Poets often think of time as a river, a free-flowing stream that carries us from the radiant morning of birth to the golden twilight of old age. It is the span that separates the delicate bud of spring from the lush flower of summer.
Physicists think of time in somewhat more practical terms. For them, time is a means of measuring change—an endless series of instants that, strung together like beads, turn an uncertain future into the present and the present into a definite past. The very concept of time allows researchers to calculate when a comet will round the sun or how a signal traverses a silicon chip. Each step in time provides a peek at the evolution of nature’s myriad phenomena.
In other words, time is a tool. In fact, it was the first scientific tool. Time can now be sliced into slivers as thin as one ten-trillionth of a second. But what is being sliced? Unlike mass and distance, time cannot be perceived by our physical senses. We don’t see, hear, smell, touch, or taste time. And yet we somehow measure it. As a cadre of theorists attempt to extend and refine the general theory of relativity, Einstein’s momentous law of gravitation, they have a problem with time. A big problem.
“It’s a crisis,” says mathematician John Baez, of the University of California at Riverside, “and the solution may take physics in a new direction.” Not the physics of our everyday world. Stopwatches, pendulums, and hydrogen maser clocks will continue to keep track of nature quite nicely here in our low-energy earthly environs. The crisis arises when physicists attempt to merge the macrocosm—the universe on its grandest scale—with the microcosm of subatomic particles. [Continue reading…]