Saturday, January 22

What clock thermodynamics can teach us about time’s mysteries

Surprising new insights into the unusual physics underpinning how clocks work could revolutionize our understanding of time’s arrow – and provide a glimpse into how time works at the quantum level.

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A CENTURY AGO, two intellectual titans sat down to discuss the essence of time. One was Henri Bergson, the French philosopher who produced the first traffic jam on Broadway in New York when his fans went to one of his earlier visits. He believed there was more to time than what clocks could measure, what mathematics could capture, and what psychology could explain. He claimed that only philosophy could show how we experience things, with a duration and direction.

Bergson’s opponent, Albert Einstein, a physicist, disagreed. He believed that time was a physical entity independent from human consciousness that could speed up or slow down after formulating his theories of relativity. Einstein believed that time and space were intertwined in a static universe known as the block universe, which lacked a defined past, present, or future.

The subject of why the time we see differs so much from the time posited in physics is still passionately contested nearly a century later. New evidence is now pointing to the fact that the technologies we use to measure time may be critical to finding an answer.

Those hints come from the fact that clocks are depicted as completely idealised objects in general relativity, with smooth readings that are accurate no matter how close you look, yet they are everything but. “We kind of know that idealisation can’t be right since clocks are real things made up of physical systems,” explains Emily Adlam of Western University’s Rotman Institute of Philosophy. “Ultimately, a more realistic knowledge of clocks may be the key to…

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