Does Time Exist? Why Our Gut Feelings Are No Match For Physics


Author and Science Historian

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.


One thought on “Does Time Exist? Why Our Gut Feelings Are No Match For Physics”

  1. I have not read Gleick’s book, so I don’t know what in particular he is bringing to this topic, which is similar to writing another book about Lincoln (according to Wikipedia, 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln), yet people do it and do it well.
    I would just like to point out that while there is a basic symmetry principle that physicists use as a default, and there are some exceptions, no exception has been found for time. However, in thermodynamics the “arrow of time,” as it is called is written in the Second Law: in any closed system, e.g., the physical universe, entropy increases. Hence, the symmetry breaks down for such systems. But is this “time”? Gleick no doubt takes this up.

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