The Nature of Time

Does time flow continuously, gliding without interruption from one happening to another?  Or is it choppy and pixelated, an illusory phenomenon formed of innumerable discrete elements?

The world of our sensory experience would seem to support the former notion—that time moves ever, ever on; however, new research, which was recently published in The European Physical Journal C, suggests time may be much grainier than we suppose, and the idea has important implications for quantum mechanics.

The research centers on what is called the “Planck time,” approximately 10-43 seconds, which is widely believed to be the smallest meaningful unit of time.

Defined as the time interval required for light to traverse the Planck length (about 1.6 x 10-35 meter), the Planck time resides at that incomprehensible scale where spacetime, reality, and everything that is begins to break down and lose all meaning.

But the new paper proposes that the shortest unit of time may really be several orders of magnitude greater than the Planck time; if so, the basic equations of quantum mechanics may have to be altered to follow suit, with a corresponding change in the description of quantum-scale systems and phenomena.

Proving that the Planck length (and, therefore, the Planck time) is an utmost minimum may be difficult; as the authors of the paper note, “…the energy needed to probe spacetime below the Planck length scale exceeds the energy needed to produce a black hole in that region of spacetime.”  Which effectively rules out any experimental tests in the near future.

But determining the smallest time interval to be something much greater than the Planck time might be possible.

The researchers propose an experimental test involving the spontaneous emissions of a hydrogen atom: a different rate of emission is predicted using their modified quantum mechanical equations than when using the unmodified ones.  And it’s possible the same effects could be observed in the decay rates of unstable atomic nuclei.

Time After Time

Read a little further into the paper, and things get really weird.  If the equations of quantum mechanics must be altered in accordance with the new research, then it will give rise to a new and very curious definition of time.

Time is, essentially, a “crystal”—a highly organized lattice of discrete “particles,” or regularly repeating segments.

“The physical universe is really like a movie/motion picture, in which a series of still images shown on a screen creates the illusion of moving images,” said Mir Faizal of the University of Waterloo and the University of Lethbridge in Canada, and lead author of the paper.

If that’s true, our perception of time as continuous and indivisible is a mere illusion—perhaps a result of biological or evolutionary happenstance, a makeshift sensory accommodation to the entropy of large-scale thermodynamic systems.

Take some time to think about that.

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