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The Nature of Time March 14, 2009

Posted by CGR Section Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR), Nuclear and Particle Physics (NPP) , add a comment

Arguably one of the greatest and most fundamental problems in cosmology (alright, alright, all of physics) is trying to understand time. What is it? Why does the arrow of time only point in one direction? Because these questions exist and so do physicists, the study of time is an active field of research. It is a multidisciplinary field, with both physicists and philosophers contributing to it. Because the research is esoteric, finding funding for it is sometimes difficult, which is where organizations like FQXi step in.

FQXi is a vaguely controversial organization funded by the Templeton Foundation (but run by very well-respected physicists) that gives money to scientists who do research on fundamental questions in physics. Recently they had an essay contest, and the topic was the nature of time.

The winning essay is by Julian Barbour, a physicist and philosopher in Oxford, UK. The essay jury commended his essay:

The jury panel admired this essay for its crystal-clear and engaging presentation of a problem in classical dynamics, namely to find a measure for duration or the size of a time interval. The paper argues lucidly, and in a historically well-informed manner, that an appropriate choice for such a measure is not to be found in Newton’s pre-existing absolute notion of time, but rather emerges, in the form of ephemeris time, from the observable motions and the assumption of energy conservation. The paper also suggests how this emergence of duration might be relevant to problems in quantum gravity.

All of the winning essays can be found on the fqxi website. You can also read all of the submissions, including the ones that did not receive prizes. I strongly encourage all physicists, from undergrads to professors emeriti to have a look at the latest in the study of time!