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Philosophy and Science of Time

The belief in time as an absolute has a long tradition in philosophy and science. It still underlies the common sense notion of time. Isaac Newton, in formulating the basic concepts of classical physics, compared absolute time to a stream flowing at a uniform rate of its own accord. In everyday life, we likewise regard each instant of time as somehow possessing a unique existence apart from any particular observer or system of timekeeping. Inherent in the concept of absolute time is the assumption that the simultaneity of two given events is also absolute. In other words, if two events are simultaneous for one observer, they are simultaneous for all observers.

Relativistic Time

Developments of modern physics have forced a modification of the concept of simultaneity. As Albert Einstein demonstrated in his theory of relativity, when two observers are in relative motion, they will necessarily arrange events in a somewhat different time sequence. As a result, events that are simultaneous in one observer's time sequence will not be simultaneous in some other observer's sequence. In the theory of relativity, the intuitive notion of time as an independent entity is replaced by the concept that space and time are intertwined and inseparable aspects of a four-dimensional universe, which is given the name space-time.

One of the most curious aspects of the relativistic theory is that all events appear to take place at a slower rate in a moving system when judged by a viewer in a stationary system. For example, a moving clock will appear to run slower than a stationary clock of identical construction. This effect, known as time dilation, depends on the relative velocities of the two clocks and is significant only for speeds comparable to the speed of light. Time dilation has been confirmed by observing the decay of rapidly moving subatomic particles that spontaneously decay into other particles. Stated naively, particles in motion decay more slowly than stationary particles.

Time Reversal Invariance

In addition to relative time, another aspect of time relevant to physics is how one can distinguish the forward direction in time. This problem is apart from one's purely subjective awareness of time moving from past into future. According to classical physics, if all particles in a simple system are instantaneously reversed in their velocities, the system will proceed to retrace its entire past history. This property of the laws of classical physics is called time reversal invariance (see symmetry); it means that when all microscopic motions of individual particles are precisely defined, there is no fundamental distinction between forward and backward in time. If the motions of very large collections of particles are treated statistically as in thermodynamics, then the forward direction of time is distinguished by the increase of entropy, or disorder, in the system. However, recent discoveries in particle physics have shown that time reversal invariance is not valid even on the microscopic scale for certain phenomena governed by the weak force of nuclear physics.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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