Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Boy of Age 16 Asks Me about Relativity, etc.
21. Does time really exist? What is time?

Relativity of simultaneity: Event B is simultaneous with A in the green reference frame, but it occurred before in the blue frame, and occurs later in the red frame (Ref. 1). The original PNG file of the figure was created by Army1987; Acdx converted it to SVG. (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

A friend of mine on Twitter, Aaron (a pseudonym), is an overseas, 16-year old boy, who seriously admires Albert Einstein and wants to become a physicist. He continually writes me (Ted, also a pseudonym) questions about the theory of relativity and related topics, and I am sending answers. In this series of blog posts, those questions and answers are reproduced with modifications. I am not an expert in the fields of physics related to relativity. So, my answers might contain errors. If you find any error, please do not hesitate to write a comment for the benefit, not only of the boy and me, but also of other readers.
Aaron: Do we control in time? Or does it control in us?

Ted: I do not understand what you exactly mean by the words "control in" in your question. The question sounds like a philosophical one rather than that of physics. But I can say this: Time is one of physical dimensions connected to the Universe or Nature. Therefore, human being can do nothing to affect it. However, "psychological time" (duration of time one feels about a definite length of physical time under different situations) can be controlled by the adjustment of one's mind. Am I talking in the wrong direction than you expected?

Aaron: Sorry, I want to know if time really exists. In relativity, time also seems to be relative, right? A body that travels at a speed close to that of light can slow time, right? So, what is time?

Ted: I see, Aaron. Time is one of dimensions of the physical framework of the Universe, "spacetime," and is the measure of durations of events and the intervals between them. It has a definite meaning when we consider the movement of something. If there were nothing moving around in the Universe, time would be meaningless and could be said that it does not exist. However, the real Universe includes a lot of moving things. So, time is a meaningful and useful concept. Duration of events and simultaneity depend on the coordinate system (reference frame) on which it is measured (see the figure above), but this does not deny the reality of time.

By the way, the slowing-down of the passage of time (time dilation) occurs for the fast-moving body, as you mentioned, but this occurs for the moving system as a whole, i.e., your biological activity and ability also slow down. So, you cannot do much more thing during the high-speed flight in a rocket compared with what you can do on the earth in the same duration of time. You cannot be the master of time but remain to be its slave.

It would be another problem to ask if time is a fundamental concept. There is a growing movement to create a theory that shows spacetime is emergent, i.e., not fundamental (see for example Ref. 1). In this respect, time is one of things still mysterious.

  1. "Time," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (February 19, 2013, at 06:41).
  2. Graeme Stemp-Morlock, Melting Spacetime, Web site FQXi Community (April 30, 2012).
(Originally written on October 14, 2011)

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