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Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Senior WriterDate: 26 April 2013 Time: 11:07 AM ET

Most physicists think time is a subjective illusion, but what if time is real?
Most physicists think time is a subjective illusion, but what if time is real?
CREDIT: Shutterstock/Kim D. French

NEW YORK — Is time real, or the ultimate illusion?

Most physicists would say the latter, but Lee Smolin challenges this orthodoxy in his new book, “Time Reborn” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2013), which he discussed here Wednesday (April 24) at the Rubin Museum of Art.

In a conversation with Duke University neuroscientist Warren Meck, theoretical physicist Smolin, who’s based at Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, argued for the controversial idea that time is real. “Time is paramount,” he said, “and the experience we all have of reality being in the present moment is not an illusion, but the deepest clue we have to the fundamental nature of reality.” [Album: The World’s Most Beautiful Equations]

Smolin said he hadn’t come to this concept lightly. He started out thinking, as most physicists do, that time is subjective and illusory. According to Albert Einstein’s theory ofgeneral relativity, time is just another dimension in space, traversable in either direction, and our human perception of moments passing steadily and sequentially is all in our heads.

Over time, though, Smolin became convinced not only that time was real, but that this notion could be the key to understanding the laws of nature.

“If laws are outside of time, then they’re inexplicable,” he said. “If law just simply is, there’s no explanation. If we want to understand law … then law must evolve, law must change, law must be subject to time. Law then emerges from time and is subject to time rather than the reverse.”

Smolin admitted there are objections to this idea, especially what he calls “the meta-law dilemma:” If physical laws are subject to time, and evolve over time, then there must be some larger law that guides their evolution. But wouldn’t this law, then, have to be beyond time, to determine how the other laws change with time? Other physicists have cited this objection in reaction to Smolin’s work.

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