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Astrophysics/Time being an illusion


If I were to measure myself on a journey to the next galaxy using a clock, would it be accurate? Or is time solely an illusion without any practical purpose then to measure my own aging?


One of the most audacious claims regarding time has been rendered by G.J. Whittrow, 1972, 'The Nature of Time,' Pelican Books, Great Britain, p. 103:

"The passage of time is merely to be regarded as a feature of consciousness that has no objective counterpart.

Of course, to our senses and consciousness time does appear to progress and in a linear fashion such as depicted below:

Past(-τ) <-----*(E1)--------(E2)*-------*(E3)---> Future (+τ)

where E1, E2 and E3 are three events, say: E1 = Explosion of the Hindenburg dirigible, E2 = John F. Kennedy's assassination, and E3 = some future asteroid impact in the 21st century.

But if you ask most physicists, they will tell you the equations of physics do not favor a particular directon of time, hence will not inform you of which events are occurring "right now". (The problem of simultaneity, also tackled by Einstein.)

On many advanced fronts of theoretical physics now, work is being done on the concept of 'emergent time', i.e. it does not exist at the fundamental level but only emerges at higher levels. A kind of crude analogy would be a hard object, i.e. rock, which though it feels solid is hardly so at atomic scale levels. (Mostly empty space). The 'hardness' only emerges at the scale of macroscopic interaction where one encounters a force of surface electromagnetic repulsion, i.e. the protons in the atoms of your hand repel the protons in the rock so no inter-penetration can occur. I.e. it feels "hard". For another object, e.g. marshmallow, a different experience would be registered.

Of course, such an emergent theory of time faces the formidable challenge of how it is we see and perceive change if the cosmos is not really changing.

Nevertheless, the overthrow of an absolute concept of time (as required by Newton) thanks to Einstein's special relativity, marked the first step in 'dethroning' time as some basic or fundamental quantity - as opposed to merely being a dimension of space-time which is also variable depending on the conditions (for example, velocity of the object) and reference frame measured.

As for your example, it is actually meaningless. Traveling to a "the next galaxy using a clock" but not designating another observer with any kind of stationary clock - to be able to register (or remove) relativistic effects, is about like asking someone 'how far south the north pole is'. "Accuracy" isn't even in the frame, since without knowing the relativistic speed etc. or what the 'stationary' observer is himself measuring, we can't know. Is it 100 years or 100,000 yrs. (assuming you can be put in suspended animation), we don't know.  Bear in mind, again, as Einstein's special relativity disclosed, your unique readings can't be the sole absolute values.

The conclusion then is that time appears to be more a human device to track events, compare them and try to draw inferences from these comparisons. It would be useful for answering a problem like: 'If I travel at 0.8 c to Alpha Centauri and my brother travels at 0.6c, then how much less will I age than he will?'

But not so much for asking how much time will elapse on my sole clock aboard my craft. (Since whatever amount or value has no significance unless registered or referenced to some independent time standard, i.e. absent relativistic effect of time dilation.)  


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Philip A. Stahl


I specialize in stellar and solar astrophysics. Can answer questions pertaining to these areas, including: stellar structure and evolution, HR diagrams, binary systems, collapsars (black holes, neutron stars) stellar atmospheres and the spectroscopic analysis of stars as well as the magnetohydrodynamics of sunspots and solar flares. Sorry No homework problems done or research projects! I will provide hints on solutions. No nonsense questions accepted, i.e. pertaining to astrology, or 'UFOs' or overly speculative questions: 'traveling through or near black holes, worm holes, time travel etc. Absolutely NO questions based on the twaddle at this Canadian site: purporting to show a "new physics". Do not waste my time or yours by wasting bandwidith with reference to such bunkum.


Have constructed computerized stellar models; MHD research. Gave workshops in astrophysics (stellar spectroscopy, analysis) at Harry Bayley Observatory, Barbados. More than twenty years spent in solar physics research, including discovery of SID flares. Developed first ever consistent magnetic arcade model for solar flares incorporating energy dissipation and accumulation. Developed first ever loop-based solar flare model using double layers and incorporating cavity resonators. (Paper presented at Joint AGU/AAS Meeting in Baltimore, MD, May 1994)

American Astronomical Society (Solar physics and Dynamical astronomy divisions), American Geophysical Union, American Mathematical Society, Intertel.

Papers appearing in Solar Physics, Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Journal of the Barbados Astronomical Society, Meudon Solar Flare Proceedings (Meudon, France). Books: 'Fundamentals of Solar Physics', 'Selected Analyses in Solar Flare Plasma Dynamics', 'Physics Notes for Advanced Level', 'Astronomy & Astrophysics: Notes, Problems and Solutions', 'Modern Physics: Notes, Problems and Solutions'

B.A. degree in Astronomy; M.Phil. degree in Physics - specializing in solar physics.

Awards and Honors
Postgraduate research award- Barbados government; Studentship Award in Solar Physics - American Astronomical Society. Barbados Astronomical Society award for service (1977-91) as Journal editor.

Past/Present Clients
Caribbean Examinations Council (as advisor, examiner), Barbados Astronomical Society (as Journal Editor 1977-91), Trinidad & Tobago Astronomical Society (as consultant on courses, methods of instruction, and guest speaker).

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