked out which target to peck. When there was no flash, no firing of the sensory neurons was observed before the crow paused to figure out the correct target.</p><p>Nieder's interpretation of this sequence is that Ozzie or Glenn had to see or not see a flash, deliberately note that there had or hadn't been a flash — exhibiting self-awareness of what had just been experienced — and then, in a few moments, connect that recollection to their knowledge of the current rule key before pecking the correct target.</p><p>During those few moments after the sensory neuron activity had died down, Nieder reported activity among a large population of neurons as the crows put the pieces together preparing to report what they'd seen. Among the busy areas in the crows' brains during this phase of the sequence was, not surprisingly, the pallium.</p><p>Overall, the study may eliminate the layered cerebral cortex as a requirement for higher intelligence. As we learn more about the intelligence of crows, we can at least say with some certainty that it would be wise to avoid <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">angering one</a>.</p>