bunt sign

January 11, 2000

I'm trying to wrap my mind around the latest notion from the arcane world of theoretical physics, namely, that time doesn't exist. I don't have enough of a scientific bent (although "bent" is one way I've been described) to know the difference between crackpot and genius, but reality as a series of "nows" sounds suspiciously like the same thing as time.

The theory seems to require that we accept that reality is contained not in space (or time, obviously) but in the mind. In that way, as Julian Barbour said in his Boston Globe interview, the Big Bang is as real to a physicist as the house across the street, because they are both in his mind, now. He says that "the 'now' is not only in the physical but in the subconscious world." And, quite possibly, the world is carried on the back of a giant turtle.

No, I'm not one to dismiss even the most obscure ideas of how the universe works, much less those that have had Whole Books written about them. Possibly this is truly the key to the theory of everything, the one unifying principle that makes every other natural law make sense. I'm actually in awe of Barbour's explanation, that time is an illusion in the same sense that a movie is an illusion, created by a series of still pictures. Time is simply change, he says, and if nothing changes, time stands still.

But things do change, everything, all the time (pardon the expression). And even if nothing changed and time stopped, who would notice? Wouldn't all physical laws be suspended until time started up again? Let's say you're in that movie, plummeting from a cliff tied to an anvil, and the projector gets stuck so that you're frozen on a single frame. It doesn't change the inevitability of your fall to the bottom of the canyon, once the projector is fixed. And it doesn't change your perspective, because your brainwaves have also stopped moving when time ceased.

Now I don't pretend to understand relativity or quantum mechanics either. But this theory of time appears to be so simple that I feel I should at least be able to see what the implications might be, if it were true. Needless to say, I'm not quite there yet. I'm fairly content to let time go by. I might like to slow it down a bit, but I don't really want to stop it. Most of the time.

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