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Is Time Truly an Illusion?

Did time exist before the Big Bang, was time an emergent property of the Big Bang, is time just something that keeps everything from happening at once, or does time as a fundamental property simply not exist at all?

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Most of the people I know are familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was gifted to us by the late, great English author, screenwriter, essayist, humorist, satirist, and dramatist, Douglas Adams.
The sands of time are running through the hourglass, or are they? (Source: pixabay.com)
Having said this, many of my chums are under the misapprehension that this masterpiece started out in book form, followed by the 2005 movie of the same name (a film that was, in my humble opinion, excruciatingly executed in both senses of the word). In fact, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (sometimes referred to as HG2G, HHGTTG, H2G2, or tHGttG) started out as a radio comedy that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1978. I was a student at that time, and I remember being blown away by the madcap dialog and situations. The first book in the series that ended up as “a trilogy in five parts” was published in 1979, and a six-part TV series followed in 1981. I was just thinking about the scene where our hero, Arthur Dent, is unknowingly in the process of being rescued from the Earth’s imminent destruction by his alien friend, Ford Prefect. The process commences, as all good rescues should, with a trip to the pub, where the following exchange takes place:
“Drink up,” said Ford, “you’ve got three pints to get through.” “Three pints?” said Arthur. “At lunchtime?” The man next to ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” “Very deep,” said Arthur, “you should send that in to the Reader’s Digest. They’ve got a page for people like you.”
The reason I’m waffling on about this here is that, late last year, I wrote a column about how we are all Swimming in a Sea of Quantum Foam. My meandering musings at that time were prompted by a book I’d just read called Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli.
Time is an illusion, or is it? (Source: pixabay.com)
Starting with the ancient Greek philosophers, Carlo works his way up through history, from Sir Isaac Newton with his space, time, and particles to Faraday and Maxwell and their fields to Einstein and his spacetime, ending up with the current theory of Covariant Quantum Fields. In a nutshell, it now appears that there really isn’t such a thing as space that “contains” things, and there isn’t really such a thing as time during the course of which events occur Well, I just finished reading the sequel, The Order of Time, and I fear I’m now more confused than ever. Some physicists (currently the minority) believe that an objective, “universal time” is a fundamental aspect of the universe. By comparison, other physicists (currently the majority) like Carlo Rovelli don’t believe in time as an independent, fundamental property or quality of the universe. It’s really difficult to articulate this, but Matthew Rapaport summed it up nicely in his review on Amazon as follows:
Of course, the universe is full of movement and change, events unfolding into other events. His basic position is that time emerges into our perspective, our viewpoint, from these phenomena, but it is merely an illusion. The movement is real, the changing is real, but the time in which all of this seems to occur is nothing more than a manifestation of human (possibly animal) mind and the illusion, in turn, is supported by the entropy generated in the functioning of our brains.
As Winnie-the-Pooh famously said: “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.” I’m with Winnie on this one — I couldn’t have said it better myself. Having read this book, I have all sorts of things I’ve been thinking that I wish to discuss, but I don’t have the words (or the brain) to discuss them. Suffice it to say that when Ford Prefect so sagely said, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so,” he could have omitted the second sentence. What would be great would be for you to read the book also, and then we could try to explain it to each other. In the meantime (no pun intended), what are your thoughts on all this? Did time exist before the Big Bang, was time an emergent property of the Big Bang, is time just something that keeps everything from happening at once, or does time as a fundamental property simply not exist at all?

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Elizabeth Simon

I was introduced to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by a friend who owned a reel-to-reel tape system. He had recorded the radio show so I got to listen to it well before the books came out.

Aubrey Kagan

I knew a Ford Prefect long before the radio series! The very mention of the name is a magic incantation that transports me back more than 60 years back to when the parents of a childhood friend owned one. For those of you too young to remember, it was a car model made in England.

I am too dumb to consider what happened before the Big Bang, but I am not sure what I am going to watch on TV now that Big Bang is over.

Ron Bax

I loved listening to the zany radio episodes, especially on one of my DIY regenerative reflex receivers. In 1982, after we’d moved to Silicon Valley, our daughter and her new boyfriend bought me the “Hitchhiker’s” game, in DOS, on a 5 1/4 inch “A” floppy. I still have it. I actually bought a USB “A” floppy drive for $2 at a yard sale last year. It’ll be just as goofy if they all work.

Duane Benson

I suspect that there’s a difference between “time” and “sequence”, and that we have something in our body that is roughly analogous to a system clock. Rather than being a universal construct, it is the combination of this “system clock” and sequence of events that create the sensation we call time.

That would be why many (or most or all) operations in physics don’t preclude going backwards in time. That is also why some things (sitting in a boring classroom) seem to take longer per unit of Earth clock time than do other things (a fun party). Our internal “system clocks” vary in speed and are only loosely referenced to the spin of the planet.

If you separate sequence and time, many things become easier. For example, growth is a sequence. You can’t ungrow. If you were able to reverse time, you would continue to get older, because that is a sequence, but you would still be traveling back in “time”, provided time exists as a construct at all.

We already know (or presume) that there isn’t a universal time reference. If you start to dig into relativistic time and try to rationalize it across the universe, the whole concept of time pretty much breaks down in my mind. Sequence, however, still works and individual “system clocks” still kind of make sense.

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