Ten things everyone should know about time

By Sean

“Time” is the most used noun in the English language, yet it remains a mystery. We’ve just completed an amazingly intense and rewarding multidisciplinary conference on the nature of time, and my brain is swimming with ideas and new questions. Rather than trying a summary (the talks will be online soon), here’s my stab at a top ten list partly inspired by our discussions: the things everyone should know about time. [Update: all of these are things I think are true, after quite a bit of deliberation. Not everyone agrees, although of course they should.]

1. Time exists. Might as well get this common question out of the way. Of course time exists – otherwise how would we set our alarm clocks? Time organizes the universe into an ordered series of moments, and thank goodness; what a mess it would be if reality were complete different from moment to moment. The real question is whether or not time is fundamental, or perhaps emergent. We used to think that “temperature” was a basic category of nature, but now we know it emerges from the motion of atoms. When it comes to whether time is fundamental, the answer is: nobody knows. My bet is “yes,” but we’ll need to understand quantum gravity much better before we can say for sure.

2. The past and future are equally real. This isn’t completely accepted, but it should be. Intuitively we think that the “now” is real, while the past is fixed and in the books, and the future hasn’t yet occurred. But physics teaches us something remarkable: every event in the past and future is implicit in the current moment. This is hard to see in our everyday lives, since we’re nowhere close to knowing everything about the universe at any moment, nor will we ever be – but the equations don’t lie. As Einstein put it, “It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence,

instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.”

3. Everyone experiences time differently. This is true at the level of both physics and biology. Within physics, we used to have Sir Isaac Newton’s view of time, which was universal and shared by everyone. But then Einstein came along and explained that how much time elapses for a person depends on how they travel through space (especially near the speed of light) as well as the gravitational field (especially if its near a black hole). From a biological or psychological perspective, the time measured by atomic clocks isn’t as important as the time measured by our internal rhythms and the accumulation of memories. That happens differently depending on who we are and what we are experiencing; there’s a real sense in which time moves more quickly when we’re older.

4. You live in the past. About 80 milliseconds in the past, to be precise. Use one hand to touch your nose, and the other to touch one of your feet, at exactly the same time. You will experience them as simultaneous acts. But that’s mysterious – clearly it takes more time for the signal to travel up your nerves from your feet to your brain than from your nose. The reconciliation is simple: our conscious experience takes time to assemble, and your brain waits for all the relevant input before it experiences the “now.” Experiments have shown that the lag between things happening and us experiencing them is about 80 milliseconds. (Via conference participant David Eagleman.)

5. Your memory isn’t as good as you think.



Ten things everyone should know about time