Astrophysicist Adam Frank’s new book mixes cosmology with humanity. How does our understanding of the universe and cosmic time inform our daily lives? Especially if time is an illusion?
The “rebels” who fight the Big Bang theory are mostly attempting to grapple with the concept of time. They are philosophers as much as cosmologists, unsatisfied with the Big Bang, unimpressed with string theory and unconvinced of the multiverse. Julian Barbour, British physicist, author, and major proponent of the idea of timeless physics, is one of those rebels–so thoroughly a rebel that he has spurned the world of academics.
Julian Barbour’s solution to the problem of time in physics and cosmology is as simply stated as it is radical: there is no such thing as time.
“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.”
“As we live, we seem to move through a succession of Nows,” says Barbour, “and the question is, what are they?” For Barbour each Now is an arrangement of everything in the universe. “We have the strong impression that things have definite positions relative to each other. I aim to abstract away everything we cannot see (directly or indirectly) and simply keep this idea of many different things coexisting at once. There are simply the Nows, nothing more, nothing less.”